O Canada, it’s my home and native land and the homes of over 37 million people across the world. And according to the recently released Darwin Project from Scavengers Studio, it’s also home to a horrific spectacle that pits 10 prisoners to the death in the harsh Rocky Mountains, and televises it as live entertainment. What inspired Justin Trudeau, or whomever the future leader of the country might be, to sign off on these atrocities, you may ask? Well, as it turns out, our planet’s gone to heck in a handbasket, and with an impending Ice Age on the horizon observing these events might be our last hope of survival.
This may sound like heavy stuff, but in actuality Darwin Project is a light and fun mashup of the Battle Royale, deathmatch and survival genres, with a drily dark and cynical twist beneath the surface. In the meeting room, a female announcer drops many quips that lampoon corporate-speak and would fit right at home in games such as The Outer Worlds and Portal. Perhaps my favorite line of hers is (and I’m paraphrasing): “Your loved ones can avenge your death in the brand new game adaptation of the hit TV show Darwin Project, available now!”
Before matches begin, players are given a choice of three classes: Jet Wings, Grapple Gauntlet and Headhunter Drone. The first of these classes, the Jet Wings, attaches a jetpack to the back of your avatar’s body, adding an extra level of verticality to matches. The second, the Grapple Gauntlet, uses a grappling hook that works similarly to the one in Sekiro. The third, the Headhunter Drone, is a bit more difficult to explain. This class uses a Falcon drone to track other players and harvest resources, and also can have the power of invisibility. Of the three classes, the Grapple Gauntlet is my personal favorite, and I used the Headhunter Drone the least, but all three are pretty well balanced.
Classes can be improved over the duration of the match by harvesting a resource known as Darwinium. This resource appears in countless containers found about the map, each containing 15 units apiece, as well as in Darwinum shipments that will appear on the map often during a match. Using Darwinium, players can upgrade their stats such as damage and speed, as well as unlock class-specific abilities such as invisibility for the Headhunter Drone and a shield for the Grapple Gauntlet. Wood can also be harvested to create fire (which is needed to stay warm in the harsh weather – you reach 0% and your health deteriorates fast), arrows for the bow, bear traps and shields.
What all classes do have in common are two weapons: the axe and the bow. The axe itself controls pretty well, although sometimes the hit detection is a bit off. As for the bow, it controls as it should, but in the heat of the battle the faster speed of the axe as well as the lack of required ammo (the bow unsurprisingly uses arrows) often makes it the better choice. Traps can also be used, but I only saw them successfully trap twice in the many matches I played.
The game has multiple maps, split into 7 distinct zones, each with various trees, Darwinium containers and chests. Throughout the duration of the match each zone will successively close until there is one left, and the remaining players are forced to duke it out in a sudden-death battle. These zones are all pretty distinct and appealing, with villages, lava mines, abandoned shipping containers, industrial zones etc. A few signs also name the areas such as “The cave of inexplicable lava” and one odd sign that identifies a village as part of Ontario (for those not in the know, the Rockies are in the west of Canada and Ontario is in the south). Moving past the geography, Darwin Project differs from other contemporary Battle Royale games in that players do not choose their drop zones. Also, each tree cut down, Darwinium container opened, campfire depleted and chest looted allows players to track their competition by interacting with them, leading to an extra risk and reward trade off. Players can also track players in various cabins found throughout the map, provided they know how to read the display.
Perhaps the greatest feature of Darwin Project, however, is the Director Mode. Once players reach level 5 in one of the three classes, they unlock this mode. The director has a view of the entire map and has a number of omnipotent powers. They can place cards giving some players an advantage such as wood, health or heat, can expose the location of other players, and can even affect the map through Darwinium shipments, zone closures and nuking various locations. After a few matches, a director will level up and earn another card for their deck. They are limited to only a few cards a match so they must be used wisely. Directors can also talk with players and use a soundboard with many funny clips. In many regards, a director can make or break a match, with some I’ve encountered being particularly cruel, some friendly and some quite funny.
Speaking of levels, progression in the game is pretty straightforward. Players earn EXP or fans by ranking, performance and more. Once they hit a certain threshold, they level up. Each level earns a “fan gift” – a random lootbox-like drop with a cosmetic item. No paid “fan gifts” are currently in the game thankfully. Upon reaching level 3, players can unlock another special ability for their class, although only 2 can be used per match. At level 5, players unlock Director Mode. Once level 10 is reached, a fourth and as of writing final class ability can be unlocked. Finally, At level 50, an achievement can be earned.
In terms of performance, the game runs rather smoothly with only the odd drop in framerate (for the sake of this review, the game was played on an Xbox One S). The visuals themselves are not going to win any awards, but they are clean and crisp with only minor texture pop-in in highly populated areas. It is also worth noting that on the first few days of the game’s full release (it was previously in Xbox Game Preview), there were many server issues included being kicked from games and being unable to properly harvest resources. A few days later and the majority of these issues seem to have been rectified.
Finally, possibly the largest elephant in the room for free-to-play games, monetization, must be addressed. Thankfully, Darwin Project handles this aspect relatively well. Unlocking free cosmetics is easy and frequent. That said, earning the in-game currency ramen is infrequent, and 100 pieces of ramen comes out to about $1 USD. Yes, ironically, the ramen in this game is more expensive than the ramen you can get at the store. This ramen can only be used to buy cosmetics, thankfully, and no lootboxes are currently sold in the game. Rare armor is a bit pricey, but par for the course for other F2P games.
All in all, Darwin Project on Xbox One is a delightfully charming Battle Royale genre mashup with a distinct Canadian flavor (or should I say flavour). The director adds a level of engagement not found in any other game in the genre, and the tone is whimsically sadistic. That said, there are a few growing pains that have mostly been addressed, and the monetization is not perfect, but overall this is an incredibly fun game and comes easily recommended.