When I first heard about Darwin Project a few months ago, I almost immediately cast it aside, dismissing it as a crass amalgam of limbs and flesh ripped from other games. However, once I sat myself down and burned through a few matches, I realized just how little my initial impressions corresponded to the actual game I was playing. If PUBG took a few cues from the seductive strut of The Hunger Games, then Darwin swallowed its entire routine and crafted it for a different time signature entirely, even down to Katniss’s signature bow. But Scavengers’ co-founder Simon Darveau doesn’t try to hide the obvious inspiration behind his studio’s work - rather, he wields it like the axe you begin the game with, chopping away until they build a well-oiled machine that tries to blunt what Darveau views as lingering issues that the genre continues to grapple with.
“One of the main issues with Battle Royale games is that you don’t have a lot of ways to make smart or meaningful decisions when there isn’t another enemy on the screen, which is 90 percent of the time,” says Darveau. “I wanted to turn the gameplay from a passive ‘camp-or-hide’ style into a more active style. If you move, if you track other players, if you’re aggressive - there’s reasons to do all that. I wanted to give players more meaningful options.”
True to his word, eschewing the armament-forward focus of its competitors, Darwin boils down combat to shooter fundamentals: a Quake-esque axe that chops your foes up at melee-range and a bow that riddles them full of arrows - provided you craft them first. Yes, rather than scouring the map for a lucky cache of super-loot, you’ll spend most of your time hoofing it through the cold to gather mundane resources like wood and leather to upgrade your equipment as you see fit. But if your competition tries to forage in the same spot soon after, they’ll track you, which allows for more offense-oriented playstyle. (For my money, I quickly found that building out my collection of mobility-enhancing “speed boots” as early as possible allowed me to dodge my fellow archers much more easily.) But you can’t use all of your resources for weapons and gear - every few minutes, you must create a blazing bonfire to warm yourself back up, or risk an embarrassing death at the hands of the cruel elements.
Taken altogether, these disparate elements combine to bring a level of dynamism and excitement that’s unmatched among its peers. For example, I found that hunkering down in one of the snowbound map’s cabins - an oft-derided yet oddly-persistent strategy in PUBG, at least in my experience - was tantamount to signing a suicide note. Eventually, the game’s capacity for strategic play revealed itself, largely through my more-experienced competition. I learned to set up my bonfire or my spent arrows as bait to lure my opponents into immobilizing bear-traps, and to use the scramble for the all-important “Electronic” upgrades as an opportunity to cull the herd from afar.
But then we come to the game’s double-edged dagger, which simultaneously serves as its greatest asset and its most glaring flaw: a player known as the “Show Director,” who observes the matches and doles out boons and disaster alike as they see fit, all to maximize the enjoyment of the audience. When it works, it flows beautifully - my one attempt to camp my way to victory resulted in the Director calling a bounty on my head, which resulted in the quick and messy demise that even I admit such behavior deserves.
At times, though, the thumb on the scale can weigh a bit too heavily, especially when the Director gives your mark a sudden advantage for no discernable reason in the middle of a scrap. And then there’s the potential for abuse, which Darveau describes as the game’s “biggest issue.” Though I personally didn’t experience any director-player collusion in my considerable time with the game, Darveau notes that previous issues with it led Scavengers to institute a five-star rating scale for the Directors - if your score falls too low, you lose most of your abilities. While it remains to be seen if this approach manages to contain this potentially-fatal flaw, I personally cannot wait for the Early Access release of Darwin. I’m not sure if it has the same longevity as the randomized blood-fields of PUBG, but its careful yet subtle design strikes me as a viable path forward for the genre - and one that I certainly want to follow myself.