Battle royale games or game modes are all the rage at the moment. On one hand, it makes a lot of sense, given the runaway success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. On the other hand, it means games are being compared to PUBG as to whether they’re clones. Obviously, PUBG isn’t the first battle royale game, nor is it the first popular example of the shooter subgenre, but it’s certainly popularised for mainstream audiences.
It’s also, debatably, sparked at least one clone, in Fortnite’s battle royale mode: a mode that has all the gameplay mechanics of PUBG, with the sole addition of building from the core Fortnite game (which was a hot mess when I played it). Still, it’s free to play and popular with players. But now Warface has a battle royale mode. There are rumours of a Counter-Strike battle royale mode. And somewhere amid all this noise, Darwin Project exists.
First announced at E3 2017, logic dictates that Darwin Project can’t be a PUBG clone because of the development time required to have it showable at gaming’s biggest show. But that doesn’t stop the comparison from happening. Really, it shouldn’t. While Darwin Project pits a group of players in a fight to the death, that’s pretty much where the comparison ends.
It’s more a survival game that happens to have PvP than anything else. The first major threat when you spawn in Darwin Project is the cold. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic take on the Northern Canadian Rockies. To keep warm, you have to build a fire, but that requires resources. Your trusty axe is great for felling trees, stripping leather from conveniently placed dilapidated couches (which sometimes live outside for no particular reason), and caving in skulls.
While a fire will keep you warm, it also sends a column of orange smoke into the sky, which is an easy way to alert enemies to your presence. Of course, you could use this as an opportunity, setting traps (which take time to built and use resources), or waiting to see if anyone comes to investigate. What I wasn’t expecting from this battle royale game was a player-controlled director. While 10 players fight for survival, the director has a bird’s-eye view of the map, can switch between players and, strangely, can chat to players directly.
It weirded me out the first time it happened, when the director gave me a warning that there was an enemy player nearby. After playing too much PUBG, I feared a posthumous VOIP ruse but, as it turned out, the director was on point. My online research suggests that the director accrues ‘action points’ over time and can spend them on different abilities, including the option to gift additional health to a particular player. Sneaky.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that the director can close down quadrants in the game, which are clearly defined on the mini-map and force you to move outside of them. (Actually, on closer inspection, I think this is more randomised, but the director can, say, drop a nuke on a quadrant.) On the ground, one of the cooler features is you can see a map with all other players if you enter one of the log cabins scattered around the map. I used this map to avoid enemy players early on and, during the endgame, to hunt the few remaining players.
Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any Australian servers. In fairness, Darwin Project is in closed alpha, and even though I was playing on a US server, it was still very playable. Combat felt fluid, even if there was obviously a slight delay in terms of the damage feedback, but that didn’t stop me from winning my first fight against a player who clearly knew what they were doing. Darwin Project has a longer time to kill, which adds an inherent survivability and tension to showdowns.
I’m actually a big fan of this, even if I was shocked that my two arrow headshots didn’t result in a kill. As far as I could tell, I couldn’t craft any additional weapons beyond my axe and bow. The ranged combat felt more like Quake duelling, with most shots taken while strafe jumping, rather than standing still. I took a few risky close-range shots with the bow, luring my enemy in close around a tree, but that’s not something I advise.
Axes are brutal in melee combat. They deal great damage, and landing a hit throws your enemy back a distance to give you both some breathing space (assuming they’re still breathing, of course). I’d already invested in armour, and my foe clearly had, too, but after a close-range duel that lasted around a minute, I came out on top. Given the game is in alpha, I was honestly surprised at the lack of jankiness, and the potential of the combat was immediately clear from this one fight.
I wasn’t keeping track of surviving players, though, and what turned out to be the final player made short work of me. There wasn’t a lot I could do, with low health and only two arrows remaining in my quiver. Still, second place in my first game isn’t a terrible start. The thing I loved most about Darwin Project, though, was how kind and accommodating the director was. It made for a first gameplay experience, and the fact that it’s really easy to pick up and play absolutely helps. Give it a bash when the alpha, beta, or final release opens up.