‘The Darwin Project’ hands-on review

'The Darwin Project' is the closest thing to 'The Hunger Games' we've played yet

In 2017, the competition to make the best unofficial adaptation of The Hunger Games has gotten fierce.

With the success of this year’s Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds“Battle Royale” games — so-named after the 1999 Japanese novel of the same name and its cult-favorite film adaptation —  are already on their way to carving out their own distinct sub-genre. As in the book/film, these online survival games drop groups of players into a wide, varied arena scattered with weapons, tasked with murdering everyone else until only one competitor is left standing. While Battlegrounds has made the biggest impression, riding the cache of its developer’s work on the DayZ mod for ARMA 2, but another scrappy contender has entered the arena: The Microsoft-exclusive The Darwin Project, from French-Canadian indie developer Scavengers Studio.

Players are dropped into a roughly 2 km across hexagonal arena, divided into seven sectors, armed with an axe and a bow, but no arrows.

In The Darwin Project‘s dystopian future, overpopulation has led to the practice of reality tv-style battle royale contests to keep the masses manageable, a la The Hunger Games or The Running Man. Players are dropped into a roughly 2 km across hexagonal arena, divided into seven sectors, armed with an axe and a bow, but no arrows. A match can support up to 32 players, but we played a round with seven competitors, which the team has found to be a match size sweet spot.

The terrain is hilly, forested, and snowy, dotted with various structures like teepees, raised walkways, and ruined cabins. More than just atmospherics, the wintry setting is indicative of the survival elements at play in Darwin. An ever-dropping temperature meter threatens freezing to death before you even see another player.

To stay ahead of the cold you will need to occasionally build a fire. To do that you’ll have to chop down a tree first. One tree yields one piece of wood, which can be crafted into a fire or a single arrow. All of this takes time, which leaves you vulnerable. The need to gather resources and craft supplies makes the early game a slow burn.

Every few minutes, a piece of valuable electronics drops somewhere on the map, which can be crafted into more powerful items like a temporary shield or teleportation device. The location is announced to all the players ahead of time, though, and takes a particularly long time to gather, so going for one can be a dicey proposition. Likewise, periodically one of the zones will start to flash a warning that it’s going to shut down for the rest of the match.

Once time has run out the temperature drops so precipitously that players quickly take damage just for standing inside, effectively shutting it down for the rest of the match. There are also only a handful health packs scattered across the map, so healing is rare. All of these elements help force the game to a conclusion as the player count drops, raising the pressure on the survivors.

All of these elements help force the game to a conclusion as the player count drops, raising the pressure on the survivors.

When and where these events occur during the match is controlled by the Director, a robot camera master of ceremonies hovering overhead. This role can be filled by a player, which is one of The Darwin Project‘s most unique features. The developers are early in creating more powers that the Director can use to mess with the players and maximize entertainment value. Some of these being tested include dropping nukes or swapping the location of two players (although they told us that the latter will likely be axed for being too frustrating). This kind of asymmetry creates a fun way for players of different skill levels to engage without just being creamed, which is particularly relevant with a game that has player elimination like this.

Given the dominance of Battlegrounds right now, the question is what the Darwin Project does to separate itself. First and foremost, Battlegrounds is built on the back of a modern military first-person shooter, and that defines the moment to moment gameplay. Darwin is third-person, and the combat is much cruder. Landing arrows definitely requires skill, but it doesn’t have the tactical depth of a modern shooter. It more than makes up for that with strategic considerations, however.

Whenever you come across something that another player interacted with (a tree stump, a looted chest, an extinguished fire, etc), you get a “clue”, which highlights that player’s footprints and gives you their location for 30 seconds. Clever players can take advantage of this, however, and lead their pursuer into an ambush. There are enough other ways to mess with fellow players that someone who might not have the best controller skills could still take a match just by being clever.

The Darwin Project is an impressively complete experience for the work of twelve developers that only started on it this past September. Although we were a little skeptical based on its appearance during Microsoft’s press conference, we greatly enjoyed the several matches we played, and look forward to playing around with it further. The Darwin Project is currently in closed alpha testing, but coming to Steam early access “soon.”

Gaming

Xbox-exclusive games could find a second home on Nintendo Switch

Microsoft is reportedly set to release some of its first-party games on Nintendo Switch, as well as the Xbox Game Pass and Project xCloud services. Cross-play between Switch and Xbox One is already enabled.
Gaming

You're never too broke to enjoy the best free-to-play games

Believe it or not, free-to-play games have evolved into engaging, enjoyable experiences. Here are a few of our favorites that you can play right now, including Warframe and the perennially popular League of Legends.
Gaming

This list of PlayStation 4 exclusives puts its competitors to shame

The PlayStation 4's game library and incredible selection of exclusive games could make anyone with an Xbox One or Nintendo Switch think twice. Here's our list of the latest and greatest PS4 exclusives.
Gaming

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.
Gaming

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.
Gaming

Transform into a tetromino master with our Tetris 99 tips and tricks

Tetris 99 is the latest battle royale game to stir up quite a bit of commotion. The Nintendo Switch Online exclusive adds a few new unexplained quirks to the Tetris formula. We've got you covered with our Tetris 99 tips and tricks.
Computing

Metro Exodus update brings DLSS improvements to Nvidia RTX 20-series PCs

Having issues in Metro Exodus? A February 21 update for the title recently delivered enhancements to Nvidia’s deep learning supersampling feature and other fixes for low-specced PCs. 
Gaming

Need to perform a factory reset on your Xbox One console? Here's how to do it

Whether you're upgrading to a One X and giving your old console to a friend, or troubleshooting a technical issue, sometimes your Xbox One needs a clean slate. Here's our quick guide on how to factory reset an Xbox One.
Gaming

Battle royale-style Tetris 99 is the first Nintendo Switch Online-exclusive game

If you want to play online multiplayer on Switch, you'll need a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. Here's what you need to know about Nintendo Switch Online, from price to features to the awesome library of NES games.
Gaming

The best PUBG weapons to win you that coveted chicken dinner

Which weapons in PUBG are worth the time to scout out and fit with attachments? Which are going to help you become the last player standing? We've got the answers you need in our best PUBG weapons guide.
Gaming

Here's where Xur is and what he has for wares this week in Destiny 2: Forsaken

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.
Gaming

Want to play as Iron Man or Waluigi in GTA V? Our favorite mods make it possible

Grand Theft Auto V is best on the PC for many reasons, and modifications may be the most important. You can cause riots, spawn unique cars, and play as a cop with just a few extra files.
Deals

Walmart slices prices on PS4 DualShock 4 controllers just in time for Anthem

The standard black PS4 controller is what usually comes with the console itself, but if you want to add something a bit more customized your gaming experience, Walmart is offering a wide variety of colorful DualShock 4 controllers at…
Gaming

How you can give your PS4 a fresh start with a factory reset

Learn the many ways you can factory reset your PS4. From reverting your settings to factory to doing a full wipe and reinstalling the latest PlayStation firmware, we cover it all here, step by step.