What it lacks in variety and narrative, Darkspore makes up for with fun cooperative combat and character customization that deepens the more you play.
- The promise of new heroes drives you forward
- Squad mechanics lead to tactical flexibility
- Combat and customization evolve as you play
- Serene sci-fi atmosphere.
- Lame storytelling, even by action RPG standards
- Lack of context can make combat feel like pure grind with no stakes
- Some minor mechanical quirks.
You'd be forgiven if you assumed Darkspore might be similar to 2008's Spore; after all, the titles are similar, and both games were created by the same developer. Well, let go of any preconceptions: this spin-off may have some elements in common with the game that spawned it, but it is structurally quite different. It's also rather good. Darkspore is an online-only role-playing game in which you and up to three buddies (or strangers) slice and dice your way through factory corridors and forest pathways en route to an end boss. Your goal: collect as much awesome loot as you can. And you'll need all you can get, for as you level up, you gain access to more and more heroes and group them into squads of three creatures each. This "catch 'em all" mechanic is one of Darkspore's main draws, though there are a few other twists on the traditional action RPG formula that keep it from feeling like a simple space-age Diablo clone.
That isn't to say that Darkspore feels totally fresh, however. There's too little context for all this hacking and slashing: it's all grinding for levels and loot, with little sense of purpose. That might sound like a damning flaw, but some hours in, the game hits its stride, throwing greater challenges at you on the battlefield and balancing the dungeon crawling with the satisfaction of maintaining the look and equipment of up to 100 different heroes. These elements don't fully compensate for the missed opportunities, but they're enough to make for dozens upon dozens of entertaining hours in front of your monitor.
Make sure to note the "online only" bit. Though you can play on your own, you must be online and signed into the game in order to play. Once signed in, you enter a game hub and a chat lobby, where you can find other players to group up with while futzing around with your inventory. The first time you sign in, a tutorial gets you quickly up to speed, putting you in control of a nimble little scamp called Blitz. Blitz, like all of Darkspore's heroes, is a creature that would have been right at home in Spore. Some of the game's heroes look like insects; others, like robots; and still others, like the monsters your childhood self imagined might be hiding under your bed or in your closet. In any case, Blitz is easy to get a handle on: you click to move, you click to attack, and you press a numeral key to perform special attacks. In Blitz's case, he can teleport forward for a quick, stunning attack; deliver a flurry of slashes with his claws; and surround himself with electrical globes that zap nearby enemies.
Blitz is only the beginning. As you play, you gain access to more heroes that you can take into battle. There are a hundred in total, though this number is a bit misleading: there are actually four variants of 25 heroes, with each variant having slightly different special abilities. For example, one variant of Sage has the "enrage" ability, while another replaces it with a root skill called "virulent vines." It'll be quite a while before you get to play with all of them, however, because you get to choose a new hero only when you reach certain level milestones. In turn, you group these heroes into squads--three heroes to a squad, and three squads in total. Before heading into a level, you choose which squad you wish to take with you, though you have to be mindful of your squad's strengths and weaknesses. Each hero is classified not just by class, but also by a genesis type. (Think of genesis types as the elemental affiliations you might see in other RPGs, though instead of fire, ice, and earth, you get types like cyber, necro, and plasma.) Enemies are similarly classified and do double damage to heroes of the same genesis.
The most obvious way that Darkspore sets itself apart on the battlefield is in how it implements squads. While you control only one hero at a time, you can switch between them in dungeons. Each hero has three individual active abilities available, as well as a squad ability accessible by the other two squad members. This means a hero has six skills in total at one time: four innate, and two shared by other heroes. This all sounds mighty complex, but for quite a few hours, you may be struck at how simple the combat is in spite of all these layers. Whether you play as a melee or a ranged hero, the combat is that of most such games: you click and attack. You can do so on your own, but Darkspore is a cooperative experience. Therefore, it's best to hook up with friends or let the matchmaking join you with others and drop you into the next dungeon in your progression (or one you have already completed).
Whether you're alone or with three others, the early hours are entertaining, but hardly noteworthy. Levels are a series of corridors in alien forests, frigid tundras, and rocky cliffs, separated by glowing teleporters that zip you to the next location. A droning computer voice fills you in on some backstory prior to many missions, and even during them, but counting these yawn-inducing updates as narrative would be giving them far too much credit. There is talk of genetic manipulation and numerous mentions of "the Darkspore threat," but you don't experience a story: you are only told of one. Action RPGs aren't traditionally story-driven ventures, but few give this little context. There are no quests and no non-player characters to chat with. Your objectives are always this: kill marauding aliens, find the hidden loot caches, and defeat the final boss. It's bare-bones even by genre standards, and the lack of challenge in the early going reinforces the bareness and leads to monotony.
In time, however, Darkspore fills in these gaps and shows what it's capable of--and to be fair, even the early hours are fun in the way most good loot-driven games are fun. It helps that Darkspore has a spacey, New Age vibe that sets it apart from similar games. An early level featuring glowing walkways hovering over asteroids and space wreckage is striking, as is a later one in which you encounter a lush green oasis where you would least expect it. Your team's exaggerated monstrosities are a natural fit in this universe where biology and technology are impossible to separate. The soundtrack's electronic murmurs and deep kettledrums are equally fitting. Against these serene backdrops, you unleash deadly cones of flame and summon glimmering trees of healing, and defeating aliens frequently results in a geyser of red and purple goo. Darkspore doesn't push a lot of polygons, and there are too many same-ish mountain passes and bland green meadows for it to reach artistic greatness. But it looks attractive and runs well even on modest PCs.