When gamers think of the developer Maxis, they probably think of Sim-type simulation games, not RPGs. But with this year's release of Darkspore, Maxis is making the move into the world of action role-playing games. I recently had a chance to talk to Darkspore's Executive Producer, Mike Perry, as part of a roundtable interview. Thanks to this discussion, I was able to obtain a great deal of information on Darkspore, which Maxis is set to release at the end of March.
Darkspore is envisioned as a unique, sci-fi themed action-RPG with a great deal of customization. This customization is a hallmark of Maxis games, and the developers have obviously given a great deal of consideration to how much customization is ideal for an action-RPG. While they did not give very much information on the game's plot, they did reveal that the game is bookended by FMV scenes detailing that story. The crogenitors, a benevolent race, struggle against the rise of the Darkspore, an enigmatic evil force controlled by a character called the Corruptor. There's no question that Darkspore's focus is not on the storyline – it merely exists as a framing device to get the player into the juicy aspects of gameplay and hero customization. Many more details were revealed about these aspects of the game during the roundtable.
The player-characters in Darkspore are the hero characters: those brave souls willing to fight the Darkspore. Mike Perry emphasized the customization options available when choosing a hero, which are plentiful. There are 25 unique hero characters in Darkspore, and each hero has three additional variants, bringing the total number of possible heroes to 100. But that's just the beginning. Players customize the heroes using a "parts" system, the details of which were outlined during the roundtable. There are two types of parts: statistic parts and detail parts. Statistic parts improve character statistics, which include strength, dexterity, mind, and health. All of these statistics feed into an overall rating, called the Hero Level. Detail parts are purely aesthetic, changing the look of the hero.
Each hero has twelve slots to add parts: six for statistic parts and six for detail parts. Statistic slots include weapon, offense, defense, utility, hands, and feet, and each hero can only equip one part that corresponds to each slot. Detail slots, however, are free-form and can be equipped anywhere on the character. And while both statistic parts and detail parts change the look of the hero, statistic parts can be turned into detail parts by stripping them of their statistics. This way, if the player finds a part that looks great on the hero, he or she can equip it without using up a statistic slot.
In addition to detail parts, Darkspore players can change color options on their heroes. There are two layers of color and pattern that can be changed, and the development team has dubbed the process the "car wash." These color options consist of an undercoat and overcoat, and the options for color and pattern change depending on who the hero is.
Despite the high level of customization in terms of the characters' looks, players are not able to create new heroes from scratch, although the development team insisted that there is good reason for the limitation. Heroes have characteristics called "class" and "type," and it is Maxis' intent that players be able to identify these characteristics at a glance, despite the level of customization. Type and class have a dramatic effect on character abilities and interactions, so players need to be able to determine these particular characteristics right away.
Classes in Darkspore determine how a character operates in battle, and the classes are broken into three types that should be familiar to many RPG gamers. These three classes are Ravager, Tempest, and Sentinel. Ravagers are speedy damage dealers, Tempests specialize in "magic"-type abilities such as healing, projectiles, and area-of-effect attacks, and Sentinels are melee-combat oriented tanks that absorb damage and deliver crushing blows.
As for types, these tend to correspond to elemental affinity in many other RPGs, and they reflect the kinds of abilities that the heroes wield. The type is reflected in the hero's appearance as well. The first type is plasmagenesis, and heroes of this type manipulate fire and lightning, with abilities that might involve projectiles or area-of-effect attacks. Biogenesis is plant-based, with abilities like healing, poison, and control of the flora. For fans of Diablo II's Necromancer class, there is the necrogenesis type for undead heroes, complete with life-draining skills. Cybergenesis heroes are technology-based, with cybernetic parts and weapons like lasers. Finally, there are quantumgenesis heroes, who are able to manipulate time and space. Each type deals double damage to other characters of the same type, so there is certainly a bit of strategy needed to inflict maximum damage and protect the player's hero when encountering different types.
With the 25 core heroes and their variants, there are plenty of possible combinations between type and class. Mike Perry used Zrin (who was featured in a video on RPGFan earlier this month) as an example often. Zrin is a plasmagenesis Sentinel, meaning that he is a close-combat oriented hero with fire and lightning abilities. Some heroes, including Zrin, are available from the outset of the game, while others need to be unlocked as the player progresses.
