After the striking success of Battle Royale style games, the format is threatened by oversaturation. Developers are trying to riff on the style by adding different gimmicks, gameplay features, and mobile options. Despite this, occasionally a daring developer will try to capitalize on a trend by creating something that uses the core elements of the genre without borrowing too heavily from predecessors, effectively creating something unique by vamping on existing concepts. Whether it’s forgoing the realistic feel of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, or taking inspiration from the art style of Fortnite: Battle Royale (minus the bloom), up and coming Battle Royale game, The Darwin Project, is taking notes and proving that it’s not just a another derivative.
Thematically, The Darwin Project takes place in a post-apocalyptic Canada in which inmates compete in a reality show survival game. The map is a circle of 7 hex-shaped mini zones designated by their cardinal direction. Besides the hazards of rival inmates, contestants have to combat the elements, the clock, and the omnipresent robot Director. The Director is controlled by a player and given abilities over the span of the game to thwart the players and keep things interesting. As director you can grant boons like warming a player up to avoid death by exposure, or you drop a nuke on an entire zone.
The biggest notable difference in The Darwin Project is the match size. Instead of the massive 100 person free-for-all style, 10 people duke it out in a survival deathmatch. In addition to the group size, there is a distinct survival element that players must contend with in addition to their foes. They must chop down saplings for wood, robot deer, or recliners (don’t ask) for leather, with which they craft into cloaks, arrows, and other various tools and traps. One interesting feature is that when you craft an item, you leave behind a small toolbox that allows foes to investigate which allows them to track you for a given amount of time.
My initial reaction to The Darwin Project was one of skepticism, I’ll admit, but the combination of the unique gameplay, the surprisingly polite player base (so far), and the overall quickness of the rounds makes this game a really great after-work-romp. It has the intensity and adrenaline inducing panic that Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds provides, but with smooth arcadey motion controls. The content is almost at odds with the feel of the game, in that the seriousness of a gladiator style killmatch is beset by the general silliness of the design and gameplay. This isn’t a bad thing however, and the gladiator metaphor isn’t entirely off base either; the director can link directly to Twitch or Mixer and stream the game. There are even built in integrations that allow stream viewers to vote on crowd favorites, or Director actions. It really is quite an innovative concept executed well.
Because it is early access, The Darwin Project isn’t without its faults. They have implemented a nice barrier to entry for Director gameplay, in that you cannot play as Director until you’ve played 5 matchmade games. Additionally they have a star rating for Director performance which is polled after death. However, there is no punishment for Directors who leave matches, and the 1v1 combat is a bit difficult to parse coming from other shooters, but the gameplay is solid. The developers seem to be interacting with the community on a regular enough basis, so these issues are being brought to light.
With a “very positive” review on Steam, and a tempting demo on Xbox I highly recommend at least giving this game a shot. It may not overtake the more popular battlegrounds game of the week, but The Darwin Project is a great study on how to subvert an industry trend and keep major developers on their toes.