The games industry at large tends to play a sort of follow-the-leader game with itself: one game will hit it big, we’ll see dozens of clones, eventually we’ll watch as popular game mechanics spread to other games and, later, a newly-created subgenre burns itself to ashes and either rises again or dies away to reappear in the future. Numerous examples of this have come up throughout the history of the hobby – Wolfenstein 3D and, later, DOOM led to the first-person shooter, while more recently we’ve seen the rise and fall of crafting sandbox games (Minecraft), DOTA clones (League of Legends, DOTA2) and hero shooters (Overwatch). In each case, the life cycle seems to shorten just a bit until lately we’ve been seeing hero shooters like The Amazing Eternals get canned before they’re even released.
I mention this because the next big thing is surely going to be Battle Royale games after the incredible success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG, an Early Access title that’s taken Steam by storm. The idea is simple: players are dropped into an open map with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They’ll have to gear up, grab weapons and supplies and do their best to kill or be killed, with the last surviving player on the map claiming victory. It’s a tense, exciting style of gameplay, and it’s telling that many players will overlook the hilariously buggy Early Access release of Battlegrounds to get their fix. The rest of the industry, meanwhile, is looking at this with cartoon-style dollar signs lighting up in their eyes.
That, in other words, is where The Darwin Project is coming from. Originality’s not what we’re aiming for here – this is a Battle Royale game being promoted and released to try and capitalize on what will certainly prove to be a bubble. That’s not to say it’s an entirely terrible game, though, and in fact during my time with the closed alpha I found myself impressed with the improvements that have been made on the Battle Royale formula.
So far as I can tell, the plot is that you’re a prisoner being placed into a survival simulation and pitted against others in order to determine, via survival of the fittest, who has the most potent genetics; said prisoner’s genetics will be integrated into the population at large after the fact. Matches consist of ten players dropped into different parts of a map consisting of seven hex-shaped sections; this is already a significant departure from PUBG’s hundred-person matches and sprawling map. Unlike many similar games, the other players aren’t your only concern, as you’re on a snowy battlefield in the freezing cold and you’re not exactly dressed for warm weather – survival is a significant consideration.
I’ve played a fair amount of PUBG, enough to determine what I really love and hate about that game. What I hate: the “ideal” way to play PUBG involves a whole lot of patience and waiting, which is tense at first but becomes less so when you look back at a finished match and you’ve spent 25 minutes of a 30-minute game hiding in a run-down bathroom. What I love: the stakes are high enough to merit this sort of gameplay and there’s a glorious tension when you actually end up in combat. The Darwin Project, with its much smaller matches and map, is clearly aiming to eliminate the waiting and place a much stronger focus on the combat and player-versus-player interactions. Even the basic game mechanics are integrated in such a way as to encourage taking direct action rather than waiting each match out.
As mentioned, the map is covered in snow, which affects how things play out in several ways. Most obviously, you can freeze to death, and you’ll need to deal with this by building fires and crafting clothing to keep things warm. Both firebuilding and crafting, though, have a little more depth than just “keep the cold meter high,” and that depth is at the heart of why I found myself loving The Darwin Project. See, the idea here is that you’re meant to be fighting one another. To keep that fight going, it’s important to be able to find one another. As a result, multiple considerations have been made with regard to giving players the ability to track their opponents. As you move, you leave tracks behind you in the snow – tracks that are visible and highlighted to other players so they can find you more easily. You can avoid leaving tracks if you stay crouched and move slowly, but do you really have the time for that?
Meanwhile, collecting crafting materials leaves further traces of yourself that other players can pick up on – if someone comes across, say, a tree you’ve chopped down, they can examine the clues you left behind to gain knowledge of your location for the next thirty seconds. That’s typically more than enough time to hunt you down, but at least you’ll know they’re coming (you’re notified when someone is tracking you) and you’ll have time to prepare. Oh, and those fires you need to make to stay alive? They’re really bright, really obvious and really likely to get you killed if you stay near them for too long.
From my perspective, this essentially removes the worst parts of PUBG from the mix entirely. No longer are you waiting around to try and ambush your opponents (who may or may not ever show up) – now, waiting will get you killed due to exposure, so you have to move and act even though doing so will leave you vulnerable. Even the map design includes cabins that feature full-on maps of the area with other players’ locations clearly marked for your convenience, and while you can’t take these with you they offer an idea of where to go to find your next prey. For an action junkie like myself, this is fantastic and really captures the thrill of the hunt that’s so central to the best moments of PUBG. My favorite moments in the closed alpha were when someone forgot to turn their open mic off and I managed to track them down, sneak up behind them and land a headshot. The yelps of terror were fantastic. Here’s hoping I ruined some streams.
There’s other quality-of-life improvements that make The Darwin Project feel like a better game all around than PUBG in my book. There are still periodic supply drops that are broadcast to everyone in the game, providing a go-to location for combat, and the rewards in these drops include reusable special abilities like a Predator stealth cloak and a bouncy Zorb-style invincibility shield that make the game feel a little more dynamic. You can craft statistical upgrades if you’re willing to risk being tracked; I found myself especially fond of boosting my movement speed. Combat consists largely of short-range skirmishes with bows and axes rather than a thousand different styles of gun with a thousand different styles of attachment that may or may not really impact how a fight plays out. You can even negotiate impromptu alliances with other players – something that’s explicitly forbidden in PUBG to the point where it’s a punishable offense.
Basically, The Darwin Project comes off as PUBG with a lot of the fat trimmed. It’s kind of a shame it’s coming into the Battle Royale of Battle Royale games as a me-too pretender to the throne, because as mentioned I feel a superior experience on the whole. There’s a lot that’s sure to change between the Closed Alpha Weekend and whenever the public’s going to get their hands on this one – in particular, it’s likely that we’re going to see more PUBG clones announced and released, so fatigue may set in – but for what it’s worth, The Darwin Project should at the very least be worth a match or two.