Reviewed: May 13, 2011
Released: April 26, 2011
Most of us know Maxis from a longstanding history of memorable games in the simulation genre, including franchise favorites like SimCity and The Sims. Most gamers are probably also familiar with Spore, Maxisí evolution simulator from 2008 that allowed players to design their own creature species from single-celled organism to advanced sentient spacefarers. Despite the implications of the name, however, Darksporeósurprisingly enough to usóisnít much like Spore at all, but something more akin to a blend of Diablo and Pokemon.|
Mouse-mashing hack-and-slash is definitely new territory for Maxis, and surprisingly, Darkspore isnít half bad for a first crack at the genre. Just like Diablo and its ilk, most of the game involves navigating your heroes through an unpretentious map full of hordes of monsters (mutants called Darkspore) and madly clicking on them to blast, chop, or tear them to bloody pieces. Also as expected, each hero type has its own arsenal of special abilities that unlock over the course of gameplay.
Instead of a single character, however, you command a squad of three customizable creature heroes, each with one of five genetic types (Plasma , Quantum, Bio, Cyber, and Necro) and one of three class types (Sentinel, Ravager, and Tempest). The game offers 100 collectible heroes in all: 25 premade characters with four variations each. You can only control one creature at a time, but you can switch freely among them with a slight cool-down in between, and inactive creatures slowly regenerate while they rest. Switching provides some welcome flexibility: even if you prefer a certain character class, enemies with the same genetic type as your hero will deal double damage on that poor fellow, so some strategy is helpful.
Speaking of which, hero customization is probably the only similarity Darkspore shares with its namesake predecessor. The heroes donít level up as characters usually do in an action title like this. Instead, as you make your way through each stage, youíll be collecting generous amounts of loot, including new weapons, armor, and creature parts, as well as DNA that must be expended to add these new components to your creatures. The equipment, in turn, determines the level and attributes of the hero wearing it. You can also customize your heroes with body paint and aesthetic add-ons to personalize them and further differentiate them from your friendsí heroes.
Visual distinction is especially helpful because Darkspore, despite using premade creatures, is designed to be best played with others. The game is more challenging to play single-player and definitely rewards multiplayer cooperation. We thought it was a nice touch that you can also take a gamble by chaining levels (completing multiple stages one after another) for better loot, though if you choose to do so, you forfeit your reward if you fail. A daily one-time bonus on your chances to receive rare items incentivizes players to come back regularly and maximize the benefits of chaining, which encourages player cooperation in turn. PvP fiends can also pit their squads against other playersí for personal pride, though as far as I know, EA hasnít implemented a ranking ladder yet.
Itís also nice that, in lieu of draconian and controversial DRM (digital rights management) schemes, Maxis and EA opted instead to require a persistent Internet connection, so players need to login using their EA accounts to play the game. Given that youíll probably be playing this game with others, anyway, it makes a lot of sense.
Darkspore, however, also leaves some room for improvement. For instance, we thought the game could have benefited from more Spore features. Why not allow players to build their own unique heroes completely from scratch using a condensed version of Sporeís evolutionary process? Given that creature customization is so important to the game, we felt giving players more freedom and control over the creation of their mutants would have added a lot of entertainment and replay value.
Additionally, Darkspore could certainly benefit from psychologically engaging the player a little more. Instead, the player is distanced from the experience because the uninspiring backstory is delivered through fictional video clips played by the spaceshipís monotone AI, and weíre told our Crogenitor creator characters control these heroes remotely from the ship. As far as Iím concerned, games should try to avoid reminding us that weíre staring at a monitor and not experiencing everything firsthand, but your mileage may vary.
Regardless, the game is presented attractively. The map layouts are simple (probably for clarity and ease of navigation), but appointed with handsome details like crystals that actually refract, rippling pools of water, and glowing foliage. The monsters and heroes also generally have simple shapes, but theyíre easy to see and animated smoothly, and in the case of the heroes, decorate well. Level bosses are appropriately imposing and huge, often filling up the entire screen, and are satisfyingly fun to fight. Visual effects (including the copious shiny blood spatters) and lighting are lovely, as well. Sound-wise, Darkspore does all right; the sounds and background music add atmosphere and donít get in the way, but theyíre not particularly memorable, either.
At a suggested retail price of $49.99, Darkspore isnít a bargain bin title, but (without showing favoritism toward one merchant or another) Iíve seen it available for about half that price from some popular vendors. The monster collection aspect adds some incentive for play for completionists, and for such a reasonable price, itís a fun title to play with up to three friends at a time. If, like me, youíre waiting with bated breath to play Diablo III, itís not a bad way to cool your heels.
In summary, Darkspore, while unexpectedly dissimilar to Spore and not without its flaws, is an enjoyable hack-and-slash action RPG. We would have liked to see more synergy between Maxisí simulation expertise and classic button-mashing combat, but itís a solid first effort in this arena from Maxis that, refreshingly enough in this violent genre, provides extra incentive to play cooperatively with others. If nothing else, Darkspore is a reasonably successful experiment that I hope heralds innovative game concepts from a favorite simulation developer.