Darkspore – Review

Darkspore, PC – £23.49 delivered


Review by Ben Tyrer

When I heard that Darkspore was comparing itself to Diablo, a favourite series of mine, I immediately knew I would have to take a look and see what all the fuss was about. I was surprised that Maxis had decided to have a stab at creating something a little more daring than their usual expansions of the never-going-to-disappear Sims franchise. I just didn’t think Maxis had it in them to create a visceral action RPG, but was I counting my loot before it had been identified?

When I was younger, I was a big fan of The Sims. Then, as I matured, I started craving games with a more guided and structured narrative. I would occasionally return to Maxis’ colossal Sim games but was sorely disappointed with Spore, which I felt was a substandard (albeit ambitious) game whose stages were not fully developed enough to sustain long term interest. In short, it sounded great on paper but when the game loaded up, the magic Will Wright had described to us all just wasn’t there for me. Understandably, then, I was feeling pretty cynical with regards to Darkspore. Was it a lame attempt at rebranding a tepidly received game? How could Maxis of all people be the ones to deliver my next dose of high-octane alien smashing, loot rolling and stat building action? You can almost imagine the board meeting in which it was decided Spore could be re-programmed to appeal to the angst-ridden youth of today (step one: add Dark to the name- they’ll go mad for it!), but let me tell you: I’m hooked.

There’s a particular element to games like this, a sense of hefty responsiveness that allows you to feel every attack your character makes as he totters around levels dishing out the pain. It’s a crucial aspect of the action RPG – If you can’t feel the weight of your character’s movement, it’s hard to be invested in them. Diablo had this remarkable sense of connection between player and character, and – luckily- so does Darkspore, to an extent.

A notably slower paced affair than most other games of this genre, each of the one hundred heroes I activated- You do not create a character á la Spore, but rather pick from a curated selection of monsters- had a palatable sense of oomph about them which otherwise would have rendered the characters feeble. It’s a bit like playing a role playing game with the cast of Monsters Inc., but once the action begins this is thankfully easy to overlook.

Rather than making a choice of Class at the beginning of the game, you are free to select up to three Heroes, the requisite amount which comprises a squad. These chosen few will be who accompany you through the game’s levels, though only one will be active on the field at any given moment and you must swap them on the fly. If you ever find yourself tiring of a character during the course of an RPG, this mechanic may be the solution. You’re free to mix and match heroes however you choose, and the necessity of ensuring you have access to a variety of Hero ‘types’ in order to prevent same-type conflicts (in which you will sustain double damage) adds an additional layer of depth to the game. If you’re worried about having to level each Hero as you unlock it, don’t – Your account has an overall level which permits you to purchase upgrades and items, but individual Hero levels are calculated via the quality of their equipment (think World of Warcraft item levels). Essentially, you can activate a hero which will start at level 0, gear him with all the goodies you acquired during your last session, and he will be good to go with the rest of your squad. It’s an interesting system, and one that completely removes the need to grind laboriously just to be able to get into the game with some friends. It also means you aren’t stuck with a single character and filled with regret ten hours in, so it’s a great move in my books.

There are some niggles, however. From what I’ve played, levels are little more than ploughing your way through opponents before reaching a stand-off stage where you must survive waves of increasingly tough enemies before battling an end-of-level boss. Don’t get me wrong – this is still enormously fun, and the stand-off stage genuinely gives Diablo a run for its money with regards to excitement and difficulty, but it would have been nice to see objectives other than ‘See alien, kill alien’. Rather than being compelling, Darkspores narrative is easily – and honestly, preferably- ignored. I’m glad Maxis attempted to create a backdrop, a reason for the sci-fi carnage that ensues in Darkspore, but that’s all it really is. And no more. Narrated video clips often interrupt crucial mid-level stages in which you and your friends must equip your heroes with freshly acquired loot, and so are often skipped. This brings me to another problem.

You are not able to equip loot as it drops. This is presumably due to the difficulty of loading the much-hyped creator toolset in the middle of the game, but when a vastly superior Celestial Cutlass finds its way into my inventory, I want to equip it right now. Considering you can’t create your own characters, the Spore Creator feels somewhat wasted on Darkspore. Sure, you can position your loot on your character and change their colour, but is that worth being unable to immediately better them in the heat of the moment? From what I’ve heard on forums, Maxis are looking into a way to rectify this issue.

With regards to abilities, Darkspore operates largely how it would appear Diablo III is set to function: A spell is assigned to the right mouse button, with a bar of abilities running along the bottom of the screen. Sadly, you are unable to remap the right-click power, meaning it will only ever perform your hero’s unique default attack. Also, as characters do not level in the usual manner, there are no skill trees. Instead, your heroes are pre-equipped with four unique abilities, the fourth of which is added to a shared pool of spells on the ability bar. Essentially this means if your hero’s fourth ability is a life-draining ability, you will be able to cast that power even when another squad member is activated. The result is the typical ability bar showing both your Heroes four innate abilities and two other powers sourced from the other Heroes in your squad. There’s also the Overdrive ability, charged over time by killing enemies, which vastly increases the potency of your attacks while halving all damage received for a short time.

