Darwin Project Early Access preview: Some evolution required

Source: Scavengers Studio
Source: Scavengers Studio /

This new entry to the Battle Royale genre offers some creative, unique elements, but clearly Darwin Project requires work in other areas.

To some, Darwin Project will look like a shameless attempt to cash in on the Battle Royale genre. Its early access lands conveniently after the huge success of PUBG and Fortnite, with similar concepts and a bright, cartoony style.

However, players coming from those titles probably won’t find what they expect. Rather than the classic 100 players, Darwin Project opts for just 10, pitting them against each other in a sci-fi dystopian environment. In many ways, it’s a call back to The Hunger Games, and that extends to mechanics as well as world.

Though Darwin decides not to adopt the hunger part, it does introduce some key survival mechanics. Inmates are thrown into the snowy hills with little more than a jumpsuit and must craft cloaks and fires to keep warm. They have to cut down trees and collect leather, leaving tracks for their opponents to follow.

It’s not a twist I’ve seen in a Battle Royale game before, and it opens some new elements to consider. Though players don’t get to choose where they spawn, they must decide when its safe to warm themselves. Lighting a fire creates a red smoke cloud that alerts participants from a mile off, either luring them into a trap or causing you to be ambushed.

Source: Scavengers Studio
Source: Scavengers Studio /

Clever little ideas like that populate the entire game. Its defining feature is the player-controlled ‘director’. Users can queue separately to control a battle, closing off some of the seven sectors to drive players toward each other. With slowly regenerating action points, they can also hand out heals, drop nukes, give brief invincibility, and more.

The idea is to build a sense of community as well as encouraging live streams. The director can check in on players, offer them incentives to kill, and ensure games don’t play out the same way every time. Sitting in the driver seat gives an unprecedented vision of the battle and can be exhilarating in its own way.

However, I have a feeling many players will have a love/hate relationship with this mechanic. Though it adds excitement to the game, it also inserts a degree of unfairness. For example, directors have the ability to ‘manhunt’ you, showing your location and offering a reward for your death. Though directors will be penalized if they’re rated poorly, players often review depending on how much assistance they got personally, rather than the overall flow of the game.

Thankfully, games play out quickly for the most part, though not as fast as you might expect. Matchmaking is near-instant, but the map gives players some room to move without immediate danger. To encourage encounters, electronics spawn in randomly selected locations and are key to survival. Finding one lets players craft invisibility, shields, or teleportation, giving huge advantages in and out of combat.

Credit: Scavengers Studio
Credit: Scavengers Studio /

Despite these tools, combat prowess is really what elevates the winners. I have only praise for the developer’s simple yet satisfying mechanics. There are just two weapons: a bow and an axe, and players start with both. Aiming is difficult enough to feel rewarding, but not frustrating. Arrows knock players back and come in several different types for fire damage, tracking, and energy regeneration.

Darwin Project has ambitious and creative features, remaining colorful even in a blossoming genre.

Axe combat is equally polished and is more about timing than aim. Your slow swings can block both arrows and other hits, so you have to trick your opponent into committing too early. This opens a more strategic element, aided by craftable tripwires and bear traps. It’s the perfect example of easy to pick up, difficult to master, and that philosophy extends to the entire game.

Darwin Project doesn’t have a tutorial to speak of, but great UI and level design make it clear what the player is supposed to do. You’ll always spawn in front of a tree, and will be quickly told to open the crafting menu with Q. From there, it’s just a matter of reading tooltips and working out the best play for the situation.

But even with its positives, I can’t help but feel a little conflicted about my time with Darwin Project. Its gameplay is undeniably fun, perhaps more so than its competitors. The content that’s there is extremely well polished, its visuals pleasing, its community vocal. However, it’s not clear how long it will hold player’s attention in its current form.

Credit: Scavenger Studio
Credit: Scavenger Studio /

This is largely due to the fact the game has no progression system to speak of. The framework is there: a dressing room for cosmetics and a level system, but they aren’t populated with anything. The game is also missing team-based play, has one small map, and is yet to get a director-less game mode. It’s certainly in a playable state, but it could do with a little more content and refinement.

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Ultimately, though, I can’t criticize a brand new early access game for being unfinished. Darwin Project has ambitious and creative features, remaining colorful even in a blossoming genre. It needs some tweaks, but it’s developers are clearly thinking about those already. Buying an unreleased game is always a gamble, but at $15 it’s looking like quite a safe one.

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this preview.