Darkspore Review

Most of us remember the ridiculously overhyped thought experiment that was style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore.
Rather than doing something completely ridiculous with Spore's premise, style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">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.

Gameplay - 87 / 100

The core of a dungeon crawler must be sound, and style="font-style: italic;">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.

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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.

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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.

Graphics - 87 / 100

Make no mistake; this game is pretty in motion. The details are done right; style="font-style: italic;">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.

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Sound - 87 / 100

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
vs. Predator
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.

Multiplayer - 77 / 100

Darkspore is definitely a game best enjoyed in the company of up to three other friends, and custom-tailored, Borderlands-style co-op play is one of the brilliant things that Maxis has finally brought to the action RPG. Darkspore Operatives lock wanderers down (keeping together is a good idea), and unlike most action RPGs, you'll be rewarded for sticking to the MMO-standard tank/DPS/support roles. The beauty is that you and your group can switch roles simply by switching heroes on the fly.

Some might criticize the random loot assignment in co-op play, but in a game where every hero is unlockable and instantly upgradeable via equipment, just about every item would be a need roll (even the duplicates - gotta have more of that DNA currency to equip new items and fill out those empty slots.

My one major gripe is the PvP reward structure at launch, or lack thereof. Darkspore keeps PvP minimalist - 2v2, 3v3, or 4v4 in fairly unobstructed arena settings with only the occasional environmental hazard to worry about, but Maxis chose to launch with what they're calling an "Unranked" system. Unranked means unrewarded, which is unfortunate because PvP is remarkably intense, yet accessible since its all about tactics. Find a friend you co-op well with, equip heroes that don't have loads of PvE-centric abilities like damage chains and communicable disease effects, and you could have a lot of fun. But without leaderboards or rewards, this side of the game is likely to go unnoticed for some time.

Value - 82 / 100

Darkspore's three-tiered campaign is vast, and though this might
be an unpopular opinion, I prefer playing through well designed and
detailed worlds multiple times than settling for a random map
generator. At least one more planet is coming as DLC and myriad PvP enhancements are coming, so Maxis clearly has fairly robust post-launch content plans.

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But we're focused on the here and now, and as good as the campaign is, it's better with friends. Maxis unfortunately took the Field of Dreams approach with community development (build it and they will come), which worked for a few isolated hardcore communities. If the game offered a more robust community side - clubs, leagues, and such with good search and recruitment tools where players could quickly find like-minded players for co-op and PvP. As it stands, there is a matchmaking service for finding similar
players to go on a mission with, but these tend to be one-mission stands, and communication, especially in the lobby, is hit or miss. For these reasons, and given how much the game comes alive in co-op, it's hard to give the game full marks in value. But we do appreciate that Darkspore doesn't try to microtransaction us to death for new heroes, stat cap increases, and so on.

Lasting Appeal - 70 / 100


Chasing the stars and cleansing the infestations of the world is great
and all, but the game doesn't change much in anything but difficulty over the
course of the campaign. Unlocking new heroes certainly helps the long term appeal of the game, but the loot required to better your heroes comes perhaps a bit too slowly. Since the
only variant you can really change about a hero is their squad ability,
you can’t exactly stand out playing as a hero or create any
crazy strategy or build about them. This might stagnate the game over
time, but hopefully we’ll get a patch or two of content
quickly to keep the game feeling fresh longer than I expect it to.

Pros and Cons


  • Beautiful environments and graphical
    effects - production values are high for audio and animations
  • Excellent AI and difficulty scaling makes gameplay a heightened tactical experience.
  • It's about time an action RPG jumped on the co-op bandwagon, and Darkspore does so extremely well
  • Chaining missions is a
    creative way to discourage farming of one particular mission alone.


  • Lack of PvP leaderboards and rewards (at launch) and achievements system make solo and competitive victories short-lived.
  • Sometimes too flashy for its
    own good - effects occasionally obscure combat.
  • As in Spore, non-humanoid characters make it hard for real humans to care about what's going on story-wise.
  • Little attention to mid-scale community development tools - clubs, leagues, etc. - makes finding new friends for co-op and PvP a needless challenge


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So we’ve got ourselves a bit of a conundrum here. style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
is a wonderful tideover game with solid gameplay, excellent collection & loot chase values, all the varied difficulty and challenge you could want, and a beautiful
presentation to back it all up.

But perhaps the developers paid a little too much attention to the enthusiastic beta playerbase and over-estimated the gaming mainstream's willingness to grind. You wouldn't think 15 minutes per level would wear you out, but - as was my experience with StarCraft 2 matches - the intensity of the game wears on you. As much as I wanted to chain missions, I also wanted to take a break, and that impulse won out more the further into the game I went. Perhaps it's the intensity of the gameplay, maybe it's the lack of identification with the characters in the story. But one thing is for sure: the low chance to keep any of your characters in rares or epics without grinding ad nauseum (especially in light of the myriad characters players have to equip) makes the loot chase something of a wild goose chase.

All that said, style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
is a solid title that is perfect as a casual go-to game, and one I'm excited to keep playing, albeit in bursts. I'm genuinely excited to see the direction Maxis takes with PvP and I think co-op is done magnificently. But, especially if you're playing solo, the game somehow lacks that magical, just-one-more-mission touch to keep you playing until the crack of dawn.

Overall 84/100 - Very Good


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