Review in Progress: Darkspore

Darkspore is EA's newest contribution to the action role-playing genre. We look to see how it has shaped up ahead of the full review.

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Of course you remember Spore, 2008's not-quite-revolutionary game about not-quite-evolution. That game soared because of its excellent use of user-created content. Darkspore uses a few of Spore's creation features, but if you were looking for a similar experience, keep your expectations grounded: Darkspore is an online action role-playing game in the vein of Diablo. The game was released today, April 26, though it was in open beta for some time before. While I did get several days of play in that beta last week, I wanted to take in the full experience this week; online-focused RPGs can surprise us in wonderful and terrible ways upon release. This means I'm not ready to deliver word on Darkspore's quality just yet, but I wanted to share with you a few quick thoughts, along with some screens and video taken from my time with the beta.

Darkspore introduces you to its sci-fi world with a short tutorial, giving you control of a hero creature called Blitz and having you slice up a few foes while a robotic voice-over fills you in on the basics. If you've played an action RPG on your PC before, however, you probably already have a good idea of how the moment-to-moment gameplay goes: you click on your alien foes to turn them into bloody bits, occasionally casting various spells to make them dead even faster, or to keep you alive even longer. You do this alone, or with up to three other players as you progress from level to level, though it's worth pointing out that while you can tackle the campaign alone, this is still an online game meant to be shared with friends and strangers: to play, you must maintain your Internet connection and be signed into the online lobby.

You can play the campaign alone, but to avoid frustration, you really are better off buddying up.

The basic action may be ripped from the Diablo playbook, but there's a definite Pokemon catch-'em-all element at work, too. As you level up, you earn access to new creatures to command, from 100 in total (well, 4 variants of 25 heroes, anyway), each of which has different skills and genetic types. Before each level, you choose a squad of three, and can switch between any of the three in battle, depending on the role you wish to play and the effectiveness of your various heroes versus the enemies you encounter. Your sole goal is to cut through swaths of buzzing flies and grenade-tossing robots on your way to a final boss, accumulating as much loot as you can. In between levels, you upgrade your heroes with said loot in the hero editor, enhancing their statistics and leveling them up simultaneously. (Player level and hero levels are separate entities.) This editor is a highly streamlined version of Spore's creature creator. You place equipment on your heroes where you like and can paint them in various ways, but the editing tools aren't very robust, and as a result, you aren't likely to invest much time in them.

Heroes don't have skill trees in the traditional sense, though a few of a hero's six total spells vary depending on the constitution of your squad. You have to consider not just how those skills can be used to maximum effectiveness, but also your heroes' genetic types: heroes take double the damage from foes of the same type. My favorite aspect of Darkspore thus far, however, is how you choose after each level whether to roll for extra loot then or to transition directly to the next mission, which gives you an even greater chance to earn good stuff if you triumph. I just wish there were more context to all of this saber slashing and laser shooting. You don't experience much story firsthand--you are simply told about one, by the same disembodied voice that guides you through the opening tutorial. Aside from collecting crystals and stat-enhancing orbs, there are no mission objectives or other structural elements designed to give you a sense of purpose. At least the game has a slick New Age style. Spacey atmospheric music drones while you make your way across glowing walkways and down planetside corridors.

We're not on Pandora anymore.

There are one-versus-one and two-versus-two battles as well, though I haven't experienced enough of them to get a sense of how much fun they are, though you could say the same about the entire game. I am having fun in the mouse-clicky way of most action RPGs, though I am not yet sure whether the hero collection and squad considerations are enough to give Darkspore the legs it needs to be a long-term prospect. I am hoping to deliver a full review late this week or early next. For now, enjoy the screens and movies, and maybe I'll even see you online!

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