The advent of digital distribution certainly hasn't gone as well as its early proponents would have liked, but it's been a boon for indie developers. In the past, releasing a game would have entailed developing a project and frequently watching it be disemboweled by a large publisher, but digital distribution gave developers the chance to put out smaller projects without having to worry about going bankrupt if it didn't sell well.
With Darwinia+, it's definitely the type of game that benefited from this flexibility. Darwinia+ bundles Darwinia — the acclaimed PC real-time strategy hybrid released in 2005 — with Multiwinia, a multiplayer spin-off, and the subsequent years since the original's release hardly diminishes the quality of either game.
Darwinia's story revolves around the player becoming embroiled with a conflict in the digital world of Darwinia — it's been infected by a virus, and throughout the campaign, players work to rebuild Darwinia's various worlds and fight off the virus.
Visually, Darwinia's an especially striking game, with an imaginative sensibility that's equal parts ReBoot and Tron. The desolate, polygonal worlds and ever-present digital green hue, along with the minimalistic electronic music and beeps throughout the game's audio, invoke the sense that you're really inside a computer. Small touches like viruses being literalized as giant red monsters and the unit management screen taking after the Windows Task Manager help with this.
On first glance, it'd also be easy to mistake Darwinia for a typical RTS game. There's the sprawling isometric camera, the clouds of tiny soldiers smashing into other soldiers onscreen, and a variety of smaller units milling around. What Darwinia does within these limitations, though, makes the game work especially well.
For starters, the actual gameplay streamlines a lot of the minutiae that most RTS games focus on. There are only three primary units — squads, engineers and Darwinians — and initially, players can only have three unit groups onscreen at once. Plus, the game places light emphasis on resource gathering or construction, as each of the levels already has all of the structures players need.
In lieu of sprawling tech trees, players can upgrade their capabilities by collecting upgrade crates spread throughout the world and by choosing specific aspects to improve. They're frequently substantive, because everything from squad abilities to unit numbers can be improved, which lets players develop the best strategy to finish each level.
The variety of tasks that the campaign throws at players also makes the most from the game's rudimentary foundation. The levels have players attempting to accomplish assorted tasks and each unit type serves a specific function within this setup. Squads are the main offense against the viruses, the lemming-like Darwinians have to be herded from objective to objective and engineers activate buildings, along with collecting souls from dead enemies to respawn Darwinians.
In particular, the control scheme of the Darwinians is effective alongside the game's traditional RTS leanings. The Darwinians spawn as a mass of units, but despite them being crucial to completing the levels, you never control them directly. Instead, you have to guide them along by designating a unit as an officer, who's essentially a guidepost that directs the Darwinians on which way to go. Occasionally obnoxious Darwinian A.I. aside — if you don't watch and guide them carefully, they're fond of wandering off — the dynamic's straightforward nature works well, as you often have to guide and protect the Darwinians towards multiple objectives at the same time.
The more complex levels make the most of this balancing act, as players have to simultaneously clear out areas, capture buildings, collect souls, defend multiple fronts and move the Darwinians from objective to objective. This underlying juggling act captures much of what's great about Darwinia when all of its disparate parts manage to come together. RTS games typically aren't known for their sense of restraint, but boiling down the genre's formula to its bare essentials lets Darwinia's strengths shine through.
When these parts fumble, though, hiccups tend to happen. The pacing in the early levels progresses at a glacial rate, as having to repeatedly clear islands, capture buildings and send Darwinians quickly gets old. Darwinia's action-orientated aspects also suffer from similar issues. In addition to the normal wave point to wave point control scheme, players can also directly control squads. Given the degree of control the game gives to the squad — later on, players can launch airstrikes and throw grenades — it's definitely nice, but because the viruses rarely attack the player directly, it'll regularly feel like you're shooting fish in a barrel.
Plus, the AI often requires you to babysit squad members. Unless you direct squad members to be within a certain distance from enemies, they'll walk straight into a cloud of viruses and quickly get killed. Even if they're within this zone, the squad will attack at such an inconsistent rate that you'll be better off directly guiding them.
Thankfully, Multiwinia improves on many of these issues. It borrows much of the basic gameplay from Darwinia and plays like a militant version of Pikmin. Players now have direct control over the Darwinians (now called Multiwinians) and face off against opponents in six different game modes.
All of the modes are diverse enough to keep things interesting. Besides traditional game types like Domination and King of The Hill, modes like capture the statue — in which players need to have Darwinians capture a statue and bring it back to their base — mix up a variety of gameplay elements into something that feels fresh. The lack of local multiplayer is a bit disappointing — players can play either on Xbox Live or against a computer opponent — but like Darwinia, it distills the genre down to its bare essentials and the game works especially well because of it.
Darwinia+ does run 1200 Microsoft Points — that 1200 Microsoft Points is increasingly becoming the standard for Xbox Live Arcade games is definitely worthy of some derision — but given the amount of content the game packs in, it's not much of an issue. Multiwinia and Darwinia are both solid games individually, borrowing from a variety of genres to produce something engaging and interesting. Having both bundled into a single package makes Darwinia+ a ridiculously solid proposition.