Spore was one of those games that garnered way more attention prior to launch than it did afterwards. It sort of just fell to the side. It wasn't a complete disaster, but it didn't do the numbers EA were hoping for. And then Will Wright left to pursue other projects and ideas.
It's not the best circumstances for a game like Darkspore to grow out of and this is probably why it has been flying under my radar all this time. Of course I knew it was coming, but I just hadn't given it a closer look. That is, until I sat down and tried it for an hour or so.
Darkspore is nothing like Spore. In fact I would go as far as saying that only the universe and creature creation remains, and even those components have been changed. This is something very different, something that will appeal to those of us who like to build up characters, collect loot, and click with our mouses on enemies to destroy them. Darkspore is an action RPG and similar to Blizzard's Diablo, but far from just a clone it provides us with a number of clever elements of game design that helps set it apart from the pack.
There are 25 heroes or characters to play around with in Darkspore. You unlock them as you progress in the game, and you assemble a team of three that you use in each mission. Each hero has a specific type and class. Zrin for instance, is a plasma type and a sentinel class. He uses his big flaming fists to do damage up close. Another example would be Sage, a bio type whose a tempest. Sage is more of a mage type who does ranged damage and has healing powers, he also spawns little helpers who engage enemies at close range. You can switch between the three characters in your team at any time (short cool down after switching), but the real beauty lies in how each hero comes with a squad ability that can be used by all members of the group. For instance Sage has a squad attack that grows vines in an area so enemies get stuck and take damage, but he also has a passive effect of slowly regenerating health for the whole group. Picking your squad members is not just about their own abilities, but also about what squad abilities they bring to the table that all members can make use of.
A simple example of how this works would be with Vex, a chrono type ravager, his squad ability allows all members to teleport close to an enemy with a heavy attack that stuns nearby enemies. A fairly effective ability when paired with someone like Zrin, mentioned above, who does a lot of close range damage. There is simply a lot to take into account when assembling your squad, and even more to consider when you are playing with other players, whether it be co-operatively or competitively.
Your ship is your home in Darkspore. It's a bit like Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty in that regard. You can choose your squad here, customise all your characters with new parts or customise their appearance, head into a mission or player vs player arena match. One thing of note is that loot comes in the shape of parts for your characters, and upgrading them to get better stats is one of the key features in Darkspore.
The first thing that struck me as a beamed down from my ship to play the first mission (2-3 for those who are curious) was how different the design of Darkspore was to most action-RPG. It's keep some of the colour palette from Spore, even if Darkspore has a decidedly darker and more mature visual design. The mission was set on a lush jungle planet. A planet were most of the enemy types you encounter are bio. Bio enemies will do double damage to your bio characters, such as Sage, so this adds another layer to the decision on who to pick for your mission. I still went with Sage as I felt more comfortable being able to use his regenerating abilities for the mission, than only relying on the health enemies drop. I paired him up with Blitz (plasma/ravager) and Goliath (cyber/sentinel), a fairly balanced team by the looks of it and the mission ran smoothly. On top of your health there is also a bar for energy (Darkspore's mana) that you deplete by using special abilities or squad abilities. All in all you have six special abilities, three that come with the character you are currently using and three squad abilities that all members of the squad can use. There is a cool down, but I found that replenishing your energy bar was more pressing than waiting for the cool down period to run out.
Along the way to the final boss-like encounter at the end of the mission you get drops and you also find three obelisks containing parts randomly placed on the map, but you can also get parts from enemies along the more typical DNA, health and energy drops. DNA is your currency of sorts in Darkspore.
The first mission I tried was pretty smooth sailing, but the next one were I opted for Sage, Zrin and Vex was more challenging. The enemies came in much larger numbers and perhaps it would have been wise to have tried it out co-operatively. Pig-headedness won out. In several places my path was blocked while waves of enemies appeared, keen on taking out all of my three heroes. It helped me develop more skills, but it also made me wonder a bit about possible difficulty spikes.
Player versus player combat, one on one or two on two, adds a fun diversion. While EA seemed keen to push this as the most entertaining part of Darkspore, I personally think it's something you will only pursue from time to time. There is a lot of depth here of course, putting together your squad and using your pimped out heroes, but to me the co-operative campaign is where the most fun will be had.
Darkspore treads proven grounds for the most part and does it well thanks to a few minor or major additions to what we normally expect from an action RPG. My main concern with Darkspore is the design, while it's obviously no Diablo I'm not sure the look and feel of Darkspore stands out enough. The characters reminds me of Lego Bionicle, and the universe comes across as anonymous. So on the one hand it's good that we're not getting another fantasy action-RPG, but on the other hand I'm not sure the science fiction universe Maxis have created warrants the same kind of devotion that say a Diablo or Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance gets from its fans. The jury is still out on that one, but regardless of that - Darkspore is something those of you who await Diablo III should keep an eye on.