Summary Judgement:  Darkspore delivers on its promise of monster vs monster combat.  But is there anything more to it?

Developed by: Maxis

PC Exclusive

If you logon to Steam between now and Sunday, you will find that Electronic Arts and Maxis are giving away a beta release of their new game, Darkspore. After spending six hours with this game, I find myself wishing that more companies would promote their titles this way.  Whatever else I have to say about this title, I’m impressed with Maxis and EA for having the balls to give away a working version of their game, even if it will auto delete on April 2.

Darkspore is the spiritual successor to Maxis’ sleeper hit Spore. For those unaware, Spore found its glory in offering gamers the ability to design a species from scratch.  Players would take their species from protoplasm to space faring civilization, designing its physical form, evolutionary foibles and social traits.  As an artistic tool, Spore remains an outstanding game.  As something meant to be played by a serious gamer, I found it to be great in concept, but ultimately mundane in its execution.  Bearing that in mind, I approached Darkspore, a game that will draw inevitable comparisons to Blizzard’s Diablo series, with a little scepticism.  I mean, Maxis is trying to make an inroad into in a genre where the gold standard is set so high that few can hope to keep pace.  From what I’ve seen so far, the release version had better be a lot more substantial if it wants to have any sort of lasting legacy.

The back-story and concept are mostly unique to 3rd person hack and slash games.  As one of the last surviving members of an ancient and enigmatic race, it is up to the player to use their army of genetic heroes to wipe out the Darkspore scourge.  While I have only unlocked about a dozen genetic heroes, the diversity therein is impressive.  One of my warriors looks and fights like a Protoss Zealot.  My most recently unlocked minion plays more like a scaled down BattleMech.  While you won’t hear me complaining about the scope of characters available for play, the fact that each one only boasts a mere three unique abilities is a little underwhelming.  There’s no tech tree for improving powers, nor is there a levelling system for the heroes beyond kitting them with better loot to improve their overall rating.  This might seem like a minor objection until it is put in the context of Darkspore’s campaign.

Despite regular and consistent mission preamble from a shipboard AI, every sortie against the Darkspore breaks down into three main objectives.

1 – Find three obelisks that will give you extra loot.

2 – Kill all Darkspore.

3 – Kill the big bad Darkspore at the end of the level.

Make sure to rinse and repeat for best results.

After ten missions of “follow the yellow brick road” level design, the game gets a little repetitive.  I found myself holding down the left mouse button for hours on end as my character walked in a certain direction, slashing or shooting anything that came its way.  Since the Darkspore ooze power-ups for health and special abilities, I seldom felt the panic of impending death.  Even if I did end up swarmed by critters, I could easily beam in a different hero – you get to bring three on each mission – and continue the slaughter without much thought.  Other than occasionally pressing 1 through 5 on my keyboard to chain a few special powers, there’s nothing really remarkable about the gameplay.  Granted it’s not awful, it’s simply boring, repetitive and uninspired.

One concept that helps redeem this otherwise plodding game is its looting system.  At the end of each level Darkspore awards you with a number of medals.  To make the most of these medals a player needs to complete the three aforementioned objectives, in addition to not having any team members die during a mission.  The game then offers a choice: cash in the medals for some loot, or risk it all for better loot on the next level, assuming all the heroes live to tell their story in the gene hero locker room.  Should one of the heroes perish, so too does the opportunity for special loot.  As tense as that may sound, it isn’t really that big of a deal.  The Darkspore drop so much loot during a mission that missing out on one epic drop won’t really matter in the long run.

In between missions, Darkspore, isn’t much different than Diablo. Within the safety of their starship, players can trade DNA collected during their missions for hero upgrades.  The one catch to this is that DNA isn’t solely currency, it also regulates a player’s ability to kit their hero with weapons, armour and equipment.  For example, I spent most of my DNA on an a mega plasma laser of unspeakable doom.  Because I depleted my reserves, I couldn’t equip the gun on my hero until after I completed another mission.  A minor annoyance but a mistake I, or any other gamer with an IQ higher than that of a Cocker Spaniel, wouldn’t make twice.

The thing that seems most disappointing about Darkspore is that it has apparently given up the very thing that made Spore a unique entry into the game market: the character creation.  Sure, I can customize my heroes with horns, tentacles, shields and orbs (which being the sophisticated gamer that I am, immediately turned into dicks and balls) but why can’t I make my own monster from scratch?  If I could go through the game with a DIY Hydralisk, Voltron and a giant one-legged hopping cock monster then I might actually drop some money on Darkspore when the time comes.  But if the powers that be at Maxis have decided that character customization ends at putting dongs and bollocks on lava monsters, then why bother shelling out for a watered down Diablo clone?

Darkspore seems like a game at the crossroads.  There’s no denying that the game has a rich looting system and potentially endless hero customization.  I’m also going to give a nod of respect to the designers for putting one hundred playable characters into the game.  However, the weak game play and god-awful level design is likely to find appeal only among toddlers and the mentally infirm.  Honestly, I’ve made more complicated environments in Minecraft.  Without major changes, I don’t see why anybody should spend real money on a game that boils down to pointing a mouse at anything that moves and occasionally bumping into some obelisks.

Overall Score based on what the Beta has offered: – 1