Darwinia was an utterly charming combination of puzzler and RTS, mixed vigorously in a bowl with lots of heavy retro cream. The creation of a relatively tiny development team - proving the antithesis of too many cooks spoil the broth - it brought silvery tears of nostalgic joy to gamers of a certain vintage. At the same time it offered gameplay that could appeal to all those who liked their games to be cerebral as well as violent. Despite a few minor bugs and pathfinding issues I thought it was an absolute triumph when I reviewed it many moons ago. Now, at the tail end of the 2008, we get a multiplayer version of Darwinia, a game which, if we are being honest, never felt like the kind of game that really required it. Darwinia was a marvelous little single player game that stood out as an exemplar of the notion that gameplay is king, and did all this without the massive hype of the remarkably similar Portal.
Developers Introversion have taken their time bringing their little Darwinians into the field of multiplayer combat. Rather than just shoe-horning them into a few deathmatches they offer numerous game modes familiar from the very beginning of networked multiplayer gaming. So we have the classics such as the aforementioned deathmatch plus CTF, King of the Hill and Assault as well as a few more inventive options like Rocket Riot, which while it hints at and maintains the manic nature of that classic Quake 3 mod, is a more complex beast altogether.
Controlling your groups of Darwinians is simple enough. WASD controls the camera's lateral movement over the vectored terrain. The mouse swivels your viewpoint and the wheel brings you right down to the ground or high into the clouds. Simplicity. Click the left button and a selection circle will grow out of the center point, allowing you to lasso a number of Darwinians. A click of the right button sends them off to their objective. You can click on an individual Darwinian and turn him into an officer. These chaps can do two things. They can either direct Darwinians to a distant rally point or they can create a formation. Formations are simple rectangular groupings of Darwinians who act as a single unit rather than the rag-tag mob which typically characters their behavior. Formations also have access to grenades and hence can deal out considerably more damage than their less focused brethren. Throw in some APCs and player controllable turrets and you basically have your army's capabilities described in some of the shortest tutorials since the great paper inflation crisis of 1993 when game manuals became extinct. That's all there is to it; no build queues, no unit upgrades, not even the rock-paper-scissors mechanic. Just use your little people right while praying the power-ups are on your side and victory will be in your grasp.
Very little has changed since the first game except for a few concessions to the change in style of play. Unfortunately, a number of the issues which afflicted the single player game have carried over to this version where speed and accuracy are at an even greater premium. The pathfinding is better but the angular nature of the terrain means your tiny armies will often get lost on their way to the killing fields. Unless in formation the Darwinians have a tendency to wander off and get obscured under objects or the terrain and the circular selection tool just feels a little muddy. The camera speeds up when shift is held down, but there's no option to jump to the other side of the screen in a heartbeat. A multiplayer game needs very tight and focused controls so the player can put all their energy into overcoming their opponents. So, it's a shame that too often the player finds themselves struggling somewhat against Multiwinia's controls and camera.
However, much like the girlfriend's dog licking your feet while you're both busy in bed together, the exciting pace of combat in Multiwinia is 99 times out of 100 enough to banish such annoyances to the back of one's mind. However, I'm unable to think of an analogy which describes the random and game-changing nature of the power-up drops. They add thrills in the shape of napalm strikes, dark forests and even nuclear attacks, (with a knowing nod to Introversion's last game, Defcon) but if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself ignored by the God of powerups while your opponents receive the blessings of the heavens, all your tactics and ability can be for nothing. Above the control and camera issues this is Multiwinia's biggest gripe, one which should be fixable by some tweaking to the algorithms that dictate the distribution of the drops, (less drops on totally inaccessible parts of the map would be a step in the right direction).
Multiwinia is setup so many of its games can be played in about 5-10 minutes which make it perfect for lunchtimes or those with the aforementioned ADHD. The game ships with plenty of maps for each mode, with some ranging from tiny little arenas of death to sprawling Rocket Riot maps which will see players going back and forth over vast expanses of terrain as they try to capture and maintain the solar panels required to fill up the rockets which stand tall and vulnerable back at each player's home base. Capture the Statue introduces multiple spawning statues which require a minimum number of Darwinians to carry back to homebase in the hope you or your team manages to gather more by the time the game comes to its predetermined end. Assault is your typical attack and defend map which gets wonderfully intense as things come to a close. Blitzkrieg requires players to capture flags in sequence and again is a flurry of activity even before the end time approaches. Domination requires players capture the spawn points and with set timers things get hectic very fast, especially when the game starts to throw 'encouraging' power ups at you as the clock ticks down. Only Rocket Riot has the real potential to go on for a long time but as each host can set a variety of parameters it's easy to create a game which suits your own time-frame.
Sadly, the biggest problem I encountered with Multiwinia was an issue of time and that was thanks to the scarcity of game servers available at pretty much any time of the day. This is obviously no fault of the game and rather of gamers more interested in EA or PopCap's latest. Even its inclusion on Steam hasn't allowed Multiwinia to be in a position to offer more than 30-40 games at once, and such paucity of games means open ones last for a very short amount of time. Unfortunately this often leaves the player to battle on their own against the AI and while the machines do represent themselves well this kind of defeats the point of Multiwinia. It's still fun to find yourself victorious with more statues than anyone else but the thrill of beating real human beings is what has made multiplayer gaming so attractive over the last decade and a half so it's a crying shame for Multiwinia to find itself in this embarrassing situation.
I'm sure that given time this issue will remedy itself. The game has a timeless appeal and as word spreads about the enjoyment the game heaps into player's laps the number of servers should grow and grow. In this review I've focused on the flaws of Multiwinia and maybe not been as successful in conveying the nail-biting tension that you anticipate as each new game begins. It's a quick game which uses its brevity as a lure with that one-more go factor scoring very highly. Its rich visual style and strong core gameplay put many other monster titles to shame. Even with human opposition being a bit of a rarity Multiwinia has enough gameplay to justify its price and as such Introversion finds themselves with another game recommended by this website.