Most of us remember the ridiculously overhyped thought experiment that was Spore
from a few years back. Will Wright promised the universe, and yet, somehow, the universe from the amoeba up didn't add up to a compelling gameplay experience. Maxis drew from that title's name, one-of-a-kind
character creator, and little else and created the singularly evolved
action RPG Darkspore
Rather than doing something completely ridiculous with Spore
's premise, Darkspore
is a sci-fi themed dungeon crawler at heart, with a fairly spectacular collection and itemization system, a novel backstory, and layers upon layers of tactical challenge. But does it have the fun factor that it's Sporny forebearer so disappointingly lacked? And will Darkspore hold us over until Diablo 3
makes its dubious debut,
or is it destined for the bargain bin?
Darkspore is rated T for Teen for Blood and Violence, and - word to the moms - while there's no dismemberment or gore, you'll quickly find that aliens bleed red (among other colors), and somewhat profusely. Darkspore is an online game with rather colorful (and surprisingly helpful) lobby dwellers, but chat filters are enabled by default.
The core of a dungeon crawler must be sound, and Darkspore
delivers. What's more, Maxis did a fairly good job of mixing things up along the way. The squad dynamic is handled well—switching is
instant, but has a tension-building cooldown of 15 seconds (it feels like a lot longer when your heroes run low on health!). Heroes share in the health and energy powerups you find as you move, and these powerups are instant - Darkspore has no potions or their equivalents. That said, a few heroes - particularly those of the Bio and Cyber type - have a limited ability heal and are a welcome addition for co-op and PvP play.
With 25 heroes having 4 variants a piece for a total of 100 heroes (all of which are unlockable) equipment management would be a complete pain in the ass if a traditional system was used. Instead, you're limited to three squads of three heroes a piece, and these nine heroes are the only heroes you can equip at any given time. Though you're free to swap new heroes into these squads at any time, deactivated heroes' items go back into inventory and you'll have to go through the process again equip newly activated heroes.
This re-equip process was fairly time consuming, and I found to be one of the weak spots of the game. The creature editor is used to equip characters, and I can appreciate the degree of customization it adds. That said, I'd personally prefer a more streamlined solution as an alternative for players (like me) that lack the creativity mutation. The ability to sort items in inventory by primary stat and immediately pop items onto any of the heroes in my squad (without saving and switching heroes) would have been welcome. And we could have done away with the whole Freudian propensity to mistakenly create rude body parts out of horns and eyes.
The heroes themselves have 4 main attacks and a passive, plus Overdrive - a six second, slowly built-up boost to damage and abilities while damage taken is halved. The basic
attacks actually have some good variety in their effects, and each hero
has 2 abilities that only that hero can use, but the third is a squad
ability. This means regardless of the hero you have out, you can
activate your other two sidelined members’ team powers.
Building a team that has good ability synergy is important to surviving
the harder levels.
Speaking of harder levels, Maxis finally did something about the upping the risk and reward factor for longer play sessions.
When you beat a mission and return to your ship, you
get a small chance for a rare, but likely have to settle for one tier down, a "special" reward item. But if you risk it all and keep going, you get the
option for more items, better items, and better chances at getting
rare and epic items. You’ll be unable to change your
equipment at all, but the reward is a hefty one! But fail by losing all your heroes in the space of a match, and you'll be sent back to the ship with only the xp, DNA, and loot that you're carrying.
Campaign progression is broken into chapters that are 4 segments long,
and every 4 has a formidable boss. EA has created some wonderful boss
encounters that will have you seeing red by the time you’re
done with them. Mirror images, black holes, and more abilities that are
designed to make your head hurt are what await you every 4
maps. You gain experience throughout each map for your
Progenitor Level, which increments the new heroes you can unlock and try out.
Make no mistake; this game is pretty in motion. The details are done right; Darkspore
's environment art and design surpasses anything you've seen in an action RPG before, and likewise has a number of animations for even basic melee
attacks. Most heroes have 5-6 animations for just holding right click
on an enemy. The world is colorful and missions vary in their location,
and the levels feel alive as you walk by massive black holes in the
background or flaming wreckage.
It can be frustrating to play when all hell is breaking loose though,
as the graphical effects can obscure incoming attacks. If
you’re planning on chaining together multiple difficult
missions, you might want to tone down the graphics a notch to ensure
you don’t lose a hero to a shot you couldn’t see
coming. It’s a minor flaw to an otherwise spectacular
graphical assault on your senses.
If you can make a strange noise that sounds inhuman, chances are
it’s in this game. The sound of combat sounds like a battle
from an Alien
scene, and the
only time you hear a (fairly grating) warbling humanoid voice is for narration of the world and story
as it progresses. The game's music usually works as unobtrusive ambient filler, but gets more melodic and intense as you
encounter hordes and bosses. Apart from the Alien noises mentioned above, the rest of the sound
effects are crisp and really sound like torn flesh, launched missiles, and clattering droids.