Darwinia: a great game for notebooks

I love budget ultraportables—especially my Aspire 1810TZ. For my needs, the Aspire's Consumer Ultra Low-Voltage processor is snappy enough to make the thin-and-light 11.6" system feel like a fully capable PC. Web surfing is smooth even with Flash-heavy pages, photo editing is only a chore because of the relatively small screen, multi-tasking is nice and responsive with basic desktop apps, video playback is buttery smooth with both standard- and high-definition content, and I can even play games. Well, I can play some games, anyway.

The Intel Graphics Media Accelerators found in most notebooks and nearly all ultraportables have little hope of delivering fluid frame rates with the vast majority AAA releases, including those from a few years back. Call of Duty 4, the original Modern Warfare from back in 2007, is essentially unplayable on my Aspire thanks to its lowly Intel integrated graphics processor. However, the system's GMA 4500MHD can handle a selection of titles from the growing field of so-called casual games.

I'm still not entirely clear on what defines a casual game, but it seems to be anything smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the $40-60 boxed titles that line the shelves of your local game retailer. Within that broad classification lie some real gems that run just fine on CULV-class graphics hardware. Audiosurf is a personal favorite, and I've spent a fair amount of time with Geometry Wars and World of Goo. Recently, I've been playing a lot of Darwinia.

First, I should admit that I'm really, really late to this party. Darwinia was released way back in 2005, but I didn't pick it up until a few months ago during a Steam sale. Since then, the game has become a staple of my mobile arsenal and something I've sunk many hours into on my desktop during late-night benchmarking sessions.

Darwinia begins with a retro loading screen right out of my childhood. From there, the game puts you inside a computer-generated world whose inhabitants must be saved from an apocalyptic virus infection.

Right off the bat, I fell in love with the game's art direction. The highly stylized, low-poly worlds have a distinctly old-school charm that reminds me of my first encounters with 3D graphics. You won't see much in the way of whiz-bang effects, but those with even a modicum of GPU horsepower will be treated to little bits of eye candy here and there. Users stuck with pokey IGPs won't miss out on too much thanks to how gracefully the game's visual style scales down to lower detail levels.

If I had to sum up Darwinia's gameplay, I'd settle on a clever crossbreed of action and real-time strategy. It's an imaginative mashup of styles that feels like equal parts Syndicate, Command and Conquer, Lemmings, and 1337 hax0ring. Rather than managing resources and units, you control programs that can be spawned and killed at will—and without cost or penalty, which takes some getting used to. New program types are added over time, and players can choose how to allocate upgrade resources to improve them.  The game's virtual task manager can also be beefed up for more in-game multitasking by allowing users to spawn and control more programs at once.

Darwinia doesn't have much of a narrative, but there's enough of a storyline to move things along from one level to the next. The game does get off to a bit of a slow start, though; I had to play through a couple of levels to really get into it. Then I got really into it, which led to some lengthy and productive benchmarking sessions... and more than a few hours of lost sleep.

Once you finish the single-player campaign, there's a map editor to explore and a multi-player component called Multiwinia. I haven't had a chance to fool around with Multiwinia just yet, but I'm curious to see how its multiple game modes pan out.

Everyone talks about the importance of gameplay, and Darwinia definitely brews a unique and tasty blend with elements from different genres. I'm even more impressed with the game's overall feel. Darwinia has real character, which is as much a credit to the imaginative art style as it is to how well the music and gameplay seem to lend themselves to the low-poly world.

The best part?  Darwinia costs a scant $10 on Steam. You can also buy the game bundled with Multiwinia for only $15. Those are everyday prices, but I've seen the bundle go on sale a couple of times for just $7.50, which is what I paid for mine.  Intrigued? Why not try out the demo, which is available for Windows, OS X, and even Linux. Yes, this game is that geeky.  In a good way, though.

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