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