Like it or not, the battle royale is now a video game genre. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds blew up in such a way that any game involving a free-for-all arena fight will no doubt be classified as a PUBG knockoff, yet we can still expect a whole slew of these games coming in the future. That may be why it’s such a happy moment to see one of those games truly innovate on the concept. Darwin Project, a game moving through its beta testing period, takes the broad battle royale concept and creates something so unique, it seems to define its own side of the genre.
Drawing more influences from the game show aspects of movies like The Condemned and the Hunger Games, Darwin Project pits 10 players against each other, with one extra player acting as the Director, an omnipotent entity that can manipulate the flow of the match. Instead of focusing on collecting guns and ammo, this game emphasizes collecting resources and using them to improve a standard set of gear. Everyone shares the same weapon, a bow and arrows, but certain aspects can be refined to lean on certain playstyles. Matches don’t last a tremendous amount of time, ranging from seven to fifteen minutes, depending on how the Director is feeling. The better you do, the more fans you gain at the end of the match, which in turn levels up your account, though this didn’t have any noticeable effect within the beta.
The gameplay as a participant is relatively standard fare. You spend most of the early game collecting resources to improve your gear, and then making your way out to find enemies, murder them, and loot their stuff. There are three main resources to find: wood from trees, leather from couches, and technology from special nodes. I’m not sure why there are just couches sprawled across a battlefield. The leather and wood are used to upgrade your boots and jacket, but the technology is where things can get interesting. Each piece of technology can be processed into some superpower for your character, giving you the ability to teleport a far distance, for example, or go completely invisible for a brief period. With so much power, the nodes are called out across the map and quickly become hot spots for battle.
A lot of the fun comes from the balance of each player’s tools. There’s no overpowered weapon, no build that unfairly kills you from a certain range. Everyone has the same weapon with a bit of variation in the arrows being shot, but it still handles the same way. Getting a kill is mostly based on skill and strategy rather than some RNG giving you powerful loot. You’re also given a melee weapon, but the controls allowed for the use of both without a weapon swap, so battles could seamlessly drift from ranged to melee without any fancy keystrokes. I personally decided early on that I was trash with the bow, so instead relied on building up speed in my gear to get up close and swing away with my shovel, though I still peppered in some shots when the time was right. It felt real satisfying since each hit knocks the enemy back a good distance, and the invisibility technology catered to this up-close playstyle. That customization and adaptation are satisfying in the moment, and I never felt committed to one tactic.
Darwin Project truly shines through the Director, though. As the overseer of the game, the Director is given special powers to affect the map and players in meaningful ways. For instance, say one person is just too good or using cheap strategies. You could choose to slap a bounty on his head, giving everyone an indication of where he is and a special bonus to whoever kills him. Do you want to see a fight in the center? You can choose to spawn technology in the center, creating an incentive for players to move that way. Could this be abused? Sure, but the only knowledge you have going into a lobby is the name of the Director, so if you’re too much of a jerk, no one will play your game. Perhaps the best part, the Director gets the chance to chat with all the players in-game, so there are some benefits to playing nice.
In my time with Darwin Project, my favorite moments came from being the Director. Closing off some sections, helping people who were newer to the game, I felt like a true wildcard that had influence, though not complete control, over the outcome of the game. One match, I found myself separating everyone into their own zones so that they could grow and have a major brawl by the end when the map was small. The next game, I tried wrangling everyone into a specific corner and then cutting on low gravity. As someone who hates favoritism, I generally tried to keep everything equal, though it didn’t always work out that way. There was a time where I had found someone to hang out and talk with, healing them up after a major fight so that they could keep going, only to have them murdered soon after by someone way too good with a bow. Being a rational adult, I then proceeded to help out every other person in that game to force him a loss. He still won. The Director has the ability to guide the game, but not the ability to choose the outcome.
As a game in beta, Darwin Project felt clean with plenty of room to grow. Each piece of gear had variations that could be chosen prior to a match, allowing for certain specialties that might help you track players or hide better. There’s also clearly going to be some cosmetic upgrades, though this wasn’t fully implemented in the game just yet. There are a couple animations that may not be complete, such as murdering a moose. Currently, moose grant a random amount of loot when shot, but they don’t really move a specific way. Instead, they just flip over and fly 50 feet backward, legs pointed towards heaven. The animation style is more cartoonish than realistic, but stiff moose always look weird. In the beta, there was no motivation to level up your character, though I could see the final build having certain gear modifications behind level requirements or a currency price.
All in all, the ambiguously-named Darwin Project demonstrates a level of innovation that gives me hope for the newly-created battle royale genre. The beta created a peaceful community of people chatting casually and having a fun time playing something new. Perhaps it’s because this is a closed beta, or maybe this influential Director role causes people to play nice. Either way, just getting a chance to hang out with these people and feel no pressure made Darwin Project a highlight of my weekend. It may not be finished, but there’s so much promise coming out of this great beta. With a bit of luck, Darwin Project could carve its own niche in the gaming landscape dominated by battle royales.
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