Friday, January 24, 2020

Darwin Project Review

Battle Royale games can often have you spend an immense amount of time looting and preparing for an ultimate showdown that never actually happens. Instead of getting into an intense firefight against another squad, you may just get sniped by someone you didn’t see, or do the sniping yourself. Darwin Project tries to fix that, managing to reverse the traditional balance of looting vs. fighting with electric results. It introduces some interesting twists on the battle royale format to do that, but unfortunately their lasting appeal fizzles out far too quickly.

Darwin Project tries extremely hard to be different from games like Fortnite or Apex Legends, despite the surface level similarities. Instead of around 100 people per match there are only 10, which makes matches shorter but more intense. Instead of a circle closing around the map toward a random spot, this map’s seven regions close off one-by-one, lending a new type of unpredictability. But Darwin Project’s differences shine best when you run into another player and set off into an epic duel of reflexes.

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A fight that would usually only last a second or two in another battle royale game feels more like an extended chess match in Darwin Project. There are no guns to use, and each strike with an axe or arrow sends players flying backward, allowing for counter-attacks. There’s a whole new combat language that’s fun and challenging to learn, with dodge-rolling to avoid arrows, jumping for overhead swings, and so much more. But like most things here, the novelty fades after a few games, and eventually every fight ends up feeling pretty much exactly the same.

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Darwin Project has three classes that are defined by their gadgets: Jet Wings, Grapple Gauntlet, and Headhunter Drone. With no guns to find, the looting swaps weapons and armor for Darwinium crystals that are used to craft upgrades for your gear, such as decreasing your grappling hook cooldown or increasing jet pack fuel efficiency. They’re also used to equip abilities like barrier shields that can give you an upperhand in combat. In this way, mid-game progression resembles a MOBA more than a traditional battle royale since your upgrade path is always the same for each class. Getting stronger through preset menus instead of randomized loot drops might make things more consistent, but it also removes a huge layer of excitement and anticipation, forcing every match to follow the exact same cadence of upgrades and power-ups.

Combat is heavily incentivized in Darwin Project, so it’s rare to find a match that lasts over 15 minutes. There are cabins scattered across the zones with maps inside that show the real-time locations of every single player, and you can even “Inspect” the craftable things like campfires that other players leave behind to help track them down. This is extremely useful for figuring out where enemies are, of course, but even more than that, it's the perfect means to try and stage an ambush. The faster pace and lack of long load screens is admittedly refreshing, but winning a match is never quite as fulfilling when you know you beat just nine other people rather than 99.

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Darwin Project also has a survival mechanic, but using the word “survival” oversells it a bit. In reality, you just need to build a fire every few minutes to make sure your cold meter doesn’t hit zero. If it does, then you slowly start to lose health. That’s pretty much it. The wood used to build fires is the same wood used to craft shields, arrows, and traps which means you have to do a small amount of resource juggling, but never enough to make staying warm a challenging or interesting obstacle.

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Everything is covered in snow here – the reason you need to keep warm the whole time – but that strips most of the map of any real identity. You’d be entirely forgiven if, at first glance, you thought this was a new mode in Fortnite or something. It’s got the same cel-shaded aesthetic with mostly flat textures and bright colors, but it lacks the variety. All the cabins look the same and if it wasn’t for the map showing me which zone I am in I’d honestly have no idea.

There is a visual identity here that can set it apart, but only once you start to dabble with the cosmetic customization options. In the dressing room new hats, shoulder pads, shirts, pants, boots, capes, axes, and bows are all sold as purely cosmetic microtransactions, and there is a ton of variety ranging from as cheap as $1 up to $10 or $15 per item. You can unlock some for free through the in-game fan gifts when you level up. It’s all standard fare, but is notably lacking any sort of Battle Pass that would allow you to unlock items gradually for a fee rather than having to buy pieces individually.

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Perhaps Darwin Project’s biggest differentiating factor is its Director feature. With this option a player spectates as the Director for each match, manipulating the map and aiding competitors along the way. The Director can choose which zones to close, heal players, or even grant items, so playing well and being entertaining can go a long way to winning their favor. It’s a novel idea that offers an alternate way to play, but ultimately left me wanting to fight for victory the regular way more than anything else. The Director’s abilities don’t actually do much that a randomized AI can’t do anyway, so it’s hard to tell someone is there at all in the heat of a match.

All of this together is enough to make Darwin Project feel different and exciting for a time, but it doesn’t quite add up to something compelling as a whole long term. You can only play solo here, no duos or squads, emphasizing the loneliness of survival, but also contributing to speed at which things get stale, especially since there is only one map. With no Battle Pass or list of fun challenges to complete, you’re left with just one simple task per day (stacking up to three) to earn in-game currency rewards (which is literally Ramen, as in packages of noodles, instead of something like crystals or coins) that can be things like “Inspect clues from 7 different opponents,” and are often completed within minutes.


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