With the entire gaming world up in arms about DRM and in-game sales policies with video game juggernaut Diablo 3, we thought it would be a good idea to pick up and review the recently released Darkspore, the spiritual successor to the 2008 pirate-favorite Spore by Maxis.
Darkspore is officially classified as a sci-fi action-RPG. And when we had heard that it used the creature editor from the original Spore we thought that it was a sure-fire hit. Take Diablo, add a dash of Spore and you get a guaranteed win. Right?
Well… not so fast. Unfortunately it turns out there is a lot that can go wrong with that formula.
For the uninitiated, Darkspore plays like a traditional top-down action RPG like Diablo or Torchlight. You take your characters and fight map by map in sci-fi themed worlds to rid the galaxy of the threat of Darkspores. Enemies drop new weapons and upgrades. And at the end of the level is a massive boss, complete with his own horde of unspeakable baddies.
What it does non-traditionally is fairly interesting. Instead of selecting from an RPG archetype character, players assemble teams of three from a rather extensive list of monsters, each with their own planet of origin, and therefore, elemental affiliation. Teammates can be swapped out on the fly during the combat, so you can custom fit your fighter with whatever the game throws at you. More and more monsters are unlocked as you raise in levels and each can be customized within the monster creator.
Instead of equipping your monsters with swords and shields, enemies drop new monster parts that will upgrade your characters. They boil down to new hands, feet, eyes, assorted accessories like antennae and wings, but also pauldrons that act as your monsters’ armor. Hands and feet need to go where hands and feet go, but every other type of enemy drop can be equipped almost anywhere on your monster, giving each character a custom feel.
On the downside, this is ALL the customization that can be done with the monsters aside from the the ability to resize certain monster parts. You cannot create monsters from scratch and you cannot do drastic changes to your monster like add arms or remove legs or reshape the general body structure. At first, it’s a brilliant and wonderful toy for the game, but the stylized changes you make have no affect on the gameplay. Eventually you get so many drops and you have to manage too many different monsters, that you’ll spend less and less time with the monster editor and you’ll put parts wherever they land.
Darkspore has also implemented a unique feature of level chaining which is a clever way of in-game gambling with enemy dropped loot. At the end of every level is a boss encounter and the boss drops a random unique item. If you complete one level and then immediately collect your loot, your chances of getting a rare drop are low. But if you don’t immediately collect the loot, you can increase your chances of getting a rare drop by completing the following level. If you DIE, however, all potential boss loot is lost. It creates a double or triple or nothing situation for the player.
Graphically, Darkspore ranges from great to bland. Some levels are easy on the eyes, while others are drab and monotonous. The level design itself is actually one of Darkspores largest failings. Most levels are very narrow with few branching paths. There is little to no exploration. And since you are teleported to different worlds for each stage there is no visual feeling of progression as you go through the levels.
The audio is a high point for the game. The sound effects for the creatures all feel right. And the audio narration is done very well. Shamefully, the story that is told is barely worth listening to.
The multiplayer is where it’s at in Darkspore. Cooperative campaigning is downright addictive and the community that currently exists in Darkspore is one of the nicest we’ve encountered in a long time. They were all very happy to help a newbie out and explain some of the ins and outs of the game. There is a PvP arena, but in our time spent with the game, there were no other parties willing to participate.
Our two largest complaints about Darkspore both nearly render the game unplayable. First, and foremost, it is a grindfest. We understand the necessity for grinding in MMOs and RPGs. And there is also a big difference between “good grind” and “bad grind.” Sadly, Darkspore is chock-full of bad grind. Get ready to play some of the same levels over and over again before being able to progress.
And secondly, Darkspore has one of the worst user interfaces for a game of this nature. Considering its pedigree, a good UI should have been a primary design goal. It’s disorganized and unintuitive.
Darkspore isn’t one of those games you should pick up at full price. $50 is a price too steep for this many design flaws, but if you find it at discount, it’s not a bad grab. We do predict a permanent price drop shortly, our only hope is that the excellent community is still around by the time that happens. But if you’re simply dying for more classic Diablo action, hold your breath for Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2.
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Available on: PC
Developed by: Maxis
Published by: Electronic Arts
Release date: April 26, 2011
EG Score: 3 out of 5 / “Worth Trying”