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

March 31, 2005 | Mark Sabbatini

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Battling at the grunt level - a Squad takes on some Virii

'Hell jars, Howard yo-yo?'
Without a doubt the gesture-based interface is the most noteworthy and controversial aspect of Darwinia. It has much in common with the original Apple Newton: remarkable in how much of it works, but needing obvious improvement before widespread acceptance is likely.

Placing a Squad on the map involves holding down the OPTION key and using the mouse to draw a triangle inside a "program" circle that appears on the screen. If successful, the player then returns to the camera view of the island and places the unit at any "legal" location where an existing or repaired user facility allows it. Placing an Engineer involves a Stonehedge-like sketch and other--often more elaborate--gestures are added for more advanced programs as the game progresses.

Aside from the time required to draw the gestures, the biggest problem is too often they didn't work when the CPU was being taxed by heavy battles. Mouse control became jerky and imprecise, and what looked like proper shapes failed to produce any action. Eventually, both through experience and further reducing graphic and sound detail, this was largely overcome, but by then it's easy to believe a number of players will have moved on to something else.

This is not to suggest the gesturing system should be replaced with an icon system or other traditional form of control. Doing so would eliminate much of Darwinia's uniqueness. But like the original Newton, it could use some refinement.

Other unconventional aspects of the user interface may require adjustment, but on a much lesser scale. The same OPTION key that allows drawing of gestures, for example, is how players see what objectives are for the current world and what resources are available. Holding the key down and mousing to the right edge of the screen reveals the objectives; going to the left edge reveals the tools at the player's disposal.

Reminders of how all this works is explained by Sepuvleda during gameplay. Unfortunately, he never seems to stop explaining it, providing the same basic information about Engineers, for instance. Having him appear, complete with a demonstration of the appropriate gesture, is a distracting nuisance when you're focusing on a pitched battle. Maybe it's because I wasn't moving quickly enough in certain areas to satisfy him, but the fact that I'd created plenty of them to deal with previous tasks somehow ought to have convinced him I didn't need the remedial help.

A virtual experience worth real time?
It's tough not to be attached to this game, hitches and all. It comes from a small team of programmers obviously in it for love at least as much as money, the concept dares to step outside of market share-driven conservatism, and the retro-gaming elements are irresistibly seductive for anyone whose experience dates back to the '70s and '80s.

With only 10 levels to conquer, Darwinia isn't the deepest game in the world, but fans are already cranking out the mods and discussing going beyond mere battles into Sims-style life management of their beloved stick Darwinians. Since even Darwinian diet seems to be fair game for discussion (concern has been voiced that they're malnourished), further escapades of their virtual life is probably a good bet.

Darwinia deserves a place among this year's more noteworthy releases, but also screams for a sequel to please both fans and those put off by its current faults. It's a lot like version 1.0 of an exceptional program which early adopters are all too happy to embrace while savvy consumers wait for the kinks to be resolved. It's hard to decide whether it's worth rooting for Introversion to come up with a catchy new campaign and refined gesturing system (and more intelligent navigation by units) or accept the game for what it is and let them move to the next concept. Either way, the results are likely to have strong appeal for those wanting something a bit different from the ordinary.

(Spoiler hint: A cheat allowing full access to the map and units exists for registered users. Using it involves creating a new user profile name--and it helps to be a fan of a certain live performance by the jazz group Spyro Gyra who doesn't mind sacrificing space).

Publisher: Ambrosia Software
Developer: Introversion Software
Download Darwinia Demo


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