Darwin Project is the latest in a long line of free-to-play titles that arose with the advent of battle royale games such as Fortnite. The work of Scavengers Studio, it is currently in early access on Steam and Xbox Game Preview. Consequently, there are still plenty of areas that need improvement and the game is constantly changing as development continues. What is there, though, certainly works pretty well and there are some features that make Darwin Project stand out from the crowd.
Darwin Project takes place in a future that has been blighted by some sort of apocalypse, leaving the world scarred. As part of a twisted science experiment and entertainment show, participants are dropped into the playing area and left to battle it out between themselves until one rises victorious and alone. It is a concept that we have seen countless times but this game manages to switch it up a bit thanks to the Director.
Generally, Darwin Project only has 10 active combatants in each game. However, there is an 11th player who takes on the role of Director throughout the match. The Director acts as a proxy for the audience, following the contestants as they please and catching everything on video as they zoom around the map. The Director is not simply a spectator. Any player taking on this mantle can have a huge impact on each round by influencing certain factors.
For instance, the Director can make certain players invincible for a small amount of time, stop the cold affecting them, or even make them a target so that other players will be rewarded for taking them down. The Director can also hand out abilities in the form of electronics. The main job of the Director is to make things as enjoyable to watch as possible. It is a hook that really does add a whole other layer to the battle royale genre.
What makes this even better, though, is that Darwin Project is built around the idea of streaming being a big part of the experience. Accordingly, the likes of Twitch have in-built functionality that allow players to publish their playthroughs over the web. Viewers watching via Twitch can even get involved in the action in meaningful ways. For instance, they can make suggestions to the Director on how to make things interesting, or vote on who is the favorite player. The Director can then use this information to furnish rewards on players who are the most entertaining.
Few games ever utilize streaming like this and even fewer have players take on a role outside of the traditional gameplay. By doing this, the developers of Darwin Project have given it a sport-like quality where you feel as if you have to put on a good show in addition to performing well. I’ve never really played anything quite like it in that respect before. It was a nice change of pace to be the Director occasionally, rather than always jumping directly into the action.
Conversely, there are some downsides to this particular gameplay model. Playing without streaming to an audience can feel as if you are playing in an empty stadium. The game just loses some of its energy when the Director doesn’t have others watching him or her inform the flow of each round. Also, the actual combat feels very weak. Despite the fact that you have a number of traps and abilities at your disposal, most encounters seem to devolve into circling each other and clumsily trying to land an attack.
Playing as a normal fighter rather than the Director means traversing across the wasteland and trying to gather enough supplies to upgrade your starting weapons. As a rule, you only have an axe and a bow to take into battle with you. It is disappointing that the actual combat isn’t as exciting as many other battle royale games. You also have hold back the cold weather by finding new clothes or building a camp fire. Above all, this adds some extra layer of strategy to proceedings but feels unnecessary considering that Darwin Project already has a very distinctive selling point.
On the plus side, a great addition that isn’t superfluous comes in the form of a tracker. Compared to most battle royale games that have up to 100 players, Darwin Project only has 10 combatants. Action could easily become sparse if it wasn’t for the tracking device that lets you know in which direction the nearest player is. Footprints in the snow also give a good indication of fresh activity. So, matches don’t become stale as players always have a good idea of where others are.
In summary, Darwin Project doesn’t have the same production values of the likes of Fortnite. It even struggles with basic combat in many respects, while the presentation is just about acceptable. Ordinarily, you might argue that this would be just another battle royale game if it wasn’t for the hook that is the Director. But, with some more work and improvement to other areas, Darwin Project could carve out its own space with its novel approach to the genre.