Darwinia sounds like the sort of game that ought to involve tweaking squirmy single-celled organisms all the way up to pensive, brooding bipeds. In fact, Introversion's quirky Darwinia has nothing to do with its "Charlie Darwin" namesake. Instead, it "evolves" (if that’s the word) a few coin-op principles into a psychedelic real-time strategy romp with rudimentary arcade tendencies. If retro-funky were real estate, Darwinia would own it coast to coast.
This is gaming at its weirdest, where fractious landscapes lined like neon graph paper pulse beneath flat clouds, and bitty green stick figures mill around blinking towers waiting to be saved. It's the culmination of one Dr. Sepulveda's desire to build a virtual theme park and populate it with sentient, evolving life forms (called Darwinians). No surprise, an evil virus has overrun Sepulveda's digital zoo and, naturally, you're their only hope.
You start in a hollowed-out globe and click on "trunk ports" to log into virtual terrariums landscaped with islands, control towers, slinky viruses and hapless Darwinians. Zipping and zooming god-like overhead, you create "programs," Darwinia's cutesy name for movable units like Squads, Engineers and Officers. You can run up to three programs at a time, "starting" or "stopping" them at your leisure (and there are no pesky resources to worry about). Instead, levels offer increasingly difficult obstacle courses, all of which hinge on herding hordes of Darwinians to "safe zones."
You’ll initially fire up a squad or two and laser-zap viruses that wriggle like 2D worms on the surface of grid-covered 3D landscapes. While it’s easy to tell a squad where to go (left-click), or fire (right-click), figuring out where to hit the zig-zaggy viruses themselves feels a bit dodgy as you try to translate three-dimensional weapons fire onto a 2D plane. Arcade-tight Darwinia’s not, though when you receive better weapons like grenades, it’s easy enough to just hang back and lob explosives down inclines to nuke the enemy en masse.
Eventually you'll need to summon Engineers to grab control towers and collect the "souls" released when you snuff out viruses. Engineers drag souls ten-at-a-time back to Incubators where they're recycled into full-fledged Darwinians, but since you can't interact with them directly (hello Lemmings!), you have to convert a handful into Officers and position them like signposts to guide the remaining greenies to safety. Unfortunately, the path-finding AI is so silly that both your special units and Darwinians will often commit suicide, walking directly into force fields or viral orgies like robotic dimwits.
It's easy to conceive of Darwinia being far more interesting if your Darwinians actually did get smarter over time. Imagine groups exhibiting learned behavior and clashing with other groups over the best way to get from A to B, or even a broader array of tasks than endless variations on "round up."
Darwinia has been available on the direct-download Steam service for some time now (and for $10 less than this boxed edition), so it's not really worth it to get this retail version unless you need a CD and a not-terribly-helpful instruction manual. You should also try the free demo first - Darwinia 's weird, but it might well not be your kind of weird.