Version tested: PC
We're living in the age of blockbuster bloat. Enormous lumbering AAA franchises gobble up multi-million dollar budgets so they can woo us with talk of sequels and spin-offs that are bigger, shinier, more, more, more. "Come and play Grumpy Space Marine Guy 4!" they beckon. "Not only can you shoot an enemy's limbs off, but the new Surgi-Cam feature lets you zoom into individual spurting veins and control miniature nuclear nanobots directly into their heart for the ultimate finishing move!"
"That's nothing!" counter the people behind Urban Ruffian VI: Crime Of Your Life. "Our gameworld is larger than Brazil, and features PiddleX technology. Your character has a fully working 9000 polygon bladder, and if you fail to wash your hands after going wee-wee virtual germs will stay on your fingers and make you sick next time you eat something, which you bought from our real-time microtransaction online snack bars, owned by a character who is voiced by Spike from Buffy even though he's only in the game for ten seconds."
"Excuse us," pipes up a quiet voice at the back. "But we've made a sequel to our cult hit Darwinia and it's actually even more simplified than the already stripped-down original. And the characters are flat pixel stick men. And they can't speak because they don't have faces."
Oh, Introversion. Gaming needs you now, more than ever.
When it arrived in 2005 Darwinia became beloved by indie PC homebrew enthusiasts, prancing away with the top prize at the Independent Games Festival. Brimming with affectionate tributes to the ephemera of gaming history, from fake scrolling pirate intros to Clive Sinclair avatars, it was mostly a strategy game, albeit one with a post-modern fizz.
Sort of like Syndicate crossed with an artificial life program, and then beamed through the prism of early Atari arcade games. You could throw a little of Durell's Fat Worm Blows A Sparky in there too, if you wanted to get all conceptual and obscure.
For this multiplayer follow-up, the back-to-basics approach has become even more basic. The gameplay skews a lot closer to the traditional RTS formula this time, with the linear explorative action of old replaced with something far more direct and aggressive. No longer striving to free their computerised realm from the grips of a corrupting virus, the Darwinians are now locked in mortal combat with each other.
The change in tone is necessitated by the demands of hot multiplayer action, but I can't help missing the earnest underdog charm that these stiff little creatures displayed in 2005. Seeing them as hordes of bloodthirsty warriors feels odd. Of course, the fact that I've formed an emotional attachment to a virtual species that looks like the Blair Witch logo drawn on the ZX81 says a lot for just how good Introversion are at this sort of thing.
There are six game modes, playable across 50 maps. Domination is a straight deathmatch, where victory involves wiping out the enemy. King of the Hill and Blitzkrieg are hold and defend missions, with points awarded for possession of key zones on the map.
Capture the Statue is a spin on the usual flag-based retrieval games, though the sheer size and weight of the item being swiped makes it a much trickier tactical undertaking. Assault tasks one team with protecting a deadly bomb, while the other tries to penetrate the fortress to disable it. Finally there's Rocket Riot, where teams battle for control of solar panels to fuel up their space rockets. The first team to achieve blast-off wins.
If those titles sound like they'd be more at home in a first-person shooter, you'd be right. Multiwinia is an arcade game through and through (quite literally, since it will soon arrive on Xbox Live Arcade packaged with its single-player predecessor) and everything about it has been created to encourage fast, instant gratification. Time limits range from five minutes to fifteen, and even the modes which don't come with a finite countdown - such as Rocket Riot - can usually be settled in coffee break timeframes.
The maps follow the lovely lo-fi aesthetic already established in 2005, with undulating green digital hills, angular seas and an ominous grid where the sky should be. Tron is often used as a reference point, but it always reminds me most of Sentinel, Geoff Crammond's wonderfully abstract 1986 proto-stealth game. Some maps are small and compact, designed for feverish two-player skirmishes. Others are vast four-player arenas, filled with environmental details that spell out the dark times that occurred between Darwinia and this current state of war.
Whereas Darwinia wrong-footed those who expected a pure RTS experience with its need for constant micro-management of your digital adventurers, Multiwinia's more combative flavour means that pathfinding is now more reliable and directional orders can be delegated to Officers.
These are promoted Darwinians, created with a simple right click. They can then direct the constant stream of comrades from their spawn points to relevant areas - such as scoring zones - or they can form all around them into platoons, slower to move but more deadly in combat. Just these two unit types - Darwinian and Officer - form the basis of pretty much the whole game. It really is that simple.
Auxiliary abilities, many familiar from the previous game, are called into play by collecting the glowing crates which tumble slowly from the sky, Worms-style, bearing gifts from some benevolent digital deity. The more Darwinians you divert to their retrieval, the faster you'll unlock the contents. Some offer area-specific status buffs, such as additional speed or shields. Sometimes you'll get additional units, such as the manually controlled Squad which can lob grenades and shoot at specific targets with a mouse click.
Some old Darwinia foes can also be found, with ants and lumbering computer spiders available to wreak havoc on your behalf. There are also vehicles, for crossing land and water quickly, as well as gun and rocket turrets for automated defence.
And then there are the airstrikes, which can easily sway the course of the game. From swooping Space Invader style bombers to devastating meteor and nuke drops, it's these attacks which really show off just how epic this apparently simplistic visual style can be. The sight of dozens of angular people screaming in terror as they run around and slowly cook to death in a radioactive sunburst is both hilarious and haunting.
Everything is controlled with the mouse, while the WASD keys move your viewpoint around. The only other keys you need are the space bar to deselect a unit, and Ctrl-C to disband a platoon of Darwinians. Scrolling feels a little sluggish, given that the game is so reliant on quick decisions, and it still feels a little odd that the mouse wheel controls the camera's vertical movement rather than zooming in and out - but it's an otherwise elegant system that suits the game's fat-free approach to strategy.
As someone who firmly believes that Julian Gollop's Chaos is the best game ever I've always clung to the notion that strategy games are best served by simplicity rather than clutter. As Chaos was one the acknowledged influences on Darwinia it's no surprise that Introversion's output continues to explore the myriad possibilities that can be thrown up by a relatively small number of carefully chosen variables.
I'd rather play a strategy game like this, where depth comes from a focussed and fluid challenge within tightly controlled parameters, than plough through a deluge of sprawling drop-down menus and constant resource grinding. Multiwinia, thankfully, continues to bang the drum for microcosmic strategy, and in fine style.
If the game has one flaw it's that the stringent time limits don't give you much time to find your bearings when playing offline. Computer-controlled players can spawn and swarm with overwhelming speed, even on the easier difficulty settings, which can make for a frustrating experience for all the but the strategy hardcore.
This really is a multiplayer game, where playing against fallible human opponents results in a much more interesting experience. The single-player mode feels included out of habit rather than any driving need. The rather small number of maps is also a shame, even though the modding community will no doubt address that problem soon enough.
As such, the rather clumsily titled Multiwinia sometimes feels more like a long lost multiplayer mode for the original Darwinia than a standalone game in its own right. This is, after all, how the project began (and how it will eventually appear on XBLA when the two games are merged into Darwinia+) but at budget price this is a minor quibble rather than a serious complaint.
Click into its leftfield groove and Multiwinia provides a quirky but devilishly compelling distillation of all that strategy games can be - rich, deep and compressed into intense digestible chunks. Yummy.
8 / 10