While Darkspore may take some getting used to – its menus are cumbersome at times and the behaviour of the ability bar, while justifiable, can be jarring– it is undeniably fun, especially when played online as such games were always intended to be. Thankfully, a brilliant matchmaking service is provided alongside a Friend system which enables easy play. The music and ambience bring levels to life with a cool sci-fi edge, and the graphics are pleasing to the eye even if not the most advanced to grace your screen. You’ll see plenty of blood; something that surprised me considering the clinical censoring of Spore. It’s almost possible to see Darkspore as a letter of apology to disillusioned Spore devotees – Maxis have focused on one particular play style, honed it to near perfection and have utterly surprised me, to say the least. If you’re into action RPGs, and have been waiting for Maxis to whisper sweet apologetic nothings in your ear, Darkspore will give you plenty of incentive to stay a while and listen.

Editors note: Darkspore requires you to be online all the time when played, whether you are playing multiplayer or single player. The devs claim that this is not DRM, but I don’t actually think people selling you games get to redefine what counts as DRM and what doesn’t. They say its more comparable to an MMO model, but I’m not really convinced. If there was an MMO which was possible to play to completion in a single player mode, but didn’t support offline play, that would be bullshit too. EA have tried this stealth always-online DRM before, and it seems to me that rather than technical or design reasons, it is motivated by business reasons. They’ve likely seen the bad PR Ubi got for their batshit insane DRM, and have tried to implement something that is in practice exactly the same as far as end users are concerned, but is a much less controversial headline – Lewie.

Darkspore, PC – £23.49 delivered

Currently attending Bede Sixth Form College, in his spare time Ben enjoys talking about himself in the third person, photoshopping, doodling, and writing words about games at SavyGamer.co.uk Twitter

8 Comments Leave yours

  1. nofing #

    I tried the beta and I really, really, REALLY wanted to like this game, because I’m desparately searching a good Hack’n’Slash, but I just couldn’t get into it.
    It looks nice and plays smoothly, but I couldn’t get any connection to my “heroes”, I mean they are pretty much exchangeable, with almost no difference, but those 4 skills, which brings me to my next point.
    The skill system also lacks some customizatio. Ok, you can just change heroes, but there is no real skill system, not even one of those pseudo-skill system Mass Effect 2 had.
    And lastly, the looting addiction didn’t catch me either, since there is a flood of similar items.

    There are some nice ideas in there and I’ve heard Maxis is really listening to the community, so maybe it will get better over time, but for now it doesn’t feel like a 50€ title, since there are already games with similar quality for 15€ (Torchlight)

  2. AmandaChen #

    People say that the game picks up after a few hours. Is that right?

  3. DuskWolf #

    @AmandaChen

    Yeah, it is. It’s also how you can tell that some reviewers haven’t played it for more than a couple of hours, it’s sort of like the Age of Conan expansion fiasco all over again, because this game has a slow start, and it seems that the only amount of time a reviewer has to allot to a game these days is 1 or 2 hours, 2 hours max, then they have to move onto the next game. It’s how they get paid.

    But the problem is is that that’s not a good indicator of how the game plays, once you get into it it really starts picking up, and countless more options of customisation open up to you, and the game shows complexity that isn’t originally visible on the surface. This is something that a lot of reviewers didn’t realise due to their time spent with it. But if you read the 1up or Gamespot reviews, they say pretty much the same things, they have played it for an extended period of time.

    Some reviews, like the RPS and Eurogamer (not Italy) reviews show that they didn’t allot much time to the game at all. It was sort of like how RPS handled New Vegas – they did a quick speed run through it, spotted the bugs, declared the game to be crap and ‘phoned in,’ and then moved onto the next game. This is why I don’t trust many professional reviewers these days, it’s all about being paid or getting clicks for their site and not about actually playing the game.

    There are a few good reviews though, and this review isn’t bad, either. And there are a couple of good ones on Youtube, too, where they’ve been playing them for a while. But yeah, if you don’t have issues with immediate gratification and you’re not strapped for time, this is a slow burner. And in my opinion, aside from some inventory problems as eloquently mentioned by Mr. Savy himself, I’d say that it does everything Diablo does – but better.

    The heroes are compelling, they all have their own very unique, very alien look, which is nice, it’s not like Diablo where all the heroes look the same except armour, basically just walking, dead-eyed ghouls that serve as an excuse for a class and nothing more than that. So you have some great characters, beautiful animation, and the planets are incredible, the audio is… well, they made sure it sounds alien, nothing you’ll hear there sounds like anything you’ll hear on earth. It’s mesmerising stuff, and it’s always a joy to find new worlds, or new sections of old worlds, because it’s so much eye-candy.

    You can really tell that a whole lot of love has gone into the presentation of this game, it can go from eye-catching to breathtaking, the worlds are filled with strange little wonders that are fun to see, and really it works as an addictive backdrop for the gameplay, which is essentially a Diablo-clone, though with the complexity that comes up later on, I’d say it’s closer to a fully fledged Diablo than something like Torchlight was, which was very much a Diablo Lite.

