Spore was a weird game. I use the term ‘game’ loosely. Spore gave players the chance to create and tailor unique creatures using a powerful yet pleasingly simple editing suite. It allowed us to create vehicles and spacecraft and then share our creatures with other players, our content streaming seamlessly into their world, interacting with their own horrific creations. It also allowed us to draw giant penises and make them walk.
But Spore was hugely let down by the ‘game’ part of it, the various phases of development felt simplistic and underdeveloped, with the exception of the space exploration end-game. Although not perfect and featuring some niggling design, the space section of the game at least showed some of the ambition we’d hoped for. Darkspore isn’t about to make the same mistakes as it’s predecessor, but it perhaps sacrifices some of the freedom and ambition of Spore in the process.
Darkspore takes many of it’s cues from the traditions of the western Action-RPG. Think Diablo, Titan Quest and Torchlight and you’re not far off, but some fresh twists and intelligent design help to differentiate it. In Darkspore you put together squads of three ‘Genetic Heroes’, who you can switch between on missions. Those missions take form of a quest to eradicate the titular Darkspore from the galaxy, exploring ice planets, ancient alien architecture and hostile biospheres, while right clicking like a madman. In the process you’ll be picking up tons of loot. Traditionally loot takes the form of armour and weapons, slowly showing the progress of your character’s ascent to godhood as helmets get more extravagant and your characters statistics are amplified. In a fun twist on this, in Darkspore loot takes the form of limbs, and physical mutations as well as the traditional weapons and armour, allowing you to customise the look of your chosen heroes (as well as upgrade their various statistics) as they progress through the game. This is hugely satisfying and addictive, especially when you consider that you don’t just have a single character to play with.
As a ‘Crogenitor’, the player levels up independently of your ‘Genetic Heroes’ and will gain additional heroes to unlock and tweak to fit into your squad. Eventually you’ll have dozens of creatures vying for a place in one of multiple teams. Each Hero has three abilities that you can activate as well as a passive. The third of those abilities is a squad ability that is useable by any of the heroes in your current squad. This encourages you to choose squads with complimentary powers. For instance you might choose the spider-like Arakna a necromantic hero whose squad ability fires a series of missiles that damage enemies and restores health to your hero. To compliment the ranged attack, you might pick Xrin, who is able to surround himself with a burning aura for a few seconds, allowing you to sit and fire missiles from distance, healing yourself while enemies who get too close are immolated. To round off the party you could select Vex, who is able to teleport to a location, stunning enemies nearby and dealing damage in a small radius.
The possibilities for useful and fun combinations and the ever changing nature of the squads as you experiment is a brilliant tonic to the age old pitfall of all Action-RPGs – repetition. Your heroes may not level up and open giant branching mastery trees as you might expect, but the scope for experimentation, squad combinations and the differing play-styles for each hero mean Darkspore finds a complexity and diversity of it’s own.
Darkspore is an addictive and fast-paced experience, it has great matchmaking, that can help you find a team to overcome the tougher obstacles and the community is generally friendly and well–behaved. But there are areas of the game that will frustrate you and among the generally excellent design; there are a few mind-boggling decisions. The Genetic Heroes you choose between are all pre-made, despite the power of the Spore engine, to not only create, but animate your own creations. It’s difficult to dispel the notion that they are cynically saving the ability to create your own heroes for an expansion or piece of paid-for DLC. Though the pre-made genetic heroes are mostly well designed and contain a lot of variety, they don’t feel like they truly belong to you, no matter how many stupid horns and oversized antennae you attach to their crotch area.
Another weak area of the game is the story. The plot is a not-so-subtle barrage of cringe-worthy sub-par sci-fi jargon. You may have already noticed terms like ‘Crogenitor’ and ‘Genetic Heroes’, they’re joined by ‘E-DNA’ and Cryo-Genesis’, as an emotionless monotone female computer voice relays a nonsensical story to you in the manner of a disinterested history teacher. For an otherwise very polished game, most of the cut-scenes are so dull and delivered so matter-of-factly you’ll probably find yourself skipping them. The ending in particular is guilty of this, so it’s just as well you’re probably not playing an action-RPG for the storyline.
The lack of any interesting or compelling narrative does however underline the point that you’re basically hacking your way through missions in order to get new and better loot, to level up your crogenitor, to unlock new heroes, rinse, repeat, ad finitum. Yes, there is PvP and you might see that as some sort of end-game, but for most players it will be no more than a diversion.
Unlike Spore, Darkspore is a game that loves to be played. The moment to moment action of the games is engaging and enjoyable, tweaking your heroes’ look to perfection and trying out squad combinations is the kind of thing that can have you up late at night, as you try to find the perfect balance and most powerful item build. But when you’re not playing it and you’re thinking about the game, about the somewhat aimless progression (the actual story-line as bad as it is, only covers the first third of the game, from thereon, it’s rehashed missions with different enemies and higher difficulty), about the glaring omission of unique hero creation, you begin to realise that there’s a missed opportunity here. And when the fun begins to fade and the inevitable (if long-delayed) repetition begins to set in, you’ll find that without any real goals, without any sense of escalation and without a grand finale or fitting conclusion, the game will start to feel pretty shallow. If you can live with that, there are still hours of fun to be had with Darkspore and playing through with friends is a delight, just don’t be too surprised if you find yourself losing interest, perhaps sooner than you’d hoped.
The Verdict – On Target