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This retrospective on the recently cancelled battle royale game The Darwin Project was written by our work experience intern Paddy Inniss.
I’m going to need you to take a quick jaunt down memory lane, all the way down to the Microsoft stage at E3 2017. It was one of Microsoft’s greatest showings in years: Metro Exodus, Assassin’s Creed Origins and, of course, the World Premiere of the Xbox One X brought echoes of excitement to Xbox devotees and gamers worldwide.
Now ignore that. Focus. Picture a man with no hair on his head but plenty on his chin, clad in a yellow shirt. He’s just shouting, he’s shouting very loudly and very passionately for a collective three minutes of a one-hour-and-thirty-minute conference. Most of us were thinking, “What the Hell is this baldy-bearded man in the yellow shirt shouting about?” He was shouting about The Darwin Project.
Despite this game taking a slot on the E3 stage amongst giants, you might be forgiven for forgetting about it. Microsoft most certainly did. You might not have known that this game released into Steam Early Access and the Xbox Preview Programme in March 2018. You also probably didn’t know that this game officially launched on all platforms in January of this year. In fact, you’re probably quite confused hearing me talk about it right now, especially now that the game has been canned.
The premise of The Darwin Project was that you were a contestant (dressed as a prisoner) on a half-experiment/half-live-entertainment TV show. Released into the rockies of Northern Canada and forced to participate in a kill or be killed scenario against nine other players, you were armed with only a bow and axe. There were other tools to use, but you’d have to scavenge materials in order to craft them.
After its early access period, the game u-turned into a new direction and developed a class system that dictates what abilities and upgrades you can have in a match. Each class leveled up with use, starting at Level 1 and ending at Level 10. You’d start with two abilities, upgrading to Level 3 gave you access to a third and, finally, at Level 10, you’ll get a fourth.
With classes out of the way, it’s time to delve into gameplay. Upon starting a match in The Darwin Project, you’d spawn in one of ten sections of its rather small map. Each area was represented by a hexagonal tile on your minimalist minimap. Not much information is given, so it was up to you to explore, scavenge and hunt other players.
In terms of strategy there were two main ones: you couldn’t been a viscous predator who tracked their prey by searching previously scavenged areas or finding bases with real-time maps that showed the position of your prey or you could’ve taken the cautious approach, setting traps and throwing off your hunters with a clever use of stealth and traversal. Everything you did, be it breaking down a tree, looting a chest or crafting an item, would leave a trace that players could link back to you. This included harvesting the game’s newly designed upgrade component.
Darwinium took the place of electronic components from pre-launch and could’ve be found out and about in the frozen tundra or in shipments that spawned in the center of segments. The mysterious element was used to unlock your gear’s abilities and upgrade them. Each upgrade was more expensive than the last, but with each level the abilities were vastly improved.
Bear in mind, you would’ve have to do all this without freezing to death. That’s right, players weren’t the only threat; while you’re getting tracked down by enemies like a doe during Deerfest, you were pitted against the elements and manage a warmth meter. The Darwin Project’s frozen tundra took no prisoners; let your warmth meter get too low and you’ll perish in the Winter. You’d have to get used to crafting some fires, but then players could see your fires.
It’s time. The moment you have been salivating or quivering over. Kill or be killed. Mano e Mano, just like Scavengers designed it. Nothing mattered more than using every trick in the book to disorientate and destroy someone. If you were the apex predator, you’d have successfully tracked your prey and gone in for the strike. The overall pride you felt knowing you successfully struck your opponent without them knowing you were there was disturbingly exhilarating. On the other hand, being the hunted was simply terrifying —exhilarating but terrifying. It was only a matter of time until segments of the map closed or somebody stumbled upon something you left, which forced you into battle.
Imagine: you’re sneaking through the woods and a wild arrow flies across your screen or a crazed axe man comes swinging towards you. There’s hardly any time to react after that pathetic attempt to stifle a scream. It’s a close combat opera of axes clashing, arrows deflecting accompanied by a frantic dance in the snow. Relief. It’s all over. The curtain has fallen and only one of you is left standing. That was the thrill The Darwin Project gave you.
No matter what position you came on the food chain, every scenario left your heart pounding, hands sweating and gave you a dying thirst for more. The Darwin Project was designed to put all players on an even playing field, so combat was purley about skill. Equipped only with an ordinary axe and bow, anything else for your conquest was scavenged. There was no unfair advantage because someone else found an epic weapon or legendary attachment. Personally, this is where I found The Darwin Project to do combat better than other battle royale titles. Your position in the leaderboard was always strictly dictated by skill and the ability to think clearly under pressure. Whenever you performed poorly in a match, it was only encouragement to play smarter and focus on your own weaknesses.
If being a contestant left you emotionally and intellectually exhausted, there was a second role within the game: director of the show. You became your own shoutcaster! As director you were in charge of the game with no one to report to; you controlled the closure of segments of the map, called in nukes and even decided when it was beach party time. Without regards to any rules, you had the ability to become a true tyrant and reenact petty revenge. If you felt so inclined, you could punish players by giving others resources or by putting bounties on players back – revealing their location to the entire lobby. Scavengers Studio implemented this into Youtube and Twitch streams by giving viewers the ability to influence matches. If you had a real desire to live out the Hunger Games in any capacity, The Darwin Project was the closest video game equivalent.
Of course, The Darwin Project also gave players the ability to customize their characters’ looks quite extensively. Everything from capes to bows could be extensively customized to make your prisoner feel unique. Cosmetic items were purchased through in-game packets of Instant Ramen or earned through the game’s battle pass. To tie in with the game’s live entertainment theme you can earn fans as you play who will gift you packets of ramen – a worthy bit of fanmail. Unlike other games, these microtransactions never, not even once, felt like they were extorting players.
The Darwin Project was set up to be the next big eSports title. Released in the same year that Microsoft purchased the streaming platform Beam, now Mixer, this was a game that should have been paraded on Microsoft’s platforms as the next step of Battle Royale. Maybe with the rise of Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends, Scavengers Studios’ unique entry in the genre missed it’s time: I wish it didn’t.
Just like the prisoners you play as, The Darwin Project was dumped into the cold tundra to shrivel up, becoming a buried relic. Scavengers Studio has declared that the game’s servers will still be kept up until the end of the year. I implore you to give this game a try. During these times of lockdown and quarantine, do not miss out on this fantastic battle royale experience. It is free to play, it only takes up 4.73gb and it’s quite possibly the freshest take on the Battle Royale genre. Please, grab some friends and give the game a go.
Readers in Europe, please play this game so I no longer have to play on the US servers and get bullied by the same child.