Monday, August 15, 2005

Darwinia Review

Darwinia PC, developed and published by Introversion Software.
The Good: Interesting and original, clever graphical design
The Not So Good: Very short, mouse gesture system can be unwieldy, a little repetitious
What say you? A very short but very unique puzzle game with a great theme: 6/8

With the advance of computing technology, some people have increased their concern about artificial intelligence and what impacts it may make in the future. Most of these forecasts predict a bleak future where mankind will be ultimately destroyed by the technology it created (see The Terminator, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure). But what if AI was helpful and friendly, and slowly being destroyed by evil computer viruses bent on destruction? That is the premise of Darwinia. As a person who hacked into the virtual Darwinia universe, you are charged with helping the AI inhabitants and defeating the virus threat. Are you up to the task?

Darwinia derives its graphics from the early days of 3-D graphics. The landscapes in Darwinia look like late 80s vertex landscapes, covered in amber hues of color. The environments really fit the overall scheme of the game well, and also look very original. Everything in the game is pixilated, from the old-school font to the units you will be in charge of. Even though the resolution of various units may be low, the game does not suffer from a cumbersome presentation. The sound in Darwinia is a collection of computer beeps and effects, which also goes with the theme of the game.

The inhabitants of Darwinia are Darwinians, which are green stick figures that are created at a spawn point or an incubator. They have a mind of their own (they are AI, by the way), but can be directed by officers to perform specific tasks you need. Darwinians can be upgraded to carry weapons. The officers are promoted Darwinians that issue commands to other Darwinians. The basic military unit is the squad, which has three members equipped with lasers and various secondary weapons. If squads are upgraded with research, they are composed of more members, which means they can attack more often and collectively have more health. The engineer unit takes over control towers, which are attached to buildings. They can also harvest souls to produce more Darwinians. Armour (yeah, British) units carry Darwinians and can transform into a stationary Battle Cannon. These are created at a friendly Truck Port (essentially a warp gate between maps). Each unit is a program, and you can only have a certain number of programs running at once (between 3 and 5, depending on the number of upgrades), so strategic decisions on which programs to run is key.
As I stated earlier, each control tower is attached to another building, and can be captured by engineers. Control towers are the only locations that squads can be created, and since it takes time to travel across the map (and squads cannot cross water), you need to capture forward bases. Radar dishes can be connected to send squads (and other units) across bodies of water. Incubators create new Darwinians from harvested souls. Trunk Ports are where armour units are created, and are usually the main objectives of each map.

Each unit in Darwinia has a soul, including the enemy viruses. Thus, defeating enemy units will result in you having more Darwinians to play with. They must be harvested by engineers and taken to an incubator. Because of this, it’s usually a good idea to take control of an incubator early on; most levels are designed where you must harvest additional souls to win. Creating all of the programs in the same is done by using mouse gestures. As an Opera user, I am used to using mouse gestures, and a similar system was seen in Black & White. The mouse gestures are easy to perform, but they’re really a gimmick. A single key press could have performed the same actions. To execute a program, you must hold down alternate while performing the command. To stop a program, you have to hold down alternate and press control-C. The system means the screen isn’t cluttered with menus, but performing tasks could have been easier. Preventing you from completing each level are various viruses, in the form of centipedes, spiders, and army ants, to name a few. Each behaves in a slightly different fashion, and require different tactics to defeat. Research is automatically conducted by capturing control towers; all you have to do is select which category to apply the upgrades to.

Darwinia really plays like a platformer or puzzle game. Each game consists of producing units through mouse gestures, some action elements by manually controlling squads, and ordering engineers and officers around. Each map has primary and secondary objectives; objectives may include taking control of trunk ports, destroying certain enemies, or producing units. Darwinia has only ten levels in the entire game. Even though some levels may take a couple of hours to complete, the game goes by quickly, and there’s not much replay value in each of the levels. Most of the levels are essentially the same thing, although you are introduced to new weapons and upgrades as the game progresses. Once you beat the game, you are rewarded with a mod and map editor.

Darwinia is an original idea for a game. The overall design is great, really immersing you in the setting. The game plays like an action puzzle, requiring you to shoot enemy units and figure out each map. It’s an interesting mix, albeit somewhat repetitious. Darwinia is awfully short, and since the maps are the same each time, there really isn’t any reason to play the game again, unless you employ the map editor. There is a demo available for the game, so you can evaluate the game yourself. Those people interested in an original action/puzzle game should be satisfied by the residents of Darwinia.