A lot of folks have compared the explosion of PUBG and its battle royale brethren to the similar changing of the guard a decade ago that came with Call of Duty 4. It’s clear that this new genre is where the wind is blowing when it comes to shooters.
PUBG acts as the flagbearer, clearly representative of the era it spawned from. Sporting a visual style cobbled together from the same assets that flood digital storefronts and gameplay that is unrefined at best, it became 2017’s most popular Steam game on novelty alone. Battlegrounds will face fierce competition in the months and years ahead. One only has to look at a game like The Darwin Project to see why.
Announced in unceremonious fashion by an inexplicable screaming man at Microsoft’s last E3 conference, players probably didn’t know what to expect when downloading the game’s recent open beta. What they found was both familiar and new. While the game sticks close to the Battle Royale genre, it’s not completely a me-too competitor.
Loading into the game’s lobby, you’ll see only nine opponents and have the opportunity to send them flying around low gravity-style with your pickaxe. After a brief waiting period, you’re dropped into the cold wilds and have to fend for yourself. You have a bow and arrow to take on distant foes and a slew of traps you can craft once you gather enough resources. The basic warfare will still appeal to fans of the 100 player deathmatch concept, but Darwin Project introduces a slew of unique mechanics that set it apart.
Take the game’s Show Director. Expanding on the ideas put into place with Battlefield 4’s Commander mode, this is an all-powerful host that has ultimate oversight over a match’s flow. Instead of a ticking timer, the map divides into regions that close off at the push of a button. Airdrops are not controlled by RNG, instead flying directly to where the boss wants them. A good director can follow a player as they stomp the competition and make their day harder, adjusting the difficulty in real time to give everyone an exhilarating experience.
Not only does this mechanic bring the game more in line with the movies that inspired the genre, it also ties into the ever-growing popularity of livestreams and hosted videos. People watching a Darwin Project stream can vote on events in polls set up by the director, and the lower player count means that it’s easy for any personality to set up a game with a group of collaborators. As a viewer, this type of interactivity will no doubt lead to some amazing Internet happenings.
Of course, none of that matters if the game doesn’t play well. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that The Darwin Project captures the hardcore gameplay that PUBG inherited from its ARMA roots. What I will say is that the game’s more casual third person combat is inviting. Instead of wrestling with weapon attachments and camouflage, everything is simple enough to map comfortably on a gamepad, letting players focus on mastering the game’s own eccentricities.
When you first jump into a match, the range of possibilities can be a bit overwhelming. It’ll definitely take some time to figure out mechanics like building a fire to warm yourself up. You won’t go far before you learn to activate clues that help you track opponents. Once it all comes together, you can set traps effortlessly and bring your prey to you. Unless the director spots you and decides to drop a nuke.
When you’re not stalking prey, there can be significant downtime. This is annoying despite how typical it is of battle royale experiences. The smaller maps of The Darwin Project definitely mitigate the issue, and I appreciate that. Still, it’s possible to play deep into a match before suffering a lethal blow out of nowhere. That’s no fun.
In the heat of battle, The Darwin Project just feels right. It’s simply fun to run around. The crafting and perk management are simple enough that they don’t get in the way of the action. I enjoyed having to juggle my time and resources between upgrading my abilities on the fly. I dreaded tending to my warmth and health but in a good way. Make no mistake, this is a simplified package. Still, I found clutch moments that made me jump right back in every time I was eliminated.
If the gameplay doesn’t drive you forward, you’ll have something to build towards with each match. The developers at Scavengers Studio are taking a friendly approach to progression, confirming in their recent AMA on Reddit that there would be a cosmetic progression system supported by free gameplay related content drops. It’s clear that lootboxes haven’t been ruled out completely. Still, the developers seem hesitant to sell them to players for real money. A great sign to folks out there burned by such systems in recent times.
The Darwin Project currently stands as one of many simplified takes on battle royale in the works in 2018. As of now, I’d say that it brings the most to the table. This ten player action game takes the ideas of the genre and tweaks the formula. This results in a slick, fast-paced affair that’s well worth looking at upon release.
The Darwin Project was sampled on Steam via the January Open Beta and on the show floor at PAX South 2018.