Darwin Project Early Access Preview

Survival, crafting and an awesome Show Director mode make Darwin Project quite an enjoyable take on the battle royale genre.

By Woozie, Posted 21 Mar 2018

The battle royale genre has benefited from a boost in popularity thanks to games like PUBG and Fortnite, and the eyes of both smaller and larger companies are set upon it. With Darwin Project, Canadian indie developer Scavengers Studio presents their take on things but, where other games aim to impress through size, Darwin Project offers a more compact experience while including survival and crafting elements.

In Darwin Project surviving isn’t just a matter of avoiding or killing other players. Trees, armchairs and robotic deer strewn across the map can be harvested for wood and leather. There’s no shortage of snow in the Canadian north and, if your temperature drops too low, your health starts to drain. Once you do get a fire up, it provides heat, but it can also give away your position, or be a neat distraction for an ambush. Whether thick or thin, passing through snow will leave behind trails or footprints. Harvested resources and crafted items also leave behind means by which players can be tracked, with the tracker gaining knowledge of one’s position for a short time. Showing care as to where you craft things and understanding how to surprise opponents that might be on your trail can do a lot to assure you’ll live past the first few minutes of the match.

Darwin Project, Screenshot, Early Access, PC, Preview

Wood and leather aren’t used solely for fire, as Darwin Project has craftable items that help in different situations. Where fires prevent freezing to death and arrows give you more ammo to fight at range, stuff like bear traps, tripwires and fake chests can immobilize and reveal foes that follow the same path as you, being useful both in and outside of combat. Snowballs don’t cost resources to build and can put out fires or drop the temperature of an opponent, at the cost of no damage. Then there are upgrades to movement speed, cold resistance and axe damage, which improve your character’s abilities. An electronic spawn can be a significant event, since it gives access to cooldown-based powers like invisibility, the ability to teleport over large distances, or turrets. Collecting an electronic takes time and once you begin, everyone will know you’re doing it, so it can involve a certain degree of risk. The powers provided by the electronics are quite potent – and they’ve definitely saved my butt on several occasions –, but without the proper context, timing, and combat accuracy, they won’t win matches by themselves. All these craftable items are spread across three quadrants and have a couple of variations to choose from, as only three picks per quadrant can be taken into a match.

Given its more compact nature and means of actually tracking players, combat encounters in Darwin Project feel quite personal. Getting killed from miles away without a way to retaliate isn’t possible. Currently, the sole weapons available are an axe and a bow. Targets have to be led and their movements predicted. Successful bow strikes send inmates flying through the air, which requires players to either use the environment as a means of controlling how far the knockback goes, or quickly reposition themselves to suit the new situation. Melee, on the other hand is a bit disappointing.  The axe only has a small number of basic attacks and swings hit in a radius around characters. This essentially leads to scenarios where most of the time, you’re moving towards a player, clicking and hoping that you’ll have gotten close enough for a successful hit. Knockback is also present in melee and if two axe strikes connect, both players are thrown back without incurring damage. Arrows can also be reflected with the axe through precise timing. There is, undoubtedly, tension in sprinting towards an enemy and watching axes flail around, but there’s also not much sense of control over battles, which does detract from the overall enjoyment.

Darwin Project, Early Access, Preview, PC, Screenshot

Darwin Project’s map is sectioned into seven areas which close down the longer the match lasts. In your attempt to survive, you’ll trek across frozen lakes, through thick forests and snow covered villages. Hills can allow you to scout the area below, while trees are a good spot to hide in, should someone be nearby. Certain houses give access to a map where you can track other player’s position in real time, for as long as you stay inside, and may even contain crates that can offer anything from traps to upgrades and healing items. Rivers of lava can be found in certain portions and, if you’re unlucky enough to eat an arrow while near one, the knockback can end up throwing you to a quick death. Darwin Project’s clean aesthetic is both pretty to look at, thanks to its use of color, and does a fairly good job at relaying vital information such as where resources or players are.

I’ve spent just as much time playing inmate as I’ve played the role of a Show Director and it’s quite an interesting addition. As a Director, you control a flying drone that freely moves around the battlefield, while also having the ability to quickly snap from player to player. When nearby, you can use voice chat to communicate to them, which also adds a social element to matches. Show Directors have access to a couple of powers, some of which affect the map itself like closing off areas permanently, spawning an electronic somewhere, or dropping a nuke in an area. Others directly affect inmates, granting healing, warmth or a speed boost. These powers have a limited number of uses and choosing the proper targets to make a match interesting is very much a mark of good directorship. Powers can also be dragged to the lower right corner, which allows potential stream viewers to decide who receives their effects.

Darwin Project, Early Access, Preview, PC, Screenshot

There is some potential for abuse, as directors can favor one inmate over others. To counter that, directors are rated at the end of each match. Those with ratings lower than 2.3 stars, are restricted access to powers that affect players. Similarly, to discourage teaming up, as the duo mode isn’t yet in the game, there’s a report function. The best games I’ve had as an inmate were those where player-director communication happened, and they actively used their powers to generate interesting situations, while avoiding drawn-out games. Donning the role of the director can be equally as fun, especially when players answer back. Fights become more intense when the director reminds those involved that one hit is enough to kill any of them. Observing a tense manhunt chase, or players caught in a fight forgetting about the nuke that’s about to drop on their heads is also pretty darn awesome. At the same time, a bigger pool of ways to influence the match would definitely be appreciated.

Darwin Project could use some optimization as I did run into frame drops when things happened around me. I’ve had plenty of occasions when I was tipped off to an enemy approaching by these frame drops, just like I missed follow-up shot opportunities because they happened immediately after releasing an arrow. This occurred regardless of graphical preset and, currently, there are no options for individual customization when it comes to video settings. Director mode, also has annoying on-screen player icons overlapping the ones on the minimap which can be quite confusing.

Darwin Project, Early Access, Preview, PC, Screenshot

In its current form, Darwin Project is quite an enjoyable take on the battle royale genre. Its compact size, survival elements and inclusion of Show Directors significantly reduce downtime. Even when avoiding conflict, there are resources to look for, items to craft and temperature to consider. A peaceful stroll can be interrupted by stepping into a trap, only to be ambushed, or an electronic spawning nearby. Hearing an opponent’s arrow miss the mark puts you in a tense situation that’s rewarded with loot, relief and satisfaction once you down them. But what I most enjoyed about Darwin Project was the fact that early deaths didn’t feel cheap. When they happened, I always had the chance to do something about it. Everyone starts near resources and when I died, it was because someone had crafted more arrows than me and had better aim, or because they made better use of the game’s admittedly unwieldy melee combat system, in conjunction with traps or powers.  It’s premature to discuss longevity, but right now, Darwin Project has a foundation that if built upon, could very well earn it a spot of its own in the emergent battle royale playground.

Bogdan Robert, NoobFeed
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General Information

Platform(s): Xbox One, PC
Publisher(s): Scavengers Studio
Developer(s): Scavenger Studios
Genres: Action, Adventure
Themes: Multiplayer, Battle Royale
Release Date: 2018-03-09 (Early Access)

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