We take a first look at Maxis' Spore action/rpg spin-off - Darkspore...
Posted | 0 comments | By Joe Robinson
I didn't really know what to expect when I walked up to the Darkspore testing booth at this year's EA Winter Showcase. I'd heard bits and pieces of information, half-overheard conversations and the odd mention online - one colleague even summed it up as 'Diablo meets Spore'. Regardless of whatever vague preconceptions I had of the game though, I was genuinely (and pleasantly) surprised at how engaging it was.
It's important to note that this has all the basic elements of a dungeon crawler
A spin-off of the core Spore franchise, Darkspore retains the customization elements but wraps it up in an action sci-fi fiction that does have a very Diablo-esque feel to it. We'd heard grumblings that it was a bit of a knock off because of this, but it really isn't - if anything, Darkspore is trying to emulate franchises like Magic: The Gathering, or some of the niche Warhammer game-types revolving around heroes and collectables. Unlike Spore where you can create a creature from scratch, in Darkspore you find/recruit heroic creatures that have a set basic look, and become part of your army. As you find DNA and power-ups, you can then selectively upgrade your creatures with different abilities and body parts, which is the where the Spore engine comes in.
The single-player campaign (which can also be done in co-op) is relatively simple, and even the story is fairly robust. The galaxy has come under threat from a mutated life form called the Darkspore, and you must travel from planet to planet (each planet is a level) in order to stem the tide. The dynamics of the campaign are interesting, as they involve a kind of risk/reward system that can help keep things fresh. There are a set number of planets, but the order they appear in is randomised depending on the difficulty level you choose. You play through the characters you collect, and at the beginning of every level you can choose your squad of three to take down to the planet based on the information available, and when you win, you're presented with a choice.
You can then either keep the loot you get at the end of the level, which would effectively 'end' that campaign, you can forfeit it and do another level with the chance of earning even greater wards, effectively 'chaining' your campaign. Obviously you'll need to be smart about this because, especially at the beginning, they'll just be some levels you can't do. But as you and your squads level up, you'll be able to take on greater challenges. There is a finite number of planets and heroes, as well as a linear story that has a start and an end, but the guys over at Maxis envision players going back time and again to grind through those levels to get all the loot they can, as reportedly there are hundreds of thousands of collectable items and upgrade to collect so you can customize your characters.
We're going to need a bigger boat
The only real doubt we have there at the moment is whether it will be interesting enough to do so. Will the difficulty levels keep up with your own levels? Or are will it succumb to almost MMO-type grind fatigue where you just find yourselves going through the motions. These are questions we can't answer now, but it'll be something to keep an eye on when the public beta goes live next year.
The real high point with this game though is the competitive online mode, which was just recently announced. Mainly 'arena' based, two - four players pit their creatures against each other in tests of guile and strategy. You can bring in a squad, like you would in a single player game, and the objective is to defeat all three of your opponents squad. Best two out of three, and the match making system is supposed to include several factors that can help make sure you're pitted against equal opponents. The creatures you can use in multiplayer are persistent with the ones you use in single-player, so there's consistency there. This was definitely the more interesting of the two game modes, although it'll be interesting to see if they can expand on it at all.
One vs. ones and two vs. twos are going to be the only game modes available it seems, although it's unsure how many maps there will be. This seems awfully limited for the times, even in the action/RPG/strategy genre, but Maxis seem to want to keep it simple for the time being. There was a hint though that further modes, maps, and even an increase in the player capacity could be in the works through post launch support or DLC.
PvP quickly becomes a game of out-manoeuvring and counters
Much like Spore itself, Darkspore will probably only appeal to a very niche audience. Despite being labelled as an 'action/RPG', there's a lot of strategy and planning to this game. What best counters what, making sure your team can cover all the angles, what abilities do well in what situations etc... the online mode will definitely appeal to gamers' inherent competitiveness. We think this is going to be an interesting one - it'll need a more in-depth play test to see how well it holds one's interest, but so far, so good. Darkspore is due out in Spring 2011 for PC.
Most anticipated feature:We didn't get to see any of the customization, but online PvP was quite fun.