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ups: Clean and unique design, a game for fans of games, pick up and play
downs: Short-lived, terrible pathfinding AI

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Charles Would Be Proud: Darwinia Review
game: Darwinia
four star
posted by: Jason Perkins
publisher: Cinemaware Marquee
developer: Introversion Software
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ESRB rating: E (Everyone)
date posted: 10:15 AM Fri Jun 23rd, 2006
last revision: 11:34 AM Sun Jun 25th, 2006

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Click to read.Independent UK developer Introversion Software takes pride in being \"the last of the bedroom programmers\", and it shows. The profits from the 2001 hit Uplink were enough to get a few other projects started, but publishing issues prevented any of them from getting off the ground. After three years of hard work, they finally managed to release their second game, Darwinia, in March 2005. It was not available to North American gamers until late last year, and only digitally provided through Valve\'s Steam architecture. For those that need or want a physical boxed copy of the game, Cinemaware Marquee has delivered, releasing the game with an exclusive poster and figurine earlier this month.

You might guess after seeing the screenshots that the team working on Darwinia didn\'t include a single artist, and you would be correct. The entire game is made up of sharp polygons. The Darwinians themselves are bright green, two dimensional creatures not unlike the green text on the earliest computer terminals. The mostly three dimensional world they wander around in is similarly decorated: visible gridlines mark both the land and water, the buildings are simple and identifiable, and the sky is a simple patchwork of parallelograms. Almost in spite of current (read: fancy and expensive) graphics, the explosions are even made up of a number of colorful 2-D shingles that slowly fade away. There is no mistaking that you are in a virtual world, and overall, the design has exactly the effect it intended.

This world in which you find yourself was created by the brilliant Dr. Sepulveda. Through advanced artificial intelligence, he has created this race of beings called the Darwinians. They are designed to be self-sufficient, somewhat intelligent and peaceful. Their culture is the result of thousands of generations of breeding and learning, and is now under attack from a deadly virus bent on assimilating or destroying that culture. The good doctor works frantically to eradicate the intruders, but the damage they\'ve already caused is simply too great. Additional help is needed if the experiment and the Darwinians are to survive. You cannot control the Darwinians directly, but you are armed with a bundle of combat and support programs to fight the virii.

You begin with only the most basic programs, a Squad for combat, and Engineers for reprogramming buildings or researching new data. Eventually these advances yield better weapons, more squaddies, or in general, more helpful versions of the programs you have. Engineers may be able to transport more Darwinian souls back to an incubator, or the Squad could be given grenades, rockets or the ability to call in air strikes. One complaint I have is that units do not have any pathfinding skills whatsoever. It could be rationalized due to the compromised state of the programs, but when I tell a unit to move somewhere (particularly Squads), then fly off to babysit a growing colony of reprocessed Darwinians, I expect the unit to be in the right location when I get back. They have an annoying knack for getting stuck on high mountains or trying to go through large bodies of water instead of taking the dry route.

The interface is almost completely mouse-driven. Similar to the mouse gestures in Black & White or that one Harry Potter game, you can create units or perform other actions without looking at the keyboard or needing an intrusive HUD blocking the action on screen. This feature can easily be turned off if you choose not to use it (as I did). I found it was easier to use the F buttons, as my fingers were already situated over the WASD keys. The only blot on the screen when playing is an occasional \"Task Manager\" listing the programs that are currently running. Objectives, help and research progress are all easily navigated to by holding the Tab key, when needed. This style of interface adds to the deceptively simple feel of Darwinia.

The music you\'ll hear throughout the game is not extensive by any means, playing only at certain intros or at other specific events, but when it does pop up, it does so at the most opportune times. The synthesized tunes are both fitting and catchy. That isn\'t to say the sound effects during the rest of the game are bad: quite the opposite. The music was enjoyable and I just wish there were more of it.

Once you get past the unusual design of the game, you\'ll notice a wonderful back story. Even through his limited conversation with the player, he expresses a clear and genuine concern for his offspring\'s wellbeing. The dedication he has to their preservation only increases as you progress through the levels. Such care and attention has gone into the shaping of their world that it wouldn\'t just be a waste of time if they were destroyed, but I imagine the doctor would be utterly heartbroken. The game does a fantastic job of making you feel the same way, which is ironic in a game with purely digital organisms. Although they are very reminiscent of cactuars from the Final Fantasy games, they aren\'t equipped with the same defenses. These little green guys were only focused on visiting the Garden, working in the Mine, and raising the next generation of Darwinians. If they had bones in their bodies, none of them would be malicious. I mean, they fly little yellow box kites to mourn the death of a fellow citizen. If the viral infestation and the pleas of Dr. Sepulveda weren\'t enough motivation for you, the helpless shrieks of the offended Darwinians will surely spur you on.

The game will only take about ten hours from start to finish, but it feels a little artificial. The maps are generally large, and combined with the slow movement rate, it makes for a lot of traveling across previously cleared terrain. Thankfully, there are no resources to limit your troops, only a set number of tasks that can be open. Common practice is to terminate a program at one end of the map and reload it at a point much closer to your target. The same unlimited resources also apply to the enemy, however their numbers are not limited. Their quick and relentless reproduction can drag out a single objective into an hour long battle.

Upon completion of the story, you\'ll be granted with a map editor to create your own areas for the Darwinians to populate. There are a bunch of fan-made websites where you can download more maps, but once the meat of the original storyline is finished, there isn\'t much enticing you to go back.

Despite these few faults, the game is uniquely constructed and should be awarded for its innovative style and play. Independent game studios and the larger game corporations alike should look up to Introversion for their accomplishments. Hopefully we\'ll see an increase of independent games, where big budgets and the newest technology aren\'t necessary to create or play an immensely fun and memorable game.

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