Action RPG fans, such as myself, cannot wait for the release of Diablo 3. Blizzard are however known for taking their sweet time in making games so my search for something to keep me amused in the meantime took me to Darkspore. Created by Maxis who are known for titles like Sim City (create a prosperous metroplosis and then watch it crumble when Godzilla strikes) the game is a spin-off of the popular Spore which saw players create creatures which evolved from primitive life to a space faring race which colonised distant worlds.
I'll confess to not being too familiar with the story of Darkspore as I skipped it when playing the game. The tale is told by a computer whose monotonus voice I couldn't stand. I don't think I missed out on much though as what little I heard hardly sounded like something worthy of a Pulitzer prize nomination. It deals with some nasty chap called The Corrupter who is using genetic research to take over the galaxy by mutating all life into evil Darkspore. The player has to assemble a team of living weapons to combat the Darkspore menace and ultimately bring The Corruptor to justice.
Like in Diablo most of the action is controlled using the humble mouse. One button makes your character move to where the mouse pointer is and the other makes your living weapon attack the Darkspore you have highlighted. The character you control has a basic attack which varies depending on which hero you are controlling (some will punch Darkspore, others zap the nasties from a distance using ray guns and so on.) Each character also has two special moves which cost power to execute and a team attack which they or any of their team mates can perform. Thanks to the simple control scheme employed these special moves can performed just by pressing a number on the keyboard. All characters also come with a passive skill which is on all the time (these vary from hero to hero and grant bonuses such as reduced damage from enemy attacks or generating power when a monster is felled.)
Unlike Diablo where you control just one character, when tackling a level you get to command three heroes. There is one character on the screen, but at the press of a button you can switch to one of the other allies. This is handy as it allows you to utlise each hero's strengths depending on the situation. If you get surrounded you may opt to switch to a beefy sentinel who has a lot of health. Other times you may prefer to decimate a horde of weak enemies with a nimble ravager or if someone gets hurt it may be idea to pick a tempest user who can heal. When selecting your team it is advisable to note what their class type is (bio, necro, plasma, quntum and cyber) as enemies of the same type as your character deal twice as much damage which isn't nice.
Darkspore's story spans six worlds which are broken down into four stages. To advance to the next stage you need to walk to the end of the level and beat the boss that lies in wait. Along the way there are many hostile Darkspore to defeat. Killing the alien menace sometimes awards you with goodies such as extra health, power or gear that can be equipped to make your characters stronger. The appeal of games like this isn't so much finishing the story, but replaying levels to get better gear to make your team as powerful as possible.
Like in MMOs such as Warcraft it is surprising how addictive bettering your characters can be. For the first couple weeks of play I was hooked on Darkspore, but since then my interest has waned. The simplistic combat does get repetitive which isn't helped by how short the game is. Once you beat the story you can replay it on higher difficulties which increase the strength of the enemies and also the quality of the loot they drop. Getting to the maximum level of one hundred will take a long time, but I am not sure how many players will reach that hefty landmark as it can get boring repeating the same worlds over and over.
My enjoyment of the game was also hampered by a number of bugs. Often when trying to pick up the spoils dropped by defeated foes my character would get rooted to the spot. This would get annoying if there were any enemies in the vicinity as I would be a sitting duck. I have also come across glitches which crash the game after a level is beat. I can always restart the application, but doing so means that I miss out on the reward earned for beating the stage which is frustrating. I'm sure these issues will be patched in time, but in the short-tern it leaves a bad taste in the mouth when you are putting up with issues that should have been addressed in the beta.
I'll give Darkspore three stars due to the bugs and my concerns that it won't keep the interest of the average gamer for more than a few weeks. If Maxis support the series this could however turn into a four star game or higher. I'd like to see more worlds to explore and characters to unlock. Another thing that could extend the game's life, which is missing at present, is introducing a guild feature. Powering up your heroes is much more satisfying as a member of a guild you can socialise with. Right now the game is a lonely experience. Up to four players can play at once, but depending when you play it can be tough finding companions to quest with even using the game's match making system.
Review also posted on Ciao (May 2011)