    The story is particularly nice too, it’s got the odd bout of believable techno-babble, it’s probably harder sci-fi than most things, but due to the alien nature of it all, it also has this compellingly fantastic feel to it, so it’s more sci-fantasy. And it works for it, it’s like immersing yourself in something really strange and different for a while, and the story as read by the ship’s computer only backs that up. If you can handle strange, and you’re not just the sort of person who craves boring games with boring settings over and over, then you’ll find something here.

    I’ve been ploughing through the game, and the further I get, the more often I find I have to be strategic, some critters are really nasty, like these elites which have regeneration and incredible accuracy, and you have to use your squad’s abilities to their best effect to deal with these challenges, there are characters that are a little bit cheesy that can help you get past these challenges, but considering that there seem to be well over a hundred characters, you’re certainly not spoilt for choice, you can pick whatever suits your play-style or desire for difficulty.

    The only other thing I’d like to touch on is that Maxis’ post release support has been absolutely awesome. They’ve dealt with the only crash issue I’ve had (and a few I haven’t), a bunch of UI problems, and many balance issues in PvE and PvP. And they’ve pretty much said that they’re in this for the long-haul, and that their support of Darkspore will continue to be a primary interest to them. So the further time goes on, the better this game will be, it’ll only improve with time.

    You’ll get some people that will tell you that this game ‘sux’ because of the lack of a town full of humans to interact with (though in Diablo I didn’t see those as humans much but more as dispensers of either services or storyline, you couldn’t really interact with them, could you?), or that the setting isn’t a boring old traditional fantasy, or that the characters aren’t average, everyday spods that you can relate to… but if you play Darkspore for a while, you realise why these are blessings, not curses.

    The human town in Diablo was just an awkward menu system, nothing more, it was like the sanctum in Fable III, which we can all agree was a terrible thing. Darkspore does this better. And… I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of sick of the same old fantasy trash all the time. Ooh but it’s gritty, or grimdark, or whatever… so it’s just a fantasy version of GTA then? And I’m supposed to find that compelling? Darkspore’s setting, by comparison, was a massive breath of fresh air.

    Best Diablo-like I’ve played in forever. And in my opinion, it even surpasses it, since there’s not so much great about Diablo these days compared against more modern successors. If we set aside nostalgia, then the natural evolution of Diablo in games like Titan Quest, Torchlight, and more recently Darkspore have left Diablo in their dust.

    • AmandaChen #

      Thanks for the long reply, Duskwolf. The game does seem worth a punt to a Diablo fan like me. I picked up a copy.

      Savvier gamers than me should wait, oh, a month, for the price to halve.

  4. Hey guys, I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I just wanted to say I wasn’t paid for writing this, and spent a good deal of time playing (as with all my reviews) before putting my thoughts together, to avoid jumping to conclusions and making points that might not be true. In terms of comparing it against Diablo, I still view that series as a benchmark purely because it was just so good. What Darkspore lacks in narrative and character it makes up for with mechanics and the sheer thrill of taking on waves of enemies. It’s all about what you want from the game, you can’t really go wrong with either.

    Anyway, I Just wanted to point those things out. Thanks for reading.

    Ben

  5. AmandaChen #

    I’m sorry you didn’t get paid for this, but don’t give up on writing reviews. A couple of points that might help:

    o I want to read about the game, not about you. I mean, who are you, anyway? Don’t bother answering. Not interested.

    o Find out why this sort of writing sends people to sleep:

    Rather than making a choice of Class at the beginning of the game, you are free to select up to three Heroes, the requisite amount which comprises a squad. These chosen few will be who accompany you through the game’s levels, though only one will be active on the field at any given moment and you must swap them on the fly. If you ever find yourself tiring of a character during the course of an RPG, this mechanic may be the solution. You’re free to mix and match heroes however you choose, and the… blah blah blah

  6. AmandaChen #

    Hey, I know it’s not fair, but stringing together as many cliches as possible isn’t interesting writing. Writing well is difficult. Take a look at examples of good and bad writing from all sorts of fields (not just game reviews) and try to figure out what works and why.

    • Hey Amanda,

      Actually, one of the criteria of submitting reviews here is that we’re asked to talk about *our* experiences with the game, what made them interesting to *us* as individual gamers. If you’re looking for a dissection of game play without any interjection from the person who played it, I guess you’re reading the wrong reviews here.

      I’m not sure what you regard as cliche, but the sample of the review you gave doesn’t particularly smack of it, to me. Again, I’m sorry you got bored with the review but the piece you gave as an example there, to me, seems to be a clear-cut description of how the game works, like you wanted.

      Lewie, the site’s owner, approves all this work before it goes live, and I make changes to it when he deems it necessary. I wasn’t complaining about not being paid, either – I do this because I enjoy it. I only mentioned that point because you seemed to be implying that I hadn’t given the game a proper look, was restricted to some schedule etc, which is not the case.

      I’m open to criticism, but I don’t see that you’re correct in these cases. Thanks for the comment, regardless.

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