Updated Tue, Apr 26, 2011 by Ethec
Strategy and tactics are a big part of what makes Darkspore a unique, cohesive experience, and in the lengthy playsession I couldn’t turn my brain off and click away the nasties, as in most action RPGs I’ve played. “We can get away throwing complex challenges at players in a way that Diablo and other action RPGs can’t, because we allow players to switch between their heroes and, between levels or matches, their squads. In Diablo, if you’re a fire mage, you’re pretty much a fire mage unless you re-roll. So Blizzard can’t really do a creature that’s immune to fire damage, because it’s frustrating for the fire mages. But we can do that stuff, and we do do that stuff as you move into Invasion and Apocalypse levels.”
Invasion (7-1 to 12-4) and Apocalypse (13-1 to 18-4) levels are akin to Diablo’s Nightmare and Hell levels, but Darkspore does difficulty… differently. “Take the Terrasort enemies in Cryos who shoot out a spread of three fireballs. In Invasion, they shoot out 4 fireballs, two of which are aimed at you, so it changes the pattern that you’ll have to use to dodge. If you don’t dodge, you take double the penalty. In Apocalypse, there’s five fireballs and the whole game speeds up.” Paul described ghostly enemies that dodge 25% of melee attacks in Onslaught, which isn’t a big deal. In Invasion, that dodge chance ramps up to 50%. In Apocalypse, that’s now 80%. We don’t ever want to ramp to 100% because if you lose two heroes and can’t switch, we don’t want to make the game unwinnable.”
A term dating from Diablo (and probably before), affixes are shorthand for special abilities that elite mobs possess. Some are “affixed” to items as well. Below is a partial list of Darkspore’s affixes, which might give you a feel for the gameplay when it comes to facing Elites.
And if the roughly 100 hours of gritty gameplay it takes to get through Apocalypse isn’t enough of a challenge, the Maxis team has another sequence of challenges in store. “Star levels address another common RPG problem. When you get to 18-4, you start farming loot to be able to beat it. You eventually beat it, and you’re still farming loot. Eventually you hit the hero level cap of 200, but you could beat the content with a hero level of 190. The content hasn’t gotten any harder.” Paul noted that they could have solved that by adding 19-1, but the problem reemerges as you get 19-1 loot. Instead, continuing on past 18-4 brings 18-4*1 (or “star one”). “If you get to 18-4*10, every single enemy is elite at that point and has 3-4 affixes... it'll be interesting to see what happens with that. ”
As for star level rewards, Paul’s team came up with an interesting alternative to loot inflation. Completing star levels multiplies the chance for players to earn rare items and epics. “Basically, the chance for you to get an epic is multiplied by the number of star mode levels that you completed. Complete 3 star mode levels and all the sudden your chance to get an rare or epic is tripled.” Sans star levels, the best chance you’ll have to earn a Purified item (the best in the game) is 8%. Complete one star level and you now have a 16% chance. Complete them all and you’ll have an 80% chance at cashout for any level in that major level range.
If star levels aren’t your speed, Darkspore has a number of gameplay innovations that players will find much closer to the start of the game. One of which, and one which, astoundingly, no action RPG has yet done well, is co-op play. Like everything else in the game, Darkspore doesn’t just throw more mobs at you if you bring a friend (or three). Enemy health is, in fact multiplied by number of co-op players, but Paul explained that mob damage-dealing doesn’t go up by the same amount (it’s about 2.5x for four players).
Another twist for co-op is the Darkspore Operative, which locks down a player, rooting him or her in place, prevents switching, and deals damage over time. Paul explained that this was a mechanic to keep players together: “The Operative sort of like the Smoker in Left 4 Dead, if your friends are around, he’s not a big deal. If your friends aren’t around, it is a big deal.”
Accessibility might strike you as one of those game development buzzwords that media types trot out when we run low on questions, but for Darkspore I felt that accessibility was an important concept. Darkspore has 25 heroes with 100 total variants that players will need to have more than a passing familiarity with. There are hundreds of enemy types, many with elite abilities, and to progress much beyond Onslaught, players will need to identify and respond to these threats quickly. The game has thousands of interlocking systems, relationships, mechanics and moving parts (I know this, Paul showed me his dazzling array of spreadsheets), and if Darkspore wasn’t accessible, it’d be bound for the hardcore strategy niche, where baroque features like representative graphics are frowned upon.