When I sat down to play Darkspore at a preview event last week, I'll admit that I didn't really know what to expect. Sure, I knew it was an Action-RPG in the vein of Torchlight and Diablo, but my Press Pack boasted of an experience that would be a "new breed of Action-RPG" -- how could I prepare for something so new and different?
When reading about Darkspore, there's one thing you really have to know: in terms of gameplay, Darkspore is not related to Spore. Not in any way, shape or form. Think of them as mutual acquaintances — business partners, perhaps. They went to college together, had a few laughs, and then, one drunken night, Spore told Darkspore all its dirty secrets: the answers to Life, the Universe and Everything.
Darkspore wasn’t really interested in the majority of what Spore had to say — there were a few cool ideas, but none that really stuck. None, that is, until Spore brought up the idea of the Creature Creator. "Look," it cried drunkenly, "check out how cool this is! You can create all your own creatures, and they’re all individual and unique! Isn’t it awesome?" "Why, yes," Darkspore thought to itself, "yes it is."
And that’s all that carried over from the 2008 Will Wright-led project. Darkspore is a brand-new IP, with a brand-new take on the Action-RPG genre. Late last week, I was invited up to the EA Offices in Guildford, where I had the opportunity to spend time with the soon-to-be-released title (coming March 29, 2011) in both its single and multiplayer modes.
The story of Darkspore follows you, a Crogenitor, awaking from a deep, long sleep. You were chased by an evil army known as the Darkspore, but saved by HELIX — an AI who’s kept you safe for eons. Now that you’re awake again, your task is to create a team of Genetic Heroes and lead them into an epic battle with the Darkspore.
So far, so typical -- Darkspore isn’t going to win any awards for its story’s originality. It sounds like a million other games on the market, and you’ll probably find yourself skipping through most of its cutscenes. Where Darkspore begins to differentiate itself however, is in its unique loot mechanic.
In any Action-RPG, the loot mechanic is a pretty important. As you play through the game, your character levels up and you gain access to a range of new weapons, abilities, etc. If the loot mechanic is well-implemented, it’ll make you want to keep returning to the game — you have to go back, in order to grab even more bad-ass gear. However, this is where Darkspore begins to differentiate itself from the competition — collecting loot not only allows you to physically alter the look of your mostly aesthetically pre-determined character, but the loot itself levels your character.
Confusing to explain, but easy enough to understand in practice, the leveling system in Darkspore operates on two core principles: you have a 'Crogenitor level,' and 'Hero levels.' The former is increased as you travel through the game, defeating enemies to earn experience; the latter is increased by equipping new body parts -- ie. the game's loot -- and customizing your character.
This is where Spore’s influence comes into play. As you kill enemies throughout the levels and pick up loot, you can attach the loot to your hero’s body via the Creature Creator. Unlike most other Action-RPGs however, you can’t do this instantly — you have to wait until the end of the level before you can begin to upgrade your character and play around with your new gear. It’s an annoying feature, and one that will be not be adjusted for the final game according to our interview with Mike Perry, and it defies belief in the single-player campaign. Surely, if I've just picked up a totally sweet piece of loot, I would want to equip it immediately? Unfortunately, that isn't the case in Darkspore.
Of course, those of you who have been following Darkspore closely will realize that, so far, I've missed out one of the most unique aspects of the experience -- the team-based gameplay. As a Crogenitor, you control a team of three Heroes that you unlock as you travel throughout the game, each of which is customizable, and each of which has its own individual gameplay style -- some are healers, some are tanks, some are DPS, etc. If you're beginning to think of all the different gameplay opportunities this opens up... don't bother. There's far too many to imagine, and it'll hurt your brain to even begin thinking about it.
This is where I began to lose it with Darkspore, though. Sure, I'll admit that, when it comes to PC games, I'm not the most versed in the subject. The limit of my Action-RPG knowledge comes from playing small amounts of Torchlight and Titan Quest, and watching the occasional gameplay video of Diablo III. Darkspore lost me in the way it presented itself -- while it seemed incredibly simple, there was an underlying depth that my console-gaming brain just couldn't get to grips with.
This wasn't a fault with the game itself: it played pretty well, and responded to everything I asked of it. There seemed to be a giant disconnect between the game's aesthetics, and what it was asking of me. Although it looked simple enough, by the time I reached the end of level four, I found myself dying extremely regularly. To me, it felt completely strange -- the game's mechanics were simple and yet, if I played simply, I found myself dying. What on Earth was going on?
Perhaps it was the environment I was playing the game in. Surrounded by witty, intelligent people, was it possible that the game wasn't receiving my full attention? No, I was giving Darkspore my full attention, and yet I found myself getting deceived by the game's overly simplistic mechanics. Don't be fooled -- although it may seem a simple game, Darkspore is anything but that. With an incredible number of possible party members, and a metaphorically infinite number of ways to align them within your party, Darkspore is a title that will keep you coming back in order to experiment with your playing style.
It's a conundrum confounded by the varied enemy design. When playing, I was surprised to find that, even during the first few levels, the variety of enemies was astounding. Rather than simple cannon fodder, the enemies were intelligent and managed to surprise me on several occasions. There were enemies that warped around the screen, some that retracted into a shell at 50% damage, meaning they became immune to all further melee-attacks, and many more. And that was just in the first few levels! It's hard to imagine that Maxis will be able to keep that same level of variety throughout the game, but it was encouraging to see nonetheless.
If you've read the interview that went up last week, you'll already know some of my initial concerns about the game's visuals -- although it had a pretty art style, it was one that stayed similar throughout the demo. Each level was Generic Space Level #456, complete with a purple tint and asteroids filling out the background. Although Mike Perry assured me that the game worlds would see some diversity later on, I feel I have to make it clear again -- if the game sticks to the look of the first few levels, it will be a very disappointing game indeed. As you can see from the screens littered throughout this piece, Darkspore has a clean, well-designed art style, and to see it go to waste on purple tints and rocky surfaces would be a great shame indeed.
Unable to sample the game's Co-op mode, we were invited to check out the Darkspore's multiplayer. Put simply, this game does not need a multiplayer mode. It really was as simple as you'd expect -- with a tiny arena, you and an opponent are pitted against each other, each deciding on a three-man team with which to take on the other guy. With a best-of-three-rounds championship style of play and no interesting twists, Darkspore's multiplayer really was nothing spectacular. Just point, click, and hope for the best. Perhaps the final product will include more game modes, but it was mildly disappointing to see a game with such promise devolve into such mindless gameplay.
The truth is, Darkspore is not a game that's going to set the world on fire. Compared to other Action-RPGs, it was a fun stop-gap between now and Blizzard's eventual Diablo III, but hey -- this was just a preview, who knows how great the final game could be? Stay tuned for our review at the end of March, in order to see if Darkspore really is worth your time.
Darkspore will be attaching itself to your PC on March 29, 2011, in North America, and March 31, 2011, in Europe.