Multiwinia is the multiplayer evolution of Darwinia, Introversion's quirky real time strategy title from 2005. Multiwinia employs the same bare bones, Tron-like style of its predecessor to serve up frantic, intense multiplayer battles in which hordes of little stickmen simply refuse to get along. The preview build we got our hands on only contained two out of six game modes that will be in the retail release, and was only playable against the CPU. Despite these limitations, we came away from the game very impressed and more keen than ever to take the full game online when it's released in September.
The first game mode we played was King of the Hill, in which either two or four sides attempt to capture and hold designated points on the map for as long as possible. The longer a point is held, the more points are earned and whoever has most points at the end, wins. There are a number of spawn points that constantly generate soldiers for whichever side currently owns them. So, at its most basic, Multiwinia is all about capturing and holding territory for as long as possible by making carefully timed assaults on the enemy, closing down choke points and funnelling a constant stream of reinforcements to wherever they're needed. There's no base building or research tree to work through, with Multiwinia preferring to concentrate on immediate, seat-of-the-pants strategic action.
It's not, however, just a matter of hurling your guys at their guys and seeing what happens. Any of your Multiwinians can be made into a Commander, which lets them herd basic soldiers into more cohesive fighting formations. Formations move more slowly but have an increased punch in combat, and are particularly handy for defending key locations. You'll also find crates dropping from the sky at regular intervals, which will give some kind of bonus to whichever side picks them up first. Gun turrets, commando squads, engineers, air strikes and armoured transport all have unique abilities that can really turn the tide of battle, and are exactly the sort of thing that you don't want the other side to have.
So, at any given moment, you'll be building up your forces, scurrying over to crate drops, defending weak points on your flanks and, ideally, launching a full-blown offensive on the other team(s) at just the right moment to bundle them back across the battlefield with a digital wedgie. It's all very high pressure, but seeing as the default length of a round of Darwinia is five minutes, it never feels overwhelmingly stressful. Introversion have essentially removed the slow build of many RTS's and focused on the last, desperate minutes in which unleashing your forces too early, or too late, is a short cut to catastrophe. While it's not quite as shot through with nervous tension as Introversion's nuke-tacular mini-masterpiece DEFCON, Multiwinia's gameplay can be very reminiscent of DEFCON. Timing is everything in both games, with parries and feints between opposing sides eventually leading to a full-blown slugfest.
Multiwinia's interface is simple and clean, relying mostly on context-based left and right clicks. Units are selected by holding down the left mouse button, which creates an expanding blue selection circle. Troops can then be sent on their way with another left click. Unit promotion is handled with a right click, and a formation can be created by holding down the right button and choosing the correct facing. The camera can be raised high enough to take in the whole map, or zoomed right in. We found it best to get up as high as possible and command everything from there, though this did sometimes make it tricky to accurately select a Commander or get a formation facing in the right direction.
The final game mode we played was Capture the Statue, in which each side has to traverse the map to a statue, then drag it back to home base to score. It proved to be good fun, if slightly less frantic than King of the Hill, with each side splitting forces between being statue carriers and destroyers of enemy statue carriers. The full game will also contain four other game modes. Domination is a flat out attempt to completely destroy the enemy; Assault lets two teams take turns attacking, then defending a heavily fortified position; Rocket Riot sees the first team to capture a number of solar arrays and then launch a missile as the winner, and finally Blitzkrieg is all about capturing flag points scattered around the map.
Each game mode will be adjustable, letting the player tweak game length, point scoring and victory conditions and crate drop rates. Introversion have been very mod-friendly in the past, so there's no reason to doubt that Multiwinia will see all sorts of wild and wacky variations once the public get their hands on it.
Of course, the real proof of the pudding will be how well Multiwinia stands up online, and whether or not it becomes overwhelmed by a certain way of playing, or a hardcore elite that dominate so heavily that the game becomes, for most people, an exercise in losing as slowly as possible. In our short time with the game, we tend to think that it's flexible enough to accommodate creative and innovative strategies, but we'll see. We'd also like to see some solid online leader boards, stat tracking, single player scoreboards and even game replays. At the moment, a well fought battle just vanishes into the ether once it's done.
Multiwinia is definitely a game to keep an eye on. There's no indication of cost yet, but Introversion have always been very kind to the penny pinching gamer, so it shouldn't hurt too much to hurtle headlong into Multiwinia. The full retail version is due in September 2008.