It goes without saying that the Battle Royale genre has exploded over the past 12 months, with PUBG and Fortnite essentially cornering the multiplayer market overnight. Now, every Battle Royale game will have to live up to the standard set by those two games, but The Darwin Project refuses to walk down those familiar roads, and it might just pay off.
The similarities are certainly there. 10 players are randomly dropped into a map, and forced to scavenge for supplies. Unlike other games, though, everyone starts out with the same weapons: a bow and arrow and an axe. It’s a strong deviation, and one that’s likely to drive away as many players as it draws in. For every PUBG player who relishes the challenge of finding good loot, there’s another who’s tired of getting murdered as soon as they land.
The shrinking map also comes into play, but in a unique and interesting way. The map is divided into 7 hexagonal zones, and 1 by 1 zones will become forbidden. It creates new situations that you never see in other battle royale games, as the safe zone could be anything from a horseshoe shape to a kilometer long stretch of safe flanked by uninhabitable wasteland.
Instead of scavenging for weapons, you must scour the land for wood, leather and game-changing electronics. Wood and leather can then be used to craft armour and perks, which can aid you in your fight. Meanwhile, electronics can make gadgets such as shields that can really give you the upper hand in a fight. Unfortunately, everyone can see where an electronic drop is, so going for one is the ultimate risk/reward decision.
The gadgets and perks you can craft are decided before each game, as you can create your own custom loadout. Again, this decision may prove to be divisive, as part of the appeal of a typical battle royale game is that everyone starts on an equal footing, and introducing custom loadouts destroys that. On the other hand, it’s a decent way of giving the player more control over the outcome of their matches, and it naturally creates longevity as you try different equipment arrangements to find your favourite.
Crafting really comes into play when trying to survive the harsh, implied post-apocalyptic winter. As you explore the snow-capped landscape, you become susceptible to the cold. If left unchecked, you will freeze to death, so you have to use wood to craft a fire, though doing so is paramount to a big neon sign telling everyone where you are. However, you can use your wood and leather to create a cloak that increases cold resistance, making fires a last resort. Again, it’s all about experimenting and finding the loadout that works for you.
The gimmick that really sets Darwin Project apart from other games in the genre is the Director; another player who directly influence how the game progresses. Though some events in the game are AI controlled, such as certain electronic drops or zone closures, The Director can manually trigger some of these events and others. They can also give buffs to other players, or call in nukes on a certain zone and decrease the gravity of the map.
Despite all the control you’re given in terms of your loadout, it’s the Director that helps make each game feel unique and fresh, and ultimately it’s the whims of the Director that will decide who wins or not. You could get lucky and have a Director that decides to bless you with health during a tense standoff, or you could get a Director intent on bullying you until you die.
Fortunately, Darwin Project has put measures in place to ensure that dodgy directors aren’t allowed to grief away. At the end of each match, you can give the director a rating out of five stars, and if their average rating slips below 2.3 stars, they won’t be allowed access to powers that directly affect players.
The perfect Director, then, is one who tries to influence the game without directly interfering in the actions of the players. Personally, I’ve taken to directly rewarding players with health and other buffs for getting stuck in and fighting over players, whilst attempting to flush players out of hiding on the outskirts. One successful attempt led to five players occupying the same 100m area, whilst two other players still managed to lame it out in the background.
At the moment, Darwin Project is a barebones experience, especially on Xbox. There’s limited customisation for your character and no options for changing your Director loadout, but the potential is certainly there if Scavengers Studio can listen to the fans and add in some much needed features.
Right now on Xbox, there’s no custom games feature, nor is there the same integration with Twitch and Mixer that can be found on PC, but it’s those features that could be the secret to Darwin Project’s longevity. To be able to stream in front of hundreds, perhaps thousands of viewers, with participants being pulled from the chat, other viewers being able to vote on what powers the director uses and so on, is a tantalising prospect, and one that distinguishes Darwin Project from the competition.
With Darwin Project currently finding residence on Xbox Game Preview and Steam Early Access, it’s still a work in progress, but the key elements are there for it to be a real contender. Duos Mode is already in pipeline with more content promised in the future, and we’re excited to see how it develops.
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