We all lament the dearth of original games on the PC platform, especially now we’re in the season of sports games which are about to have another year tagged onto the end of their titles. Yet original games, when they arrive, are hardly given a second thought by the same complainers. This wasn’t a problem, which affected bedroom coders Introversion, famous for using the pub as their boardroom and an excellent modern update of the C64 classic Hacker, known as Uplink. The rest is history, and thanks to a bad American publishing deal, the devs were nearly history too. Now that their latest work Darwinia has dropped from full price to top-end of budget pricing from its spring launch, we plonked our cash down to take a look.
The first good sign is allowing buyers of the game to download it immediately direct from the site (measuring 250Mb), allowing near-instant play without waiting for the CD. Next, the packaging, graphics and action scream retro but with a modern set of twists and turns; the lead character’s a Clive Sinclair parody, with some mocked-up loading screens from a Spectrum to match (Rockstar aren’t the only retro kings with that trick); you are transported into the land of Darwinia in a Matrix-like all-encompassing manner, which fans of Tron the movie, and the v2.0 game, will immediately appreciate this, and the casting of a modern bugbear, the virus, as the game’s nemesis.
However, C&C fans will find themselves almost drowning at the difference in interfaces, even if the unit trees for this RTS are a lot shorter - it’s not laid out on a plate for you, you have to take the world, using Ground-Control mouse movement for the camera (but also the WSAD keys if you like) to zoom in, see the red on the map and destroy it - among other tasks. There is some resource gathering but neither that, nor the saving of the stick-man-like Darwinians, dominate the game, everything has a balance throughout the game’s 20 levels. Since the handling of the Squads bring back memories of quintessential classics like Cannon Fodder and in turn, the Syndicate games, all in a landscape reminding you of Geoff Crammond’s The Sentinel but taking in some modern lighting effects.
Get used to the world and after a while, it’s beautiful in its own way without needing half your hard disk for textures - like modern games, and in addition to those PC classics, the flourishing yet edgy graphics also bring to mind the arcade classic Robotron 2084 when you’re making the virus race eat laser for breakfast, and Lemmings when you have to create officers to route the little green men to safety. During the protection/rescue missions, all is not lost if you should lose some Darwinians, provided you can collect their souls.
This can let you back into a protection level if you’re losing, as long as you’re a fast collector. However that means your mouse-tracing skills for commands and creation have to be top-notch otherwise you can find yourself overwhelmed and you will be screaming for either some easy C&C-styled key commands, or a Wacom light pen instead of a mouse. If messing up the commands happens too often, you’ll be glad there’s no multiplayer for some kid on the net to laugh at you.
That’s it ... but this nutshell’s a lot bigger than my description suggests, I’ve been playing it since before the disk arrived and it’s another PC game, after World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike Source, where having to get this review to my boss was too much of an inconvenience to my entertainment, hence the delay. The soundtrack by Paul Slocum, Mathieu Stempel and Trash80, much like Jesper Kyd’s work for the IO Interactive range of games, mixes styles from C64 SID chip to modern movie style and is highly memorable - and rather handily available for sale on the website straight away as an optional extra, rather than Introversion wacking a tenner on the price and trying to make you buy the game again, or restricting the soundtrack to an import - you can pick it up for the price of a games mag.
Since Half-Life 2 and Rome Total War, we’ve really been FPSing and RTSing and driving our way through our games waiting for the next big but memorable experience, and it took the ripping-up of the RTS rulebook, with a gaming lineage of the past two decades, to make me excited about games again - even if the game isn’t going to need all the power of the 64-bit PC upgrade I’ve just made, unlike HL2’s Lost Coast. Darwinia will happily work on a sub-1GHz PC as long as you’ve got 512Mb RAM and a basic video card - though you’ll appreciate more RAM when there are hundreds of Darwinians and enemy viruses on the screen. In retail sales the game has dropped to as low as 10 pounds. However, the test is whether you value originality enough to see the company survive to release its third game - in which case snap it up from the Introversion website, and if you like the music, the soundtrack too. At least one of the striking screenshots is also available as a poster if the desktop wallpaper seems too small.
We could debate the lack of multiplayer but all the effort has gone into the intense single-player game rather than tacking on something, which doesn’t work and with naff netcode - besides, you can return to the modern-day menu-laden RTS fare if you want to play other people. We’ll have to hope the modders that gave a new dimension to Uplink can do the same when these 20 levels are all played out.
Now that it’s mid-price, snap up Darwinia direct from the site, download and play away before the discs get there. Unlike Friends Reunited, the BBC2 retro TV shows about the 70s to the 90s and every rotten music compilation with adverts designed to make you feel old because the decade of your birth is on the cover, Darwinia’s one retro ride you’ll be happy to take.