Darkspore germinating at Comic-Con

Comic-Con 2010: Maxis crew spills the details on key game aspects of its sci-fi action-RPG follow-up to Spore.

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Who was there: Maxis lead producer Thomas Vu, along with Michael Arsers, Paul Sottosanti, Lauren McHugh, Luke Harrington, and Casey Weaver.

What they talked about: The trio of lead developers was on hand to properly unveil Darkspore. EA had debuted the action-role-playing game at its studio showcase earlier this week, but the hour-long Comic-Con panel was the publisher's first chance to show its latest effort to the gaming public and go into the project in depth.

A plasma sentinel is pretty intimidating, even in its base form.
A plasma sentinel is pretty intimidating, even in its base form.

Vu began the presentation by explaining where the idea for the game came from. "Ultimately what we wanted to do was make cool characters with the Spore creator and beat each other in the face," Vu said.

The basic gameplay is a sci-fi action role-playing game, but players will have to focus on acquiring a stable of new creatures and then implementing squad-based tactics in the way they use them. As in other action RPGs, boss battles, loot collection, and co-op play will also play a role.

Carrington, whose previous experience at Wizards of the Coast had him designing Magic: The Gathering features, explained how he looked to the collectible card game's color system as a way to balance creature types in Darkspore. He accomplished that by implementing five different genesis types of monsters: bio, necro, plasma, cyber, and quantum. Each type has its own color and visual effects so players can tell at a glance what type an enemy creature is.

He also went into some of the abilities of each monster type. Bio specializes in healing, poisoning, and growing stronger. Plasma uses energy and lightning attacks, while necro deals in the supernatural and undeath, with an emphasis on attacks that damage over time. Cyber monsters have homing attacks and area-of-effect attacks, as well as the ability to lay traps. Quantum monsters are teleporting specialists with the ability to "blink" around the battlefield quickly.

There are also three hero classes: ravager, sentinel, and tempest. They likewise have their own specialties, with sentinels acting like "tank" characters in other games and tempests akin to mages who specialize in projectile attacks. Each hero class also has its own abilities; for instance, the plasma sentinel bears both lightning and plasma attacks that do burning and shocking damage to enemies. In some recorded demo footage, the devs showed that the plasma sentinel also has extra powers, such as a meteor strike that calls in a hailstorm of rocks at the player's command and a plasma shield that burns any foes within a certain range.

Players will also be able to switch on the fly to other members of their squad. The video showed the player switching to a quantum ravager and then to a bio tempest. Even if a member of the squad isn't actively being played, one of its abilities can still be used by the active creature, allowing players to mix and match teams to find the best combination of powers.

As for enemies, the developers have created a handful of tiers for foes. Minions have a single special ability and typically seek to overwhelm with numbers, while lieutenants are a bit beefier, have multiple abilities, and can often buff minions or otherwise make them more effective. The remaining types are agents and bosses, with the latter often summoning the lesser enemies for assistance in combat.

The game will play by a set of rules to determine which enemies to throw at the player and when--an AI director of sorts. The developers showed off a few different approaches to the same sequence, where a player's subsequent trips to the same areas result in harder enemies. The goal is so that players never play the same section the same way twice.

That same variety is a point of emphasis for the worlds of Darkspore. The team showed off concept art and in-game screens of a few different areas. Two specific areas shown off in detail were a planet of eternal darkness, Nocturna, and Zelem's Nexus, a drifting collection of space hulks, asteroids, and other debris. Each planet will have a story behind it, and the environmental objects will be unique to that area.

The loot system was given special attention in the panel. Sottosanti showed off a plasma sentinel at three different stages of play with three different sets of stats to demonstrate how distinct characters could be made. The final iteration of the plasma sentinel was nearly unrecognizable as the same character.

All of the standard loot will work with a "suffix" system that actually is indicated by a prefix. Each basic item will boost a stat, while "rarified" and "purified" versions will not only increase that boost, but will also add a second stat boost at random. In addition, there will be unique weapons that the developers specifically tune with a certain combination of stat effects.

While the creature editor is based off of that introduced in Spore, it has of course been altered for use in a sci-fi action RPG. Instead of starting from scratch, players will work from a hero's "base shape." Creatures will have a handful of slots into which players can equip their stat-altering items, and there are also another six "flare" slots that are there simply to let players customize the look of their creatures. Once they get that equipment, players will be able to rotate, scale, and otherwise adjust the accoutrements to their liking before sticking them on the character.

The panel didn't go into the cooperative modes in depth, but it did drop a tidbit of info on the single-player mode. The game's campaign will incorporate a risk-versus-reward mechanic, where players who beat the level are given the choice to "cash out" and take a reward or continue on and face a harder challenge for more and better loot. Of course, if they don't complete that challenge, the original reward loot is lost.

Quote/takeaway: "This is not a sequel to Spore. It's not an expansion pack. It's a brand-new game."--Thomas Vu

[Editor's Note: GameSpot had previously stated that BioWare was providing writing assistance for the game; however, the team has actually brought on writer Malcom Azania, who previously worked on Mass Effect 2, to be part of the Maxis team full-time. GameSpot regrets the error.]

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