For years, we waited for Spore--the next (and as it turned out, the last) game from Maxis frontman Will Wright. It was going to be everything: an open-ended editing tool, an epic strategy game with many different phases, and, toward the tail end of the development, a family-friendly game that was fun for all ages. Spore finally arrived in 2008, and as it turned out, the game's biggest draw was its creature creator tool, which let legions of players create all sorts of weird alien monsters to upload and share online with friends. Now this enormous framework of custom-built alien critters will be used to power a totally new, totally different game: Darkspore. Darkspore will be, of all things, a hack-and-slash PC action role-playing game along the lines of Diablo, Dungeon Siege, Titan Quest, and Guild Wars, and it will let you create squads of powerful alien creatures to hack your way through an endless army of monsters to save the universe from an ancient threat.
Yeah, that's right--an action role-playing game like Diablo. Maxis readily admits that this is a big change for a studio known for creating open-ended games that focus on building content with editing tools, such as SimCity and Spore, but this change in direction came about from within the development team--many of whom are diehard PC game players who have fond memories of playing addictive hack-and-slash RPGs until the wee hours and have gone to great lengths to re-create this magic, building a brand-new team from the ground up with talent from such studios as BioWare, Blizzard Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game).
The plot in Darkspore sounds very grandiose and involves an experiment by an ancient race of omnipotent beings known as the "Crogenitors," who created all living DNA in the universe but experimented with a new "exponential DNA" that was unusually powerful but highly unstable. It seems that one ambitious member of this mysterious group not only fused the unstable DNA with his own, increasing his own power substantially, but also created an army of monsters powered by this new genetic material that destroyed most of the other Crogenitors, leaving the last few survivors to flee to deep space with a squadron of heroes stuck in a cryogenic slumber until a solution to the problem could be deduced by the powerful computers of those last remaining DNA architects.
As the game begins, the solution to the exponential DNA invasion has been found: You. You awaken from your sleep as a genetically enhanced hero with the power to oppose the invasion head-on, and fortunately, you won't be alone. Rather than force you to focus on developing a single character that belongs to a single character class with a limited skillset, Darkspore will actually let you select a team of three different hero creatures to take into battle and will also let you gather a huge collection of alternate heroes for you to use and develop as you see fit.
The game will offer five different playable races, or "genesis types," which determine the basis of your characters' attacks: bio (plant- and organic-based attacks), cyber (robotic attacks), plasma (fire- and lightning-based attacks), necro (death- and poison-based attacks), and quantum (time- and space-based attacks). It will also offer different playable classes that roughly correspond with the archetypes you've seen in other such games, such as the sentinel, a "tank" class (which fights enemies in up-close combat and is tough enough to soak up damage); the tempest, a "mage" class (which fights with ranged attacks from a distance and is too fragile to sustain a frontal assault); and the ravager, a "rogue" class (which uses surprise attacks and stealth to do battle). In any mission, you'll control only one hero at a time (though you can instantly switch to one of your other two characters if you need their powers or are getting too beat up), but interestingly, certain powers that belong to your heroes will remain "universal" to your team and can be used regardless of which hero you're currently controlling.
Each profession will have multiple abilities in battle, including direct combat, support, and evasion, which will work well in solo play and even better in cooperative multiplayer. The Maxis team suggests that Darkspore will be at its absolute best in co-op, since its missions, which are planned to take place in levels that will have randomly placed landmarks and monster spawns each time you play them, will offer substantially better loot rewards when tackled with a group, particularly if, after you defeat a mission's boss and complete its objectives, you decide to use Darkspore's "chain game"--a system that lets you wager this round's victory and spoils against a more-challenging version of the next mission. If you forgo this round's rewards, you can receive even better loot if you can successfully complete the next mission in the chain, and so on and so forth until either everyone in the group fails the next mission by getting wiped out or enough players in the group vote against wagering.
Maxis suggests that loot and collection will be the heart of Darkspore--not only unlocking and collecting new heroes, but picking up tons and tons of items, which include temporary power-ups that immediately heal your heroes and replenish the energy they spend on executing their special abilities; new types of equipment that can be worn on your heroes (and actually edited in appearance to change their size and orientation using the creature creator tools); new, powerful body parts that can be added to new slots on any of your heroes to provide powerful bonuses; and cosmetic body parts and accoutrements for which your heroes will also have separate slots and which you can place simply for looks. In addition, your characters' inventory screens will be accessible from outside the game on the World Wide Web, which means you can play around with different item sets and plan your next in-game strategy while you're not even playing, similar to the deck-building "metagame" that fans of Magic: The Gathering know and love (and talk about endlessly).
While gathering loot will be a big part of the final game, Maxis is taking a slightly different approach to creature creation by focusing on using created critters built mostly in-house at the studio so that you can recognize hero characters and enemies (and their powers) on sight, rather than randomly populating the game with the thousands of player-created creatures. However, the studio does plan to hold contests to let you create the best critters you can, and the winners will be included in the game as regular characters. And in case you were wondering, the studio currently plans to ship the game as a full retail product with no microtransactions or subscription fees. We'll be honest with you--this is a bold new step in a new direction for the Spore series, and hopefully the game's premise of combining the wacky body-part swapping of Spore with the addictiveness of hack-and-slash games will pay off. Darkspore will ship next year.