Snowy battle royale game The Darwin Project left a two-year early access period on PC and Xbox One for its full release yesterday, also releasing on PlayStation 4 for the first time. The full release includes some notable changes to players’ abilities. After a few hours with the final release on PC, I’m not sold on all of Scavenger Studio’s changes, but The Darwin Project still has the quirky aesthetic and sense of intimacy that first caught my eye.
I played some of The Darwin Project in closed alpha in late 2017, a few months before its official early access launch in early 2018. As a full free-to-play release, the core of the game remains the same. 10 solo players are dropped onto a snow-covered map, which is divided into zones. (The game once had duos, but that seems to have been removed; the developers haven’t said if the popular feature will return.) Armed with an axe and a bow, players fight to be the last one standing while zones steadily become inaccessible. Players scavenge wood to craft arrows, armour, and traps like smoke bombs and trip wires. Wood must also be used to create fires, necessary to keep from freezing to death as your character’s core temperature ticks down. Fires can be seen from afar, meaning you have to balance the need for warmth with the advantage of staying hidden. Crafting and scavenging also leave clues, highlighted remains that other players can study to temporarily track each other.
Combat feels fast but floaty; players move unusually fast and bounce off each other when they collide. This imprecision offsets the simplistic combat - there are none of the attachments or weapon choices you’ll get in PUBG or Apex Legends. Instead of underwhelmingly whacking at each other, players fight in battles with a goofiness that can sometimes even become epic, especially if you manage to bounce an opponent into a deadly lake of lava or into a frozen closed-off zone.
In the previous version of the game I played, wood and leather were used to upgrade your axe, boots, and cloak. Extra powers, like shields and turrets, were attained via loot drops called electronics. In The Darwin Project’s full release, leather has been removed, and electronics have been replaced with drops of Darwinium, a new resource that’s also found in the environment.
Darwinium is necessary for the game’s new class system. Players choose from one of three classes at the start of a match, then use Darwinium during the game to unlock and upgrade that class’ powers. Each class has a core power. For example, one gives you a robotic companion that can track enemies; its secondary abilities, unlocked with gathered Darwinium, let you become invisible or deploy a radar that detects signs of other players in range. As you gain XP and level up, you can unlock different additional powers for your class, such as the ability to deploy a turret. Another class gives you wings that let you hover and divebomb, and the third class gives you a grappling hook and the ability to deploy a temporary shield. Getting Darwinium from drops or around the environment is necessary to use your class powers during a match, and it can also be used to upgrade class-specific passive bonuses, such as increased damage to tracked enemies.
While the changed drops give a significant amount of Darwinium, the resource is also fairly plentiful in the environment. As such, it never felt urgent to collect the drops, and I was also able to get by without the full suite of class powers. While I used to go out of my way to get an electronic, I largely ignored Darwinium drops if they weren’t nearby or didn’t seem worth getting into a battle over. Additionally, you can tell what class an opponent has picked by sight, which means the loss of some of the fun of having an opponent suddenly turn invisible or deploy a turret you weren’t expecting.
Changes to powers and crafting also mean a loss of some of the game’s customisation. Previously, you chose arrows, boots, or cloaks that had certain qualities at the start of the game. While you can still pick certain parts of your item loadout, fun perks like tracking arrows and stealth boots are gone. Uniqueness now comes mostly from cosmetic outfits, which come from loot boxes called “fan gifts” that are earned when you level up. You can also purchase cosmetics with an in-game currency called ramen, earned by completing daily challenges.
While The Darwin Project’s full release loses some of the things that made it feel unique from other battle royales, it still has its most notable feature: the show director, a player who controls the elements of a match. The show director ability is unlocked at level 5, so I haven’t been able to check it out yet. The show director can follow and talk to all the players in a match and select from various abilities and powers, like giving a player speed, warmth, or health boosts, or closing a zone or covering its surface in lava. Every match doesn’t have to have a show director, but their presence brings some unpredictability and a sense of personalisation that can make matches feel strange and exciting.
During the closed alpha, I was most charmed by my interactions with the show director and over voice chat with other players. I wrote at the time, “I wasn’t expecting The Darwin Project to be as welcoming and joyful as it was. I tend to avoid voice chat with strangers, but I found myself happily turning on my mic.” Coming back the afternoon of the 1.0 release, I was disappointed to find the lobby voice chat full of slurs and shouting. Spectating matches after I died, I found players berating the show director or insulting other combatants during fights. While The Darwin Project has a report function and a code of conduct, there’s not much to ensure players treat each other well. After a few afternoon matches, I muted everyone’s voice out of self-preservation.
However, my experience changed when I logged in late on Tuesday night to play some more. I don’t know if the newness of launch had already worn off or if it was just late for an East Coast lobby, but I found some of the warmth and humour I’d been missing that afternoon. In one of my matches, the show director explained that they were a streamer and asked players to keep voice chat “family friendly,” offering to mute any player who didn’t feel they could. Players agreed happily, and the show director did a charming and energetic job keeping the match lively. In another match I watched after I’d been killed, the final fight came down to a more experienced player and someone who was new. The older player stopped the fight to explain what they called “courtesy” - the two shared a fire to warm up and chatted a bit before jumping into a dramatic, cheerful final battle. In another match, a player said they joined the stream of the person who killed them after enjoying their interaction. I saw many instances of show directors explaining how to play, giving new players a boost to keep them in the match, and creating a fun, friendly atmosphere.
By nature of its small match size and focus on streamers, The Darwin Project fosters an intimacy that’s rare in battle royale games. To get the full experience, you really have to talk to each other. For a final release, especially for a free-to-play game, this can be a gamble. But despite some changes that make gameplay feel a little more rote, The Darwin Project still has the weird, charming core that makes it worth checking out. Please don’t be a jerk.