While many baulked at the idea of the Spore licence being used for something darker and more violent in tone, Maxis Software’s eventual take on the Diablo style point-and-click action-RPG is depressingly bereft of controversy in execution. It’s not a bad effort by any means, but with the likes of Torchlight and Titan Quest casting a shadow (to name but a few), it’s difficult to see where a potential audience will find its long-term draw.
Visually, Darkspore looks the part
Despite the presence of the titular creature-editing technology lurking in the background, Darkspore possesses little of the madcap invention or berserk design choices offered in the original, instead opting for a procession of linear stages to be tackled by your band of creatures solo or - much preferably - teamed-up with strangers online.
From the offset, it’s clear that sliver of quality definitely hasn’t been poured into the plot. Indeed such is the general misdirection of tone and uninteresting nature of the introductory voice-over that it may see many players skipping ahead to the menu before half-way point in the attract sequence. If you did that, you haven’t missed much. Darkspore has a plot that involves an evil overlord dabbling with genetics to create nasty beasties that proceed to take over the galaxy, and - recently awoken and reactivated - it’s the job of your squad of three similarly modified creatures to kill everything and reclaim the territory. There’s some Vangelis-style Blade Runner-esque audio that accompanies you on your ship, but that’s about the most distinctive atmospheric component; you’re unlikely to care much about the rest of the universe or its inhabitants.
Taking back that colourful territory is - predictably - a matter of stomping around various levels and clicking on everything in sight until it blows up in a shower of gore or sparks. The creatures are very much the star of the show here, with various cel-shaded designs showing a nice amount of flair and a level of variation suitable to the underlying tech. Some of them spit huge wads of glowing plasma that quickly turn the screen into a slow-motion bullet-hell sequence when discovered in swarms, some will rush you and attack with talons or teeth, whilst others might warp in and out of existence or simply lumber forwards with a confidence that only arises when you have a 10ft frame and arms the size of a small car.
For your part, you can attack back at these with any of your similarly concocted and malformed monstrosities. There are 100 to unlock in total (levelling up rewards you that honour), and each of those can be modified with body parts strewn around the battlefield. Those parts have statistics attached to them, so the long-term game is structured around creating creatures that excel in different areas to combine into a squad suitable for conquering any situation; or making them look utterly ridiculous, whatever comes naturally. Each of the base enemy types you encounter will do double damage against a creature of the same lineage, so concentrating all of your upgrades into one character is a mistake that generally isn’t repeated twice. Strength through superior genetic evolution and variation is key.
The action is suitably hectic when it needs to be
The combat itself plays out much as you might expect. You’ll be left-clicking to wander around each level, and using a combination of standard attacks and special attacks to dispatch your enemies. Each of your creatures has three special attacks to utilise, and your squad of three can be swapped around with a quick button press. If playing solo, each of the special abilities in the third slot is shared with the other two monsters in your party, so you’ll have access to five special abilities at all time. Mixing and matching these is really where the majority of the tactics come into play in Darkspore’s singleplayer campaign, and it’s a neat way to get around the inability to co-ordinate the focused and specialised attack plans that occur online. In theory anyway.
Of course you have no choice but to be online if you want to play Darkspore in any capacity (we’ll save the DRM discussion for another article), so you may as well take advantage of those 4-player sessions at every opportunity. Co-op works out pretty well for the most part, with confusion surprisingly minimal despite the blur of spell effects and general chaos that comes with loot-hungry randoms. Those online sessions also give you a chance to work deeper into the ‘chain’ system, which offers up the gamble of increased XP and rare rewards for completing consecutive levels without choosing a different squad or altering you creatures in any fashion. It’s a bizarre mechanic in singleplayer that more often than not results in frustrating failure, but with chat channels alive with groups looking to work together and farm an six or eight chained levels together, perhaps it’s a design decision that speaks to the developer’s desire to keep players coming back for longer sessions.
Despite that pull though, too much of Darkspore plays out much like any other action-rpg, but with a general repetition and lack of inspiration in setting that unfortunately relegates it to the middle of the pack. Yes it’s essentially the same gameplay mechanic as Titan Quest or Diablo, but the combat flow and world design are what set those games apart as something special. Too much of Darkspore is simply humdrum and played out by the numbers despite the genetic modifications, and the lack of any semblance of a decent plot culls any connection that might have been to the universe and its back-story. Even the ace-in-the-pack creature editor is hampered by a zoomed-out view that often renders your lovingly placed oddities as a mere frenetic blur of colour.
The editor is probably the best part of the experience
It should also be stressed however that nothing about the core gameplay elements is particularly bad, and so the addictive loot-grabbing formula underneath is still exposed on a basic level. It’s a shame because the technology underpinning both Spore titles is undoubtedly a fantastic achievement, but it looks like we’ll be waiting a while longer before Maxis manages to find the right outlet for its creative tools.
(ED: Really, Manny?)
TOP GAME MOMENT
Grafting an upgrade onto a wholly inappropriate place.