Malcolm Owen On May 10, 2006 at 11:59 am

Darwinia is getting released… again. Cue a fact sheet. Again.

Publisher: Cinemaware Marquee
Developer: Introversion Software
Platform: PC
Ship Date: June 2006
ESRB: Pending
Price: $29.99
Multiplayer: No

Nearly three years after taking the underground gaming scene by storm with Uplink, Introversion Software’s follow up title, Darwinia, is scheduled to be released by Cinemaware Marquee in North America this June. Combining fast paced action with strategic battle planning, Darwinia features a novel and intuitive control mechanism, a graphical style ripped from 80’s retro classics, and a story concerning a tribe of video game sprites trapped in a modern 3D game world.

The world of Darwinia is a surreal and Retro place, filled with epic fractal vistas and populated by iconic video game sprites from the past twenty years of computer games. The world is locked in warfare and on the verge of self-destruction, as the once peaceful Darwinians are besieged by a massive Red Viral onslaught. Against the backdrop of this war, the game takes place. The player initially takes direct control of a small five man insertion squad, guiding them from a third-person camera view through the many landscapes within the world. The initial missions involve helping the Darwinians to re-secure the various buildings and structures that exist within the world, and exterminate the Red Viral infection that has taken hold. The player paves the way for the Darwinian’s to resecure the world, and their actions have both immediate and global repercussions. As the game progresses the player’s arsenal of weapons and equipment increases, until he is in strategic control of the entire Darwinian army, acting as a General and overseeing the entire war effort. Between each major mission and engagement the background story is narrated to the player through a series of cut-scenes and dialog, with the available missions and objectives tying directly into the narrative.

Darwinia combines state of the art fractal generated landscapes with iconic arcade sprites and is inspired by the rich pantheon of classic 80s computer games, as well as contemporary gems such as Rez. Video game sprites such as the Space Invader, the Defender and the Tron ship all show up for cameo appearances, all rendered in minimalist low polygon purity. Old styles of pixel art show up, translated into the modern 3D setting. Tribes of Darwinians roam the landscape, embodied as 2D sprites lost within a 3D world. Fractal generated vistas are grafted onto a wireframe grid, giving the world the appearance of being under construction. Overhead layers of blocky pixellated clouds roll past the camera. Mathematically perfect fractal trees dot the landscape. Darwinia is highly stylized and utterly unique in its visual theme and will immediately grab the attention of anyone who gets a glimpse.

The in-game audio has been carefully designed to emulate the essence of 8 bit sound, typically found on 80s arcade machines and home consoles. Over 1000 unique sound effects have been created and are attached to every sound event that occurs in game. Darwinia is also capable of applying several real-time effects to individual channels, including distortion, echo, doppler, reverb, resonant low pass, and many more. All of this combines to produce a highly dynamic sound stage which is generated and modified in real-time as the game runs, in response to the actions within the world. This level of real-time audio generation is unprecedented and is unique to Darwinia.

Darwinia is visually and conceptually in a world entirely of its own. The intuitive control and gesture system leads to uninterrupted immersion within the world, resulting in fast and intense gameplay. The unique graphical styling celebrates the video games’ past while unashamedly forcing it into the future. The sound stage is generated in real-time using a combination of emulated 80s sound chips and cutting edge audio filters running on modern hardware. Darwinia represents a fusion of the spirit and the soul of the vintage years of gaming, brought bang up to date with the power and scope of the very best that modern gaming technology has to offer.

The story of the game concerns Dr Sepulveda – one of the great pioneers of the home computing scene. His doomed company – Protologic Entertainment Systems – was the darling of the British gaming scene, having produced the hugely popular Protologic 5000 home computer and a string of hit games. He was an icon of everything that was great in the halcyon days of the gaming world – innovative, daring, rebellious, and ingenious. Unfortunately he was also naïve, and over ambitious. Company profits were invested into what has gone down in history as one of the greatest product failures of all time – the Protologic 68000. After years of research and development, the 68000 shipped late, over budget, and unfinished. A rushed design led to defective units burning out after only a few hours of play, forcing Protologic to recall the entire production run for repair – all fifty thousand units. Unable to design a suitable fix in time, and facing massive media ridicule, Dr Sepulveda was forced to issue full refunds to all his customers. The move pushed Protologic Entertainment into bankruptcy, and sent Sepulveda into a decade of reclusive introspection.

Years later, long after the events had passed into gaming folk lore, Dr Sepulveda returned to the abandoned warehouse where the worthless Protologic systems were still stored and began a new set of experiments. In an attempt to determine why the units had failed so disastrously, he discovered that by some quirk of the design, the Protologic 68000 was capable of resonating on a quantum level – and would enter a state of intense multithreaded processing after a few hours of operation. Whilst in this state – which Dr Sepulveda named "Hyperprocessing" – the Protologic systems would operate in a completely different way to conventional computers. Two systems placed next to each other in Hyperprocessing mode would share data and resources and would resonate with each other on a quantum level. He discovered he could connect many units together into a grid, and thus produced the worlds first genuine Quantum Computer, built out of a matrix of 10,000 Protologic systems, all operating in parallel. With this much computing power at his disposal, and with limitless possibilities ahead of him, Dr Sepulveda began work on his new opus – the only piece of work worthy of this new system he had built – the creation of Digital Life.

