Updated Wed, Oct 26, 2011 by Stow
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.
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.
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.