Version tested: Xbox 360
For gamers of a certain age, Darwinia can be an overwhelming experience. So many familiar ideas, references and images are stirred into its pulsating digital broth that it feels like your brain's been soaked in a gravy of pure nostalgia. Sentinel. Tron. Centipede. Worms. Space Invaders. 3D Ant Attack. Syndicate. Fat Worm Blows A Sparky. Lemmings. The Settlers. Chaos. The retro flavours pile up, bounce off each other and spiral away in joyful new directions. Yet for a game so clearly assembled from traditional ingredients it still feels bracingly new, even in this revamped console edition.
Accidentally hacking your way into the digital domain of Dr Sepulveda, you discover a glowing neon world overrun with an evil virus. The good doctor, looking not unlike Sir Clive Sinclair, quickly schools you in the ways of his virtual creation. An artificial life experiment gone horribly awry, your task is to rid the land of the virus and make it safe for the stiff, inanimate, yet strangely lovable green stick-men known as Darwinians.
To aid you, there are two main tools at your disposal, one being a squad of gun-toting soldiers who can blast away at the snaking virii, and later lob grenades and call in airstrikes to remove more persistent manifestations of the infection like ants, spiders, centipedes and hovering undulating octopus things.
The flipside to the brute force of the squad is the mechanic, a floating Tron-style machine that will reprogram useful control towers and harvest the souls of defeated enemies, ferrying them back to incubators to be reborn as Darwinians. Even these innocent creatures have their uses, able to operate the machinery that keeps Darwinia humming, and as a result most levels become a question of eradicating enemies, restarting mechanisms and then steering the Darwinians into the right place.
So far, so familiar to anyone who played the award-winning PC original. Darwinia+ doesn't reinvent something that already worked to most people's satisfaction, but the changes that have been made are mostly for the better. The game now boasts a tutorial, which eases you in far more seductively than the crude "press H for help" intro of old. It also helps to explain the new joypad-based control system, which is surprisingly effective.
Darwinia was never a game burdened with complex control, so everything maps rather neatly to the buttons. A selects things, B deselects them, X makes them interact with each other. From these core functions pretty much anything you need to do is instinctively obvious, helped along by some helpful AI. Spawn a mechanic near an unconverted gizmo and it'll get to work on it without any prodding from the player. Once it's finished it'll get to work gathering souls, if there are any nearby.
Squads left to their own devices will open fire on enemies that get too close. It's only the Darwinians who are out of your direct control. You can upgrade them into officers - initially waypoints to redirect their brethren along straight paths to where you need them to go - but their meandering free will is the source of both the game's charm and some of its frustrations.
The biggest change to the controls comes with the squads. Point-and-click automatons on the PC, they take on elements of twin-stick shooter here, with the left directly guiding them across the jagged polygon terrain while the right directs their fire. It's not entirely successful, abandoning the pleasantly fluid free-floating camera and replacing it with a slightly slow and fixed chasecam viewpoint that tends to be obscured by larger structures.
Aiming is also diminished. Whereas once you could have your laser blasts land where you clicked, now you're steering a more random barrage of shots in a general direction. It doesn't always line up with the crosshairs, which are skittish and slippery, and while precision aim isn't that important when faced with a host of enemies, it makes the disembodied centipede segments something of a chore, and spiders prove especially tricky to pin down.
But Darwinia isn't a shooter. Nor is it an RTS, though the poor pathfinding of the Darwinians remains a minor annoyance. Does it really matter that they're still incapable of making their way around the smallest inlet, if their path ventures a few pixels over it? Should we be cross at the way they can disperse into useless disparate groups, or ignore officer directions unless they're really close by? Arguably not, but it doesn't exactly streamline the gameplay either. Almost five years after the game first appeared, it's the kind of marginal yet persistent issue you'd hope would have been polished up.
That these hiccups provoke only fleeting grumbles says much about how well Introversion has honed and balanced its gameworld in other areas. New abilities are introduced at just the right time, either through research crates within the levels or via a passive research menu that steadily improves various stats from the number of units you can have active at any time, through to the effectiveness of your attacks.
Each level is a discrete challenge in and of itself, but plays into a larger virtual ecosystem that is compellingly fleshed out the deeper you play. The virus behaves like an actual virus, for example. Get sloppy with your squad, miss just one tiny piece, and the map can quickly refill with red monstrosities while you're busy elsewhere, each virus creature able to replicate more of the other viral forms, a tesseract of ruthless survival that tests your ability to clean house efficiently.
Darwinia is only half the story, however, and the online battle mode Multiwinia is hampered more by the move to consoles than its sibling title. Once again it's the exact same package as on the PC - the same game modes, the same maps - but while the joypad is surprisingly adept at handling most of what the single-player campaign throws at you, it's not as good at keeping up with the blistering skirmish pace of multiplayer.
Released as a low-priced standalone title on the PC, where Multiwinia succeeds is in its addictively paced take on RTS warfare. Matches are short and savage, with few lasting more than 15 minutes. Those lengthy standoffs that blight more typical strategy games in the online space are nimbly avoided.
The connection between the two halves is more visual than conceptual. It's all combat, all the time, and elements from the single-player are remixed as bonuses and hazards for online play, with viral creatures that were once the bane of your existence now available as weapons with which to batter rival Darwinian tribes.
It's still brutally difficult though. While solo play gives you time to stop and take stock, planning your next move, there are no such luxuries in these tightly timed assaults. Enemies swell and swarm from all sides, and the constant need to group and direct platoons of Darwinians in multiple directions quickly proves wearying. There's no shortage of smart ideas at play, it just takes a patient soul to get past the overwhelming odds to appreciate them.
Those who already enjoyed Darwinia and Multiwinia on the PC won't find anything new here to justify a 1200 Microsoft Points purchase. These are the exact same games with a mostly agreeable interface upgrade for the console crowd. Multiwinia is the very definition of an acquired taste, so there's little doubt that it's the single-player campaign, with its oddball mix of arcade, strategy and adventure influences, that provides the most compelling bait for newcomers.
Introversion's strange brew has stood the test of time, despite a few lingering minor complaints, and after a troubled gestation has crossed the mouse-to-joypad divide with its unmistakable personality intact. Innovative, unique and utterly charming in its self-contained universe, it comes highly recommended to open-minded 360 owners.
8 / 10