The Darwin Project was first shown off during Xbox’s E3 conference early this year, grabbing gamers attention with it’s obvious similarities to the hugely successful Playerunknown’s Battleground. This weekend (11th-12th November) independent developer Scavengers Studios opened the doors to the game for the first time with a closed alpha, which, luckily we got to play. So, what did we think?
I’m going to put it out there now, The Darwin Project is my favourite Battle Royale inspired game. I have spent time with the other two big hitters; PUBG and Fortnite Battle Royale. Granted not as much time as some (around 15-20 hours in PUBG and 10-12 hours in Fortnite) but enough to have a fair comparison between the three.
One of the main differences The Darwin Project brings to the table is the introduction of a survival mechanic. The game is set in the Canadian Rockies, which is obviously a very cold environment and we’re reminded of this when playing in the free-for-all brawls. Next to your health bar is a heat bar, which reduces while foraging and exploring the harsh environment. Once the bar gets below 25% you start to freeze to death, which obviously isn’t good.
To restore heat to the body you’ll need to start a fire or stand near a lava pit, yes, the map does feature lava pits. Not only does this add another mechanic you need to take into account you need to work around but it also brings a more strategic approach to the game. The fires you start can not only be seen from across the map but also show up on the minimap – not ideal. This lead me to plan my fires in advance, trying to work out the less populated areas of the map, meaning I might get a quick minute to heat up and then be on my way.
These fires can also be used as a trap, as the game actually features traps. You’ll need to gather resources (leather and wood) before you can craft them. I found lacing an area with bear traps and starting a fire to be a very effective way to lure unsuspecting victims to their death, well, hopefully there death.
As I just mentioned, the game does feature crafting and foraging. This is not to the extent of having the ability to build a fortress, like you can in Fortnite. There are three main resources to forage; wood, leather and electronics. Wood and leather are pretty common and are needed for ammo, traps and starting fires. Wood is arguably more valuable as it needed for both fire and arrows, in this closed alpha the only weapon available is a bow (which everyone starts with), however, you only start with five arrows, so wood is very important for your ammo supply.
Although wood is well scattered around the map you’ll need to be careful about where you choose to forage, stumps that you leave behind can be investigated by other players to reveal your real-time location. This is only for a short period of time, but long enough for you to be worried. This element of the game is very important during late game stages when the map has reduced in size.
So, both wood and leather are important, but you may have noticed I mentioned another resource; electronics. These power-up style resources drop randomly on the map, much like traditional loot caches (not monetized ones). Before the match starts you can customise your ‘craft wheel’ and choose 3 different perks, from turrets to invisibility cloaks. All of these perks offer potential game-winning abilities, but can only be activated by successfully collecting one of the electronic drops. With so much riding on each drop it’s very rare to not see them contested, and with the map not being huge (especially when in comparison to PUBG) it’s pretty easy to join the fight for the dropped resource.
There’s a reason why the map is smaller than both PUBG and Fortnite, The Darwin Project only features 10 players per match, and a match director, but more on them later. As I spent more time with the game I started to appreciate the smaller player count, especially when paired with the environmental survival challenges players face. The smaller number of player also meant that every match feels like the final stages of PUBG and Fortnite, where you’re continuously thinking of how to out-fox an opponent that may be lurking around the next corner.
One thing that really surprised me with The Darwin Project is how many ways it allows to track other players. Scattered around the map are small, ski-style lodge. These lodges don’t only offer resources but also a real-time map of the battle arena – you can literally see where everyone else is. Combine this with the investigative abilities of tree stumps, footprint in the snow and the need to warm with a very public fire and it’s hard to not feel like the hunter rather than the hunted.
When playing PUBG or Fortnite I often run with the basic focus of ‘just survive’, if I see anyone then I’ll try and kill them, but I rarely actively seek out other players. The way I approached every game of The Darwin Project was the complete opposite; once I’d gather enough resources I tied that red headband around my head and set off on a one-man killing machine mission. Although these missions rarely ended well for me, I really liked the emphasis the game put on tracking players and anticipating their movement.
The final reason as to why The Darwin Project is my favorite Battle Royale inspired games is due to the loose narrative the game boasts. I say loosely as this is only the alpha and hopefully more lore will be shared as the game continues development. The idea behind this 10-player battle-to-the-death concept is very similar to The Hunger Games franchise. You play as an inmate who is competing in these battle for the viewing and enjoyment of the general public. CCTV camera and drones are scattered throughout the map and often follow you, which really help drive the game show feeling The Darwin Project is trying to deliver.
One touch, that I thought was bloody brilliant was the ‘Show Director’ position. For the alpha, I think these were developers or people linked to the game (I cant be sure on that, just got that impression). These Show Directors are effectively in control of how the ‘game show plays out. They can close off sections of the map, send in nukes, drop electronics and just mess with the contestants anyway they want. Even better, they can shout cast throughout the game, which really fits in well with the game show host position it’s clearly inspired by.
Over the course of this weekend, I managed to sink in around 10 hours of The Darwin Project, reaching level 14. All my impressions in this preview are based on my time with the closed beta. The Battle Royale sub-genre is huge at the moment and is only going to get bigger. The Darwin Project is clearly inspired by the iconic Battle Royale movie/book but feels more Hunger Games than Battle Royale.
To see the game in action then check out my first 25 minutes with The Darwin Project below.