Thanks to Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, battle royale games sprung to the top of the charts in 2017, even inspiring a number of mobile clones. But while they are the reigning champs of the genre, it’s not too late for a third contender to sneak in and take the crown, and after going hands-on with Darwin Project during this weekend’s open beta, we may have that new contender. PUBG caters to players seeking something more realistic, and Fortnite aims to please those who want something quirkier. But now we have Darwin Project that falls nicely in between, maintaining a cartoonish look while introducing survival elements.
Scavengers Studios brings us Darwin Project, a smaller scale battle royale experience that forces players to balance resource management with speed in a manner unique to this survival fest. In comparison to its battle royale brethren, Darwin Project is much smaller in scale, both in the size of the map, and the number of players per match. Unlike the standard 100 vs. style that’s become standard for the genre, Darwin Project only pits 10 players against each other in an arena that’s been divided into seven sections: Central, North, North West, West, South West, and so on. Players are dropped into zones at random and the game begins with little warning.
The first thing that players will notice is the mini-map/status bar section of the HUD in the bottom left. There are three bars that contestants will have to play close attention to: Health, Stamina for sprinting, attacking and jumping, and Warmth. Health and stamina function as much as players would expect, with stamina quickly restoring when not in use. But the Warmth meter is a new addition to the series. Players familiar with survival games will be familiar with these mechanics, but for those who are new to the genre, the Warmth meter is an indication of how much time is left before your character freezes to death. The blue Warmth meter will slowly drop over the course of time, only refreshing after standing by a fire or using a power up. It’s a simply mechanic that can prove to be deadly when players focus too much on combat and tracking down other players.
“What happens when fires aren’t conveniently placed nearby while you’re freezing?” I’m so glad you asked. Darwin Project doesn’t provide players with what they need to survive, players will have to craft items for themselves. Before entering into a match, players can customize their crafting wheel with twelve different items that they’ll be equipped to craft during the game. Players are permitted to equip recipes for three items in each of the four categories: survival, armor, traps, and electronics. Survival doesn’t allow as much customization as the other categories, but it’s here that you can craft arrows, fire, and a one-time shield that will nullify all damage the next time you’re hit. Armor lets you improve your axe, make furs to make the Warmth meter last longer, and boots for speed. Each item in the armor category can be upgraded up to five times, stacking protection, damage, and speed bonuses with each upgrade. Traps such as tripwires, bear traps, and fake loot chests give players the opportunity to get the drop on their opponents without exposing themselves. And lastly, electronics, which are highly sought after resources that only appear a few times per match. When an electronic appears on the field, an announcement is made and the electronic gets marked on the mini-map so that players get lured into a bloodbath as contestants fight for the upper hand. For the lucky recipient of the electronic, they’ll be able to craft a permanent ability that will be usable throughout the rest of the game. Electronics can be crafted to give players temporary camouflage, invincibility, or my personal favorite, construct a turret that will fire arrows at nearby players as you lounge by the campfire.
As I briefly mentioned before, players can customize their crafting wheel with a selection of item variations. Players can’t change the types of armor in their wheel and will always have the axe sharpener, fur, and boots listed in their crafting menu. However, each type of armor has specific variations. For example, the boots have several different versions to choose from. Some, like the Ninja Boots, will increase your speed with each upgrade, as well as make it harder for other players to track you. Another pair of boots increases your total stamina meter, allowing you to sprint for longer distances without getting exhausted. Likewise, you can equip different types of arrows. Some, like the Fire Arrow will do more damage at the expense of the arrow’s speed. Better yet, the Hunter Arrow that will highlight your target’s location for a time after landing a clean shot, allowing you to keep track of them during the chaos of battle. It’s important to experiment with different combinations to understand what bests suits your play style to give you the best advantage possible.
Putting my experience into words makes the game sound like more work than it really is. While it’s true that you have to craft every item in your arsenal, the process of collecting resources is not a demanding one. Unlike other survival games, Darwin Project has two types of resources to collect, excluding the aforementioned electronics. Leather and wood are your primary resources, are highlighted in blue, and are located everywhere. Wood can be gathered from cutting down saplings scattered across the map, and leather can be harvested from cutting apart leather chairs and hunting deer. Players will gather one of each resource per harvest, but loot chests hidden throughout the map, typically in cabins, will gift players with two to three wood and leather at the same time, giving them a valuable head start in crafting their best armors. It’s possible that Darwin Project could introduce additional types of resources that could complicate the simple resource economy that exists now, but if it remains unaltered, collecting resources while fighting off other contestants is an exciting race, rather than a chore. Additionally, any resource that has been harvested recently will be highlighted in red, giving a competitor the chance to examine the chair or sapling, showing the examiner the current location of the harvester for a short duration.
Crafting and survival are a welcome addition to the familiar battle royale mechanics, but it’s far from all the Darwin Project has up it’s sleeve. What truly sets the game apart is how they handle the premise. Why does this event even exist? Well, it’s a televised spectator sport. Characters are all dressed in jumpsuits, suggesting that they are all prisoners who are being forced to kill each other in a gladiatorial exhibition.
When the trailer was revealed at E3 2017, the general consensus was the game looked interesting, but the game announcer was annoying. But I’m hear to tell you that it’s one of the best things about the game. While Darwin Project pits ten players against one another in combat, there is an eleventh player known as the Show Director who doesn’t get to compete, but might get to have the most fun. The role of the Show Director is to keep fans of the tv show entertained by acting as the commentator, activating arena traps, and giving bonuses to their favorite contestants. The Show Director is equipped with a range of abilities that can be used at any time at the cost of AP, which accumulate over time. The Show Director’s abilities range from giving a player boosts to their Health or Warmth meters, closing access to a zone, to dropping a nuke onto an entire zone at will. Show Directors also get to choose where two of the electronics get placed on the map, giving them the power to lure players to kill one another over a power up, or place it neatly next to the Show Director’s favorite contestant. The Manhunt ability allows him to select a player and reveal their location to all other contestants for two minutes. However, my personal favorite play as the Show Director is to wait until the last two contestants are facing one another and at the final moment, grant the losing player temporary invincibility, giving them one last chance to win. Who doesn’t love an underdog?
What’s so nice about Darwin Project is the length of the matches. As much as I enjoy other battle royale games, performing well in a match can be a significant time investment. But Darwin Project is a mad dash to the finish, with the Show Director’s traps shortening the duration of a full game to ten or fifteen minutes in length. For players like myself who want to play a few quick matches during a short break in their day, Darwin Project is a welcome change. This weekend’s open beta, only opened up two game modes, solo matchmaking and playing as Show Director, but it’s clear that others are on the way, including a Duo mode that will pair up five teams of two. If this weekend’s beta is any indication of the game’s full potential, you’ll definitely want to keep your eye on this one.
After spending so much time playing PUBG for our review, it was an interesting experience to play something so similar that I could enjoy so much more for being a smaller project. With the online-only nature of battle royale games, it’s important to have a healthy community of players and an easy way to interact with them. PUBG is a blast, but is currently suffering from cheaters, language barriers, and some overly aggressive players, and while I’ll keep going back to it, Darwin Project was filled with gamers who just wanted to have fun. And even though it could be perceived as gimmicky, a good Show Director makes for a hilarious experience. I once had a Show Director who would lock the camera on players, tell them to make up a dance, and then reward them with extra health. What else could you ask from a game and its community than to enjoy each other’s company and have a good time?
As of now, there aren’t any details pertaining to a full release, but I’m certainly hoping to hear more about it soon.
Darwin Project is planned for release on Xbox and PC.