Sepulveda conceived of a massive virtual world, made up of many disconnected islands, all built on the inside of an enormous geometric sphere. At the very centre of this sphere was the collection of spirits, the digital life equivalent of a soul. There were 10,000 spirits in all – one digital spirit for every Hyperprocessing Protologic system in the grid. These spirits would be sent down to the islands to live a life as digital entities – at first nothing more than simple life forms capable of living and reproducing within the world he was building. By allowing the weakest digital life forms to die, and the strongest to procreate, Sepulveda watched his population grow and evolve. Slowly the world of Darwinia began to take shape. As time passed, the life forms began to explore their surroundings, and understand the buildings and structures Sepulveda had created for them to discover. The tools Sepulveda had used to build the world were embedded in the world itself – in the hope that one day the population would discover and understand them enough to use them for their own advancement. Every entity in the world of Darwinia looked up and saw the heavenly sight above, and hoped to one day travel there. This process continued, on and on, for thousands of generations, as a whole history and culture built up within the confines of this simulated world.

One day a small error crept into one of the Protologic systems on the grid – just a tiny corruption of one entity’s digital DNA. This error was duplicated and spread rapidly, like a cancer, until the affected digital life forms were irretrievably corrupted. Sepulveda watched in horror as they turned into hugely destructive monsters, whose primary desire was to expand and absorb all the other life-forms around them. The desire to procreate, that Sepulveda had so carefully written in to the first digital life forms, was now turned against the world, as these horrendous creatures killed the peaceful inhabitants of the islands, absorbed their digital spirits, and multiplied. The malignant infection spread and grew, from island to island, until the entire world of Darwinia and all its inhabitants were threatened. In a desperate attempt to save a decade’s worth of research and a thriving digital world, Sepulveda shut down the transit system that connected the islands together to stop further spread of the infection, and cried out for help.

The infection must be stopped, and Sepulveda needs help if the world is to be saved.

Understandably Dr Sepulveda is fuming that his life’s achievement is on the verge of destruction, and the player has been called in to help him restore order. Sepulveda has written a number of programs which the player can use to interact with the world, the first one being the Insertion Squad. This is a team of 5 men, who can be deployed and controlled by the Player on an island within Darwinia. The camera hovers above the squad and follows them along, looking down on them and the area in front of them, focusing on the area where the Player is looking with his mouse. The camera can be moved around the squad with conventional Quake keys. The controls for the insertion squad are designed to be both simple and powerful – a left click on the landscape will instruct your squad to walk to that location, a right click will cause your squad to fire their weapons towards the mouse cursor, hopefully killing any enemies that might be in that area. Holding down the right mouse button results in a barrage of sustained weapons fire, and tapping the left mouse button at this point will instruct the squad to throw a grenade (or later fire a Rocket). The squad control is highly intuitive, extremely easy to learn, and will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played such hugely popular Amiga games as Cannon Fodder (Sensible Software) or Syndicate (Bullfrog). Indeed, much of Darwinia’s feel echoes the "no-nonsense" style of those classic titles.

This direct hands-on control leads to fast and intense gameplay, with wave upon wave of Red Virii bearing down on the squad, in an attempt to stop successful completion of the mission. The player will often find himself hugely outnumbered and will feel a massive rush of success when he takes out an entire enemy attack purely on the basis of his own skill and mastery of the game. As the game progresses the player gains access to more and more powerful weapons and hardware, including Engineers, Rockets, and Bombs. The ability to deploy Air Strikes (which are delivered by a squadron of Space Invaders) enables the precision application of violence. Later on in the game the player is able to take strategic control of the entire Darwinian army, giving him access to their array of field guns, tanks, and bombers. Waypoints can be set and nearby units bought under direct command, allowing the flow of battle to be affected. Darwinia has absolutely no on screen icons or clutter of any kind – the player creates all of his Squads and Engineers through a simple Mouse Gesture interface. This system is taught to the player in game by Dr Sepulveda himself, and the player can summon squads and engineers by drawing geometric shapes onto the screen. This intuitive system becomes second nature almost immediately and during the heat of battle demands the player remains completely immersed in the task at hand. As the player becomes more proficient at drawing accurate gestures the lethality of the resulting weapons increases. It is possible to have up to three squads or engineers or weapons running at once, and it is easy to switch between them using the in-game task manager. Darwinia does away with the conventional intrusive Save Game mechanism and instead opts for a system which makes it unnecessary to "back up" the progress made – a Squad can all die, or an objective can be failed, but it is always possible to regroup and win. The levels and missions have been carefully designed to ensure it is never possible to be completely defeated, and it is always possible to fight back from any situation. This system removes the cumbersome and illusion-shattering conceit of the Save Game Mechanism.

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