Darkwind: War on Wheels
In the not too distant future, after the temporary collapse of the earth's magnetosphere, the world is a very different place. Deadly radiation has sterilised the soil, killed most of the plantlife and left the few remaining animal species fundamentally changed. Humanity has almost disappeared, with the survivors clustered together on one continent, farming what little fertile land remains. And then there are the death sports...
Darkwind: War On Wheels is a post-apocalyptic online role-playing game in which you command a gang of characters in a world where survival is never certain. Most of the gameplay focuses on vehicles - your characters are drivers and gunners in a host of scrap-iron cars that can be raced or subjected to arena combat for cash prizes, or driven out into the wilderness on trade runs, missions or just to scout for pirates. The style is very much Mad Max - your vehicles can be fitted with a host of weapons, armour and other joyful things with which to smash your foes to tiny pieces.
There are two aspects to Darkwind. One is the online management of your team, which is done by logging into the game site and runs in real time. It is free to sign up to Darkwind. Buying a subscription allows you to use the entire range of game features, whereas non-subscribers are limited to the basics - though these alone are plenty to start you off! Until you've got the hang of driving, combat and basic team management, scouting missions and suchlike are probably beyond you.
The other aspect of Darkwind, the main one, is the game engine itself. This allows you to race, fight etc with a number of other teams/cars in one of several race tracks - or in the wilderness. This takes place through the online client software and allows many players to enter the same race (or just spectate). A fast connection is helpful but not required - this racing is turn-based. Though unusual, I gather this is not a new concept!
Every second of game time you plan your next move, adjusting steering, throttle and the occasional bit of handbrake to move your car according to real world physics. Don't expect to turn hairpin bends at 90mph. You can also manage the loading, manning, aiming and firing of your weapons (if any are fitted). Turns end either when all human players have submitted their moves or after the turn timer runs out (usually about 30 seconds or so).
Graphics are generally excellent, with the 3D landscape smoothly rendered and the cars well realised with optional skins and decals. You have full control over the camera, with the ability to pan, zoom and reorient easily with mouse and keyboard. The website too is well planned and illustrated without becoming overly cluttered. I did encounter a few minor glitches when viewing cars behind obstacles or hills but nothing too serious. More irritating was the way the targeting cone for your weapons can sometimes eclipse the "ghost" car (the indication of roughly where your car will be next turn), making it harder to plan your next move. I am assured that a fix for this will be in the next update.
Sound is understandably limited, but what sound Darkwind has is high quality. Bullets zip by and engines growl nicely. I might perhaps have preferred some more background noise, such as the crackle of flames from a burning car, but there's always a fine line between a game being too quiet and too noisy. The sound effects are obviously silent during the planning stage! Darkwind also comes complete with five music tracks, which can be set to repeat, shuffle or simply switched off as you wish.
Let's not mince words now - Darkwind is not an easy game to get started with. The casual gamer is likely to be scared off by the wealth of options and the unusual driving style. Yet, for those keen on a meatier game, Darkwind is a game with a vast depth of options, characters, vehicles, weapons, strategies and style. The social aspect adds a new dimension - playing alongside your friends is a huge draw, and being able to play even when they're not around is also good. The community support is also brilliant - players are always happy to give advice to new players (like me!) and join in with scouting runs. My first scout, with three other players, was enormously fun and more than a little bonkers.
As for longevity... there's a ton of stuff in here and I've not yet tried everything. Try running cargo or missions to other settlements, which is something I haven't had time to grow strong enough for in the short run up to this review. Form squads with other players and go scouting. Gain a whole flotilla of vehicles, enter leagues and ladder matches. Sometimes special events occur with unique vehicles as prizes. Trade goods, weapons, equipment, vehicles and more with other players or NPCs. This isn't so much a game as a whole world, and the developers are making it bigger all the time. One of the intended future developments is the option to create your own camps and mine resources for trade - I look forward to that! The community that Darkwind has attracted is the real lifeblood for the game and their feedback and enthusiasm keeps it fresh.
I should warn you - this is a seriously addictive game. I'm going to go and do some more "research" now... join me for a scouting party some time!
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