Deep within an undulating neon landscape, a grim fight for survival takes place. Defenseless artificial constructs are being torn apart by an insidious virus. The â€œfatherâ€ of these constructs stands by helpless, as they are brutally slain. This is where you come in. He needs your help badly.
Darwinia first hit the PC a few years ago, and itâ€™s quite a shock that it hasnâ€™t hit consoles before now, given that itâ€™s a real-time strategy game spliced with shoot â€˜em up mechanics, but ideally suited to the reduced control sets you find on most consoles.
Now, the game has been brought to XBLA by Introversion, the studio responsible for the original â€“ so at least you know youâ€™re getting more than a faithful conversion. Youâ€™re getting a version that takes the best elements of the PC original, and also makes the best use of the Xbox 360.
Along with Darwinia you get Multiwinia, the multiplayer-focused version of the game, giving you the chance to pit your skills against other human players in a bitter civil war.
Console kiddies under a certain age probably wonâ€™t remember the Disney CGI film â€˜Tronâ€™ but Darwiniaâ€™s art direction and design owes a lot to those harsh clean neon lines, and the wireframe constructs living in Tronâ€™s vast cyberworld. In Darwinia, the world will go about its business without your interaction, but the hapless Darwinians arenâ€™t the smartest cookies in the box, so you really do need to save them, nurture them and take direct control of the situation unfolding before your eyes.
Thankfully, Dr. Sepulveda, the laconic creator of the world and the Darwinians living within it, has ensured that you donâ€™t go in alone. Armed with two sets of units to begin with, you can deploy search-and-destroy squads to take immediate action against the virus or you can use Engineers to re-capture various installations and research items scattered throughout the game world.
With each research item you find, new abilities are unlocked for your squads and engineers and the first unlock gives you explosive grenades, superbly effective against the chaotic spread of the virus in all its forms (and particularly useful against some of the larger virus manifestations).
Control of your squads is divided between direct control â€“ using the joypad to move them around, take aim and blast the virus with pulsar guns or grenades. You can also set a path for your squad to follow, and later on in the game you can upgrade this to a proper waypoint system, letting your squad patrol an area and automatically blast away at anything that comes within range.
The gameâ€™s presentation is a superb mix of retro and ultra-modern, with even the pre-game loading sequences and menus taking the form of classic demo reels, boot loaders and even a neat little knock-off of The Matrixâ€™s green code-dropping screens.
Once youâ€™ve gone through the gameâ€™s swift tutorial levels, you start to attack the mammoth task of re-taking Darwinia and tracking the virus back to its source before finally eradicating it. Dr Sepulvelda pops up occasionally to offer sage hints and pithy directives, but the bulk of the game requires your skill in unit production and deployment, spliced with a fair amount of nannying as you try and direct the Darwinians to safety. You can â€œpromoteâ€ base Darwinians to Officers, with the ability to lay down limited line-of-sight paths for base Darwinians to follow to â€œsafeâ€ locations.
Each level of Darwinia takes the form of a particular part of the construct, from â€œThe Gardenâ€ (basically a lush theme world devoted to leisure) to the Hive (a breeding ground) and The Construction Yard (where you get your hands on more interesting units and kit to aid your quest).
The gameâ€™s extremely playable even if youâ€™re not into real time strategy stuff. Though itâ€™s relatively simple, itâ€™s superbly addictive stuff and taking on the plight of the Darwinians almost makes you feel a bond with the tiny little wireframe lifeforms as they potter about their business.
In Multiwinia, the whole game takes on a more sinister tone. This time, different factions of Darwinians fight against each other, after being adversely affected by the Virus. There are several multiplayer modes including Capture the Statue, King of the Hill, Assault and Blitzkrieg. Each will feel familiar to multiplayer FPS fans but itâ€™s unusual to see stuff like this in a strategy game, but each mode works beautifully and compliments the single player campaign nicely rather than feeling like a bolted-on afterthought.
As you get closer to the virusâ€™ ultimate source, Darwinia becomes an exercise in fighting on several fronts. If youâ€™re used to the resource management, defence building and combat in real-time strategy titles, youâ€™ll find Darwinia relatively easy to get on with in comparison to something like, say, Supreme Commander. That said, it can be quite a task to keep your engineers harvesting â€˜soulsâ€™ from defeated virus elements, while also keeping your Darwinians safe and continually taking the fight to the virus itself.
Considering this is Introversionâ€™s first foray into console games, theyâ€™ve done a fantastic job of converting the mouse and keyboard controls of standard PC RTS games to the 360 joypad. At times, you could nitpick that the squads feel like they take forever to traverse a map, and the indirect path-finding controls for squads feels a bit lacking, but once you start to unlock more installations youâ€™ll find radar teleportation stations are a godsend on the bigger maps.
Before you realise it, youâ€™ll have lost hours to this game as it sucks you in. Itâ€™s extremely immersive and very playable stuff. The gameâ€™s currently retailing for 1200 Microsoft points but when you consider that the PC original, despite its age, is still retailing for a relatively high price on Steam or even in boxed copies, the Xbox 360 version is something of a bargain.
Innovative, extremely slick and thoroughly enjoyable. If you fancy something that feels like a gamerâ€™s game, and are tired of disappointingly shallow XBLA releases, then Darwinia + should be on the top of your purchase list.