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Darwinia
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, © 2006

Format: Game
By:   Introversion Software
Genre:   Strategy
Review Date:   October 16, 2006
Audience Rating:   For those 7 or older
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

Imagine (no, come on, close your eyes and imagine) a world (okay, I know this is cliche. Just imagine Movie Announcer Voice for me) where you are a God (or at least a god equivalent) and your actions will save a society, or damn them if you fail to heed their call for help!

Imagine a land populated by tiny green human-like Darwinians and somewhat larger red insect viruses (and Triffids!) locked in a battle for supremacy (and the right to sing and dance and cheer without being eaten)!

Imagine your computer connected to a complete digital world, a world not created for your amusement but one that follows its own destiny (which is to absorb your time with AMUSEMENT)!

So I lied about the amusement thing, but, anyway. . . . Imagine Darwinia.

Darwinia is the most perfect video game I've played in the last year. And it's cheap. My copy cost me thirty-five dollars because I ordered it direct from the creators, in England. You can download the game for twenty bucks from Valve's Steam service, but I'm afraid of letting Steam near my computer.

Frankly, I'm glad I'm afraid of Steam (and hot showers) and prefer having hard copies anyway, because the game also comes with snazzy packaging. The green cover at first seems simply covered with Darwinians, but soon you see the letters interspersed between them calling out, "Save us." The manual has a number of extras included purely to flesh out the world of the game, harkening back to the days of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game that came with a microscopic space fleet in a plastic bag and Peril Sensitive Glasses.

Even if you don't have the physical game, there are other bonuses: there are at least five different intros to the game itself, several of which echo older computer interfaces and games. They are too much of a joy to spoil.

The backstory of the game involves a Dr. Sepulveda who designed the Protologic computer in the early 1980s, a computer that was critically acclaimed and geared to take over the market. However, a series of problems sabotaged the system, and Sepulveda was left with thousands upon thousands of unsold computers. He became a hermit and began experimenting with hooking his computers together, eventually discovering that the power of the systems was greatly enhanced when connected. So, as you might surmise by this point, Sepulveda created one of the first supercomputers and used that power to create a virtual world and virtual life: the Darwinians.

The Darwinians have gone through countless generations, evolving with each iteration, in complete isolation from the rest of the computerized world. However, now they are getting curious, and that curiosity has caused problems. Even though you come to them from the internet, you are their only hope instead of their destroyer.

Here I'll stop describing the plot, because, unlike many strategy games, Darwinia has a storyline that is a pleasure to follow through.

And the game doesn't end when you complete it. The world still exists. Explore.

If you are familiar with strategy games, you'll be comfortable here. You can control only a limited number of programs: Squads (the military arm), engineers (reprogrammers), and armour (troop transports and gun emplacements). You can only directly control one of those programs at a time. Your main resource is the individual Darwinian, and you can only guide those little guys through the use of officers, Darwinians you've promoted through use of a program.

The world you'll be exploring consists of islands, and so each mission will generally involve clearing one island, then moving on to the next while achieving some larger goal, such as saving a certain number of Darwinians or restarting the mining facilities. Again, these missions sound simplistic. It is the style and the story of the game that will addict you.

Luckily for those with no self control (and unluckily for everyone else) the game isn't overly long: There are only ten missions. It is well worth the money, but I certainly wasn't tired of playing the game when it was done. That is the only caveat, but for a $20 (or even $35) game, I find it hard to complain about such an engrossing experience.

Once you complete the game, a level editor and a sandbox level are opened up, so you can create your own missions. Though when I searched online for new missions, I could only find a few. My guess is that it's hard to recreate the feel and immersiveness of the Darwinia story. How else to explain how this game makes you feel, at times, like your computer is actually interacting with the Darwinia network out there?)

There is at least one more mission, outside the game: the demo. Even if you're sold on the game, this is worth playing (and not just because it's free) since it provides another view of the Darwinians' world and their goals. The demo scenario makes them all the more human, and it is amazing and telling that this game can make me care about one-dimensional, tiny green figures who have no expressions and can't even move their limbs. And it is amazing, because I still care.

RevSF Assistant Film Editor Andrew Kozma always let the little computer people starve to dePLEASEath. They are noHELPw taking their revenge. ME! Be warned.

 
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