Darwinia+ really has been eight years in the making. Even before Xbox Live Arcade was around, Introversion were hard at work, sometimes without pay, putting together the makings of the game that is now available on Microsoft's games download service.
Now, what we have before us is one of the most unique offerings ever to grace Xbox Live. Darwinia+ hits the arcade with quite unbelievable genre-defying gameplay that barely even brakes to figure out what it hit.
At the heart of Darwinia+ is Darwinia itself, a multi-award winning PC game that has been redesigned to cope with the constraints of the Xbox 360, although after a few short minutes of play it becomes apparent that coping is somewhat of an understatement.
Resting somewhere between RTS and arcade shooter in terms of gameplay and dressed up in a trippy, early nineties-style fractal universe, is a storyline that pinches neatly from both Darwina and the Bible in equal measure.
You are a hacker. The first visitor in a virtual theme park which is home of the first ever digital sentient beings known as Darwinians. The park is the brainchild of a scientist called Dr. Sepulveda but something has gone wrong and the park has become infected with a virus that is threatening to erase the Darwinians from existence.
Your task: Help Sepulveda eradicate the virus before it destroys his life's work. Of course, Dr. Sepulveda has created some tools to help you on your way as well as feeding you some handy hints on how to keep the Darwinians safe whilst you battle the infection.
Essentially you have to help the Darwinians restore their manufacturing facilities, spread across three locations, in order for them to be able to equip themselves to defend Darwinia against the viral attack.
The tools at you disposal are a squaddie program, combat soldiers equipped with lasers and grenades; and an engineer program that allows you to save the souls of lost Darwinians, recover Sepulveda's lost research and reprogram various ports for moving around Darwinia.
Introversion have implemented possibly one of the best and simplest RTS control schemes that has been seen on any console - and it works like a dream. Engineers are controlled by a simple point and click interface and they perform the most appropriate action for the location it is sent to whether that be recovering souls, decoding a data packet or reprogramming a port. This is fairly standard.
The soldier unit is a little more interesting. Select your squaddie units and you will be able to move them with the left stick and control where they fire their lasers with the right. To throw a grenade simply move the right stick until the crosshairs are over your target and push the right trigger. You can even call in air strikes by pulling the left trigger instead.
This is where the gameplay moves more towards a two stock shooter than an RTS and there is a huge amount of fun to be had wading into a sea of virii guns blazing and grenades popping all around.
Virii come in several forms. There are the simple red glowing caterpillar types that die after a single shot; they evolve into a faster centipede type thing that separates into smaller versions when shot in the middle. Then there's the spiders that jump onto their prey and can only killed by grenades or a well placed airstrike. There is the floating egg laying creature that again can only be killed by careful grenading and the frustrating triffids, plants that shoot out large eggs that burst into centipedes.
All traces of the virus have to be cleansed from the levels before you can continue properly. There are only five levels in all but the final three are very large and comprise most of the challenge in the game.
Complementing Darwinia's single player is the frustrating yet addictive multiplayer game Multiwinia. Set far into the Darwinian future, Multiwinia is a fast-paced RTS multiplayer with players adopting one of four different coloured factions of Darwinians in a bid for martial supremacy across five different game modes: Domination, King of the Hill, Capture the Statue, Rocket Race and Blitzkrieg.
Domination, as you would expect, involves capturing the entire map and eradicating your opponents. King of the Hill involves holding certain areas of the battlefield for the entire time limit. Capture the Statue is a variation on Capture the Flag where you have to use your Darwinians to drag a massive statue back to your base. Rocket Race is the ultimate of the frantic levels as you race to hold solar panels in order to charge your rocket and be the first faction to launch. Finally, Blitzkrieg involves a race to capture various flag points dotted around the map.
All of the game modes are intended to be played quickly and the games typically last either five or 10 minutes depending on the map. Each mode has its own set of maps to choose from with Domination, King of the Hill and Capture the Statue each having nine maps to choose from and Rocket Race and Blitzkrieg having a choice of seven maps. The maps are a generous mix of 2, 3 and 4 player maps so there are plenty of options to keep going on with.
The options for play in Multiwinia are also really extensive, You can play in a 2, 3 or 4 faction matches against the computer, launch a quick online game, host a game and invite friends or tap into Xbox Live's game party options.
In-game, Multiwinia plays like Darwinia does but without the shooter element. The emphasis is on quickness with victory depending entirely on how fast you can achieve the mode's objectives. Dither and you will be soundly thrashed. Power-ups like engineers, viral eggs, airstrikes and nuclear submarine attacks can all be picked up in crates that are dropped, again on a frantic first-come first-served basis.
Unlike Darwinia, Multiwinia has a steeper learning curve between the tutorial and the single player levels that could leave some more inexperienced gamers a bit at odds, but with a little practice on single player mode it is possible to become confident enough to face the hordes on Xbox Live. The custom, private and game party modes ensure that you never have to face a stranger if you don't want to.
That little niggle aside, the combination of challenging gameplay and the longevity of the online multiplayer make the game well worth 800 MS points for Multiwinia alone.
As a package Darwinia+ is darned near perfect. It packages addictive original gameplay in a charmingly retro aesthetic, making me both wonder why the game took so long to make it to XBLA and glad that Introversion took the time to make it work the way it does.
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