‘The Darwin Project’ Melds ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘The Running Man’ in Spectacular Fashion [Preview]
The cold was getting unbearable as the storm rolled in. What's worse, all the snow and winds had made it harder to know whether our quarry was lying in wait, or quietly stalking us without our knowledge. As we made our way through the shrinking arena, a feeling of creeping dread washed over us. Suddenly, we were struck from behind. That dastardly opponent had been with us the entire time, biding his time for the perfect kill. Fortunately for us, the Director had other plans, and our battle on The Darwin Project was only just beginning.
The Darwin Project is a mad experiment in the future of entertainment and society. When the world is overpopulated, the government decides that every single crime is punishable by death. What's more, the government pits all the inmates on death row against one another in high-tech stadiums with extreme conditions. Survival of the fittest only gets you so far. You've also got to be willing to get your hands dirty, as winning a match not only means you live, but you're acquitted and set free. The inspirations from The Running Man, Battle Royale, and Hunger Games are obvious, but that doesn't make them any less welcome when the action begins.
Our hands-on time with The Darwin Project was spent in the first arena, which features the bone-chilling cold of Canadian mountains. After being dropped into the wilderness, we had to set to work gathering supplies. Though we were each given one melee weapon (an axe or a mace) and a bow, arrows had to be crafted from trees we chopped down. Knowing the temperature was continually dropping, and thus threatening our lives with cold, we also had the option to build fires and craft some additional clothing to fend off hypothermia and death. At least when it came to the clothing, which we could make with leather and supplies found in abandoned cabins, none of the other contestants could track us. Lighting a fire did mean we'd be warm again, but it also sent up a big, smokey signal to our location.
When the fight first starts, that's not so much of a problem as each of the seven contestants is placed in a zone of their own. The Darwin Project also has an eighth slot available for the Director, an omnipotent character that fits the gamesmaster role determining which zones are turned inhabitable first and when, picking spots to do special electronic item drops, or a number of other options that we weren't party to as inmates fighting for our lives and freedom. As you can then tell, the battleground turns from an open arena with a modicum of safety to plan into a smaller and smaller stage. Effectively, The Darwin Project slowly adjusts from a sports stadium into a killbox.
Making things more interesting for the two hands-on demo stations at E3 was that we were actually playing against five other humans on alpha servers around the world. That was immediately obvious when the kills started rolling in fast from one particular player while we were still getting our bearings. Luckily, our first combat encounter was with the other relatively inexperienced person at the show, and the two of us had a nice dance of death, wildly swinging axes over a lava-filled crevice. We didn't land the first blow, or the second for that matter, but we struck true with a big enough swing of the axe to send our opponent flying into the lava. Sometimes being sloppy and unaware of your surroundings has its benefits.
Combat, at least in this early build, isn't complicated. You have a steady swing of your melee weapon, which only changes based on the item equipped, and a slow, powerful shot with your bow. There aren't combos to learn, and the simplicity of The Darwin Project's combat does give you a false sense of security. Anyone can jump in and play without being overwhelmed, but learning the timing of strikes and swings, and when to approach and feint an attack will come in handy against more savvy players. Weapons can be upgraded if you find enough supplies out in the world, but that takes valuable time from both your hunting and your hiding. Every moment not spent looking around the next corner for danger could be the instant an axe separates your head from your body.
There are several ways to track your prey, including following footprints in the snow, but finding evidence of their presence is also done by spotting a crafting location. Every time you make something, even an item as simple as one arrow, you leave a small clue behind that lights up red when you spot it. Investigating the clue gives you the map location of the person who left it behind for 30 seconds, but if you are close enough to have them in your line of sight, you see them as a big red outline, even through buildings. It's a small touch that goes a long way in making every decision you make in the arena have some stakes. If you've been machining away at better clothes and weapons, you'll be powerful, but easy to spot. Maybe you want it that way.
Before being hijacked by the more experienced player hunting us down, he'd managed to eliminate every other opponent. Somehow, after only just killing one other person, we'd found ourselves in sudden death against a much more experienced foe. Though he'd surprised with a major swing of the blade, it was merely a wounding shot. When we turned to swing back, he'd already begun running fast away from us. Not because we were a threat, but because the Director had started to close the arena rapidly to one final killzone. We hightailed it after our opponent, just staying out of the reach of the closing electric walls before they sealed us into our grand finale.
As if he'd seen Predator one too many times, our opponent used his lead time to build a massive fire calling us to him. Though we did indeed spot him, we couldn't exactly see him lining up a bow shot amidst all the bright flames. Where the first of a few salvos flew wildly past us, the second found its mark. Slipping into a serpentine pattern, we ducked and dodged a few more attempts as we climbed the hill towards him. By the time we got there though, he'd fled the scene. Spinning around to find him in our line of sight, we were struck by another arrow. Turns out, this crafty bugger had built a short-range teleporter with some special electronics, and warped to a nearby cabin to snipe at us. Little did he know we had a med pack, and that we'd done a little specialty crafting of our own.
Throughout the match, special electronic drops will land in various places through the arena. You can take the time to hunt them down, knowing full well that you're likely to run into another convict to two with the same idea. Think of it as the cornucopia in the Hunger Games, only instead of being in a set location, the high-value items come at various intervals and locations in the stadium. Finding one is only part of the puzzle though, as you've also got to have enough other supplies to actually craft these elite items. As longtime stealth game fans, we immediately threw together the cloaking device, which not only offered 30 seconds of near-invisibility, but also gave us a hefty damage bonus for hitting an enemy that failed to spot us.
We popped up on the roof of an adjacent cabin just long enough for the other player to sight us, but then ducked behind it before he could strike. While there, we hit the cloaking device, and instead of finding us hiding behind the building, the other player was flummoxed when there wasn't another person where he thought there would be. It was the perfect moment to strike, and we hit him hard. The crowd watching at this point erupted. It was calculated risk, but one that swung the advantage in our favor dramatically. Instead of trying to slug it out for a finish, the other guy ran, but we gave chase. We were out of cloaking ability, and only had about half our health left, but we had one last surprise in store.
Knowing full well that the other guy had a teleport power, we suspected he was running us off just to buy time for the item's cooldown. We were right. No sooner did he stop in front of us, he disappeared. Anticipating this move though, we deployed a bear trap we'd happened upon earlier in the match. Taking just one step forward, and barely evading a massive axe swing, the other contestant found that he had fallen into a trap rather than us falling into his. It was truly a lucky moment, as it takes a few seconds to deploy a trap, but again, the reward was worth the risk as he was hobbled and hurt, and all we had to do was swing an axe to put him down for good.
Our palms were sweaty. Our muscles were tense. We hadn't realized just how intense The Darwin Project was until we set the controller down for some congratulations and high fives from the crowd. It was absolutely that moment that made us fall in love with this game, even in such an early state. The Darwin Project is full of action and suspense, and it draws you in without you even realizing you've forgotten the world outside the arena. It's going to be a while until we can hit the arena again, but we're ready and we're eager.
The Darwin Project will be out on PC and Xbox One beginning in game preview in spring 2018.