The eponymous Darwin Project puts ten jumpsuit-wearing prisoners together in an icy environment and has them fight to the death in a Battle Royale experience that follows in the footsteps of PUBG and its growing collection of peers. However, Scavengers Studio hasn't followed the script as closely as other games have in recent months, and the results are surprisingly refreshing, even if the experience as a whole is proving a little divisive. More on that later.
Darwin Project takes the basic last man standing premise and mixes things up with a couple of ideas that we've not seen in this growing sub-genre before. Most immediately obvious is the focus on crafting. As the player explores their surroundings they'll find a limited number of resources - trees, abandoned furniture, that sort of thing - that must be gathered and used in crafting. The icy environment means that your character's body temp will drop steadily throughout, and building fires is an important part of keeping the cold at bay. You can also craft a number of additional items, for example, the first thing we would do is get the materials to build a snuggly winter coat, thus keeping us warmer for longer.
The more you gather and craft, the more advantages you'll have later in the game, and this ends up making Darwin Project feel a little bit like a MOBA as each new game has defined character progression. This is reinforced by the lower player count; you're not given a throwaway character, rather you have to nurture them and grow in strength as you play, crafting upgrades to weapons and armour as you progress. Players are dropped into an area by themselves at the start of the game and are free to take their time at first, finding resources and exploring their immediate area. It won't take long before you bump into someone else though, and when that happens things quickly get violent.
The combat isn't the most nuanced or complicated, especially when compared to the competition, although perhaps we should add the caveat that we only played with one character. We were able to choose between two bows and two melee weapons, but that was the extent of it from our experience. The combat is as simplistic as the weapon options, but given the complexity elsewhere we're not sure that's a bad thing. You can swing your weapon (in our case we mainly went with the axe over the shovel) in a wide arc, smashing anyone that gets in your way. Likewise, if you've got arrows you can fire them at your opponent, and if you score a hit either up close or at range, your opponent will be knocked back and away from you, making it hard to get a succession of quick hits in at best, or letting your opponent escape at worst. It's an interesting design choice, and it feels very arcadey, but we thought it worked. Whether using the bow or something more up close and personal, the action felt fast and fluid.
While the combat may be straightforward, the evolution of each match is most certainly not, and this is because of Darwin Project's innovative and divisive key feature, the show director. While there might be ten players freezing out in the snow, fighting for survival, there's actually an eleventh player who assumes the role of director and, from their omnipotent position in the clouds, directs the action in a number of ways. If you've seen West World or The Truman Show, you'll understand the concept of someone overseeing the action, tinkering with events to create a more entertaining narrative, but as with so much in life, with great power comes great responsibility.