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Publisher: Ambrosia Software    Genre: Strategy & War
Min OS X: 10.2.8    CPU: G4

March 31, 2005 | Mark Sabbatini

Click to enlarge

A Darwinian that has been "promoted" and is thus able to lead others

Booting up
Getting started with Darwinia isn't overly complex, but not as simple as it could be.

A brief movie-like tour of the world's virtual "amusement park" greets players, along with indications that all is not right. Entering the game puts the player on a 3D map screen without guidance, but since there's only one location where a mouse click accomplishes anything--the Garden--anyone able to install the program should be able to get into the thick of things.

Configuring the game is also a bit harder than it should be, as players are unable to access the Mac menubar during play. Hitting the ESC key to pause the action is necessary, at which point expected adjustments such as graphic detail, controls, and profiles for new players can be made. Current-day Macs, including high-end G4s and all G5s, should do fine at most settings. I got acceptable initial framerates (30-40 per second) during introductory stages from the high-resolution graphics and medium-quality sound assigned by default to my 1 GHz 17-inch G4 Powerbook with 1GB of RAM, but this slowed to single-digit rates on busy levels. By setting graphic detail to the amusingly titled "I Need An Upgrade" option and reducing all other graphic and sound levels to their minimums, I managed to nudge the framerate into the 20s - playable, but not ideal.

Graphically Darwinia relies on ingenuity rather than state-of-the-art technology to make worlds captivating. The wire frames of landscapes are prominent and many character graphics are intentionally simple or pixelated in the spirit of their ancestors.

Sound works along similar lines, with the programmers claiming there are 1,000 different ones emulating 8-bit sonics of yesteryear. The sense of atmosphere is captured well, including touches such as battles increasing in volume the closer the player zooms in. Music is by Timothy Lamb, a composer of numerous songs performed on classic machines who offers many of them free at his website

The opening gameplay moments are intriguing and worry-free, as the player hovers above the Garden and is greeted with a "Who the hell are you?" message from Sepuvleda. The doctor says to explore for a bit and then he'll provide instructions, a nice way of letting players look around and getting accustomed to navigating. Camera control uses a Quake-style WASD keyboard-and-mouse combination, with simple options for zooming, ascending, and descending perspectives.

It helps to enter the game with more knowledge than the internal instructions provide. Within a few minutes I came to an object needing repair, whereafter Sepuvleda told me to create an Engineer and fix it. He explained the process fine, but I watched several Engineers get annihilated before figuring out I needed a Squad or two to clear the area of enemies first. It seems obvious in retrospect, but not when going through it with a "hand-holding" tutorial mentality.

Debugging with extreme prejudice
Accomplishing missions generally involves three elements:

Wiping out viruses such as snaking red lines known as Virii, Centipedes that split up when shot similar to the 80s arcade game and Spiders that drop eggs capable of hatching into Virii. The player starts with Squads capable of using unlimited supplies of lasers and grenades, with "upgrades" to more advanced options--such as calling in air strikes--coming as certain tasks are fulfilled.

Having Engineers restore various facilities, such as transport dishes capable of beaming units from island to island, and research projects capable of bestowing weapons upgrades and other necessary blessings. Generally this is simply a matter of clearing out the area of enemy viruses, then placing an Engineer in the area who will automatically go about the task.

Rescuing stick-figure Darwinians as part of the overall quest to create an army of them sizable and intelligent enough to survive in the digital universe. This is done in two ways: guiding those already on each level to designated locations and harvesting "souls"-- which are left behind by every enemy that dies--by having Engineers collect them and bring them to incubators.

The world may look futuristic, but anyone familiar with video games from the past 25 years is likely to find their sense of nostalgia stroked. Among the elements I encountered (and I'm not giving them all away by any means) include Space Invaders, Tron, Robotron 2084, and Lemmings, plus various nods to games for the classic 8-bit Sinclair Spectrum computer (this is a U.K. title, after all). There's also other touches that may go unnoticed unless you're a user of old computers, such as using the Apple II CONTROL-C key combination to "cancel" tasks (done when you need to replace, say, a Squad with another Engineer).

Things begin simply and get more difficult at a logical pace. New developments are plentiful and clever, although ultimately it's still a series of missions where players will be doing a lot of repetitive killing of enemies and gathering of souls.

Completing tasks may not always be easy, but the steps involved aren't likely to feel overwhelming since the number of elements under the player's control is small. Players can only have three "tasks" operating at the beginning--say one Squad and two Engineers--which increases somewhat as the game progresses. Managing the Darwinians adds complexity, but nothing like managing the masses of troops and other personnel in an average strategy title.

Unfortunately, the simplicity doesn't carry over to making the troops carry out orders. Guiding units around can be frustrating as they often have to be "babysat"--you can't just click on one and then on some distant location and expect them to find their way. Either they'll move a short distance and stop or they'll commit suicide by running into something lethal. This might be acceptable for the simplistic, Lemming-like Darwinians, but takes so much time when more powerful units need to be strategically positioned that any sense of fun is lost until they're ready.

Also, even when keeping them under constant watch it's not always clear what surfaces units such as Squads can ascend or descend. Some that look easy to climb are impassible and vice-versa. This isn't as big a problem when using weaponry, but I still had a time or two when I blew up my own units after throwing a grenade uphill and having it bounce back down.

The instructions say players can battle back from any situation, so there's no way to "lose" the game. This may be true, but when I failed to rescue the required number of Darwinians during an early stage I didn't see an obvious fix. I ended up using the "reset level" menu option, which is almost the same thing as death.


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