And how does the player progress through Darkspore? The single-player and co-operative modes of the game follow the same path. At any time, the player controls a single hero within a squad of three. And at any time, the player may create up to three squads to use. The player then deploys their squad to a planet, where they battle NPCs, gain loot for the hero, and eventually fight a boss character or horde of enemies. Players can switch between the three characters in the squad on the fly, and doing so can allow for variations in abilities and more effective combat. In addition to regular attacks, each character has up to four special abilities that can be used to change the pace of battle. While most of the abilities are what players might expect from an action-RPG (projectiles, healing, area-of-effect spells), each character also has a shared squad ability. These shared squad abilities are character-unique, but can be used by other members of the squad. For example, if the player were controlling a different character, but had Zrin in the squad, the character the player controls might be able to use Zrin's Plasma Column ability in addition to all of their own unique abilities.
The different planets in Darkspore's campaign correspond to different levels, and the game adds a risk/reward system called "planet chaining" to the normal level progression. At the end of a level, the player gets a special loot bonus for defeating the boss character or finishing the stage. There is an option to forgo the bonus, and to chain the next planet. In exchange for giving up the loot on the level that was just completed, the player has the option to move to the next level and receive bigger and better loot upon completion of the new level. This chain can continue on and on, and the rewards are staggering at some of the later levels. But if the player's characters bite off more than they can chew and are defeated, the player loses out on all of the loot they could have earned in the past and receives no bonus. This adds an element of danger and of great reward to those players that are willing to go for a big chain.
Another aspect of the game we discussed is enemy difficulty, and the unique approach to enemy artificial intelligence. Mike Perry specifically held up zombie shooter Left 4 Dead as an example of what the development team was attempting to use as a template for enemy AI. In Darkspore, there is an AI director, and the director feeds off of several inputs in order to provide an appropriate challenge for the player. Player ability, whether or not multiple players are playing co-op, and other factors influence the behavior, type, and number of enemies that players will be faced with in Darkspore. Also, upon completion of the main campaign, the game is not "over." Instead, new difficulty options are unlocked and more challenges await the player.
As mentioned before, there are several gameplay modes in Darkspore. The single-player campaign is fully functional on its own, but there are also cooperative and player-versus-player multiplayer modes. The co-op multiplayer mode can handle up to four players, and does not differ dramatically from the single-player campaign aside from an XP bonus given to players who co-op. But PvP is different, allowing players to fight in one-on-one or two-on-two arena battles using the characters from their campaigns. There is a robust matchmaking system that allows players to create custom matches with friends or find players of similar Hero Level from around the world to battle. This online component is supported through an EA nucleus account, usable by anyone who's played EA computer games in the recent past.
In truth, the game is not only online-capable, but it is actually online-only. Darkspore does not have any DRM restrictions, and the client can be downloaded on any PC. Data is persistent through the game world and stored on servers, allowing the player to pick up and play no matter which Darkspore-enabled PC they choose to use. This may be great news for computer gamers, but the Maxis team said that there was no plan for a console release at this time, though they would certainly listen to the fan and player community for input on that front.
One of the last questions that the Executive Producer answered was in regards to the game's music. He revealed that the game is being scored by the Dutch musician Junkie XL, and will reflect the musician's synthesizer-oriented techno sound. The development team mentioned that they were going for a science-fiction sound reminiscent of the film Blade Runner or other 1980's sci-fi movies. Since Darkspore is already very different from the traditional fantasy setting of many action-RPGs, this futuristic sound should certainly help highlight the uniqueness of the game.
The development team also revealed that there will be a few opportunities to play Darkspore before the official release date. Perry announced that public beta testing will be opening up very soon, and that these beta tests will include both PvE and PvP content. In addition, a demo will be made available before the product launch, and will continue to be available after Darkspore has hit retail shelves.
Surprisingly, the team is leveraging the Spore community to help develop enemy non-player characters in Darkspore. Spore features a robust creature creator, and Maxis has provided the Spore community with descriptions of certain kinds of NPCs they wish to use in the game. After giving attributes, qualities, and other information to Spore players, they opened up a submission system whereby Spore players could send in their designs for creatures to appear in Darkspore. This has been a resounding success for the development team, as thousands of submissions have come in. This aspect of crowdsourcing enemy designs gives people who are already part of Maxis' existing fanbase the opportunity to develop content for Darkspore in a small way.
Speaking of the Darkspore community, Executive Producer Perry made it very clear that Maxis fully intends to support the Darkspore player community through launch and continuing on into the future. While they have not announced any plans to introduce new content after release, the infrastructure to add new content exists within Maxis and within Darkspore, and the team insists that they will do everything they can to support the community of Darkspore players beyond this year's initial release.
In this roundtable, I was presented with a picture of a unique and highly customizable action-RPG. It appears obvious that the developers are extremely excited about the opportunities that Darkspore presents to players, and that the different modes of gameplay and number of hero types could provide a great deal of replay value. Anticipation is building