Release: Out now
Publisher: Introversion Software
Darwinia has evolved. Introversion’s Tron-age anti-god sim has been steadily updating itself for the last five years, of course, but Darwinia+ has found room for consolidation and polish even as it’s shifted the focus from keyboard to joypad. It’s still as easy as ever to be snared by the ageless visuals, riddled with Euclidian trees and vector ravines (all brought to life by a colour scheme that has a hint of evangelical mania in its blooms and bruises), but beneath all that is a confident port. Despite the vestigial mouse pointer that perpetually hovers over the polygonal battlefield, this is a PC game that feels entirely at home on a console.
The controls are workable without being excessively refined: the speed of the camera can seem sluggish, but the thumbsticks and triggers provide a perfectly acceptable means of getting around and zooming in and out of the action. Switching between different units won’t snap you straight to them, but that turns out to be a smart idea given the game’s emphasis on scouting ahead, since you can control most of your minions remotely. Equally, the low head count for building engineers and squads, along with the straightforward objectives, means that Introversion’s digital allegory is naturally far more suited to the limited inputs of Xbox 360 than the raging warfare of Command & Conquer has ever been.
Meanwhile, another trek through Darwinia’s campaign serves as a reminder that, while Introversion’s game is powerfully simple, it’s rarely traditional with it. This tale of theme parks, pixellated plagues and the forces of entropy was arguably never really an RTS in the first place. It certainly doesn’t look like one, with the traditional battlefields replaced with crackling archipelagos, and it doesn’t really play like one either, its focus on direct control meaning you almost never have to multitask.
Instead, Darwinia breaks itself down into a series of unofficial stages, each one quietly satisfying, as you purify a contaminated Eden with lasers and grenades before bringing it back to life, one hulking relic at a time. Units are simple to master, even if each has its distinct quirks, and the evolution of your own powers beautifully complements the way the plot moves ever outwards towards its delightful punchline.
But Darwinia+ is generous as well as thoughtful, finding the room to include a tweaked version of Multiwinia alongside the singleplayer game. Turning a rather cerebral pleasure into something more visceral, there’s a rich choice of game modes on offer, from the all-out brutality of Domination to more objective-based treats like Blitzkrieg and Rocket Race. The focus on capture points and herding makes for a painless transition from the main campaign, even if the emphasis is on a significantly more frantic kind of fun as you master the art of fighting on multiple fronts.
Inevitably, it’s the game’s vision as much as its content that makes it great – and, in this sense, Darwinia’s theme park plotline remains entirely appropriate. Just as with a wander around Anaheim or Isla Nublar, it’s never what you do as much as where you are that really matters here. The details of each individual victory may fade with time, but you’ll never forget the fractal patchwork rippling beneath you, or the stormy static of the clouds that clash overhead.