Like Star Wars, the United States, and countless adolescents, Darwin Project seems to be going through an identity crisis. One look at it screams influences: Fortnite, Overwatch, maybe some Team Fortress 2 sprinkled in there. It belongs to an already-crowded genre, and a first pass through the gameplay loop doesn’t seem terribly reassuring. Derivative visuals, overly familiar gameplay, and even a feminine robotic voice callously dismissing the value of human life (Portal wants its jokes back) seem to point to a dynamic of influence without inspiration.
Initially, Darwin Project looks and feels like a product of the momentum behind the battle royale genre, rather than a novel contribution to the canon. That said, repeated runs through this dystopian patch of the frozen Canadian wilderness reveal hidden virtues. Darwin Project may feel like it’s trend-chasing, but it also places emphasis on gleeful, breezy mobility, offers a deceptively robust box of tools — items, class abilities, environmental features — to tinker with, and delivers moments of unadulterated, fist-pumping joy in its most climactic moments.
- What is Darwin Project? It’s a free-to-play survival-focused battle royale. Players drop into a frozen environment and grapple with resource scarcity, a hostile, ever-changing environment, and, of course, one another.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: Free-to-Play
- Developer: Scavengers Studio
- Publisher: Scavengers Studio
- Release Date: January 13, 2020
- Website: https://www.scavengers.ca/
- Multiplayer: Online
Swinging the pendulum back, Darwin Project has really shot itself in the foot in terms of courting interest and analysis. It would be easy to take one look at the game and dismiss it entirely. A stylized, cartoonish character swings an axe, felling a tree to gain vital resources amid an ever-shrinking map, scrounging and fighting until only one remains. One look at that, or the font and armor that look like they were ripped straight out of Overwatch, or the limp and restrictive cosmetics offered to the player, and one might be forgiven for assuming that little effort was invested in this endeavor. And it’s worth noting where that perception continually rears its head.
There’s only one (somewhat small) map, the soundtrack is repetitive and forgettable, and rewards offered to the player for progression consist of new class abilities — which is great — and single random cosmetics in the form of “fan gifts” — somewhat less great. To be fair, Darwin Project is free-to-play, and in a way that’s not really comparable to Fortnite given that game’s titanic impact on the battle royale genre and pop culture at large.
I mention these shortcomings to explain an instinct I anticipate in some players — to abandon the game after an hour or two (or after a glance at the menu screen) — but also to advise against that instinct. Despite its flaws and aesthetic mimicry, Darwin Project deserves a fair shot on the strength of its mechanics.
DEATH BY SNOWBALL
The cold meter is perhaps the game’s central conceit, and its interactions with other mechanics are often surprising and delightful. Basically, when your cold meter runs out, you freeze to death. Thus, one of the major benefits of collecting wood is that it allows you to build fires and stave off hypothermia. However, that comes with risk: other players can see the smoke from your fires, and may very well catch you unawares as you warm up and craft some arrows. Even if they can’t manage that, the smoldering remains of your fire (or scraps from crafting and looting) can be inspected, which pinpoints your position and status for a few seconds. And crafty players can spot someone on the verge of icy death and tip them over the edge — with a goddamn snowball. From firsthand experience, it is wonderfully weird to murder someone with a goddamn snowball.
What’s more, Darwin Project is positively filled with hidden delights. Movement feels over-the-top and exhilarating, and players are rewarded for experimenting. I discovered quite by accident that devices scattered throughout the map, when struck by an axe, fling you backward into the air. Before too long, I began seeking them out, sticking my butt in the direction I wanted to go and taking a hearty swing. Mid-air, I would deploy my wings — or, playing a different, wingless class, bust out a glider–and soar higher and faster than I previously thought possible. Combat, similarly, appears simple at first, until you treat it like the mobility, experimenting with different combinations of class abilities, item consumption, and clever use of your environment in your quest for survival.
High Ground View
It’s worth noting that Darwin Project also features the Spectator Experience Extension, which allows players and the Show Director to influence the game with various nasty surprises. Nuclear bombs and gravity storms are apparently not uncommon sights in this hellish vision of Canada’s future. In any event, while Darwin Project can begin to feel repetitive after awhile, these gameplay elements not only offer spectators something to do, but they add a layer of dynamism, an important consolidation of the game’s staying power.
Audiovisuals - 6/10
Cosmetics and Progression - 6/10
Battle Royale Elements - 7/10
Combat and Loot - 7/10
Survival and Mobility - 8/10
Darwin Project isn’t a groundbreaking masterpiece. It’s not a profound work of art, and given its current state, it’s hard to see much staying power without first attracting a significant fanbase to fund expansions and the like. However, it’s certainly worth it to fling yourself through the frigid air or seek the elusive, coveted DEATH BY SNOWBALL. Darwin project can certainly offer hours of fun, and that’s an admirable mark for any game at launch.
- Systems come together to create climactic moments
- Mobility is a blast
- Mechanics are surprisingly deep, and it’s rewarding to explore how they interact with one another
- Derivative aesthetic
- Underwhelming cosmetics and bland rewards for progression
- Some repetition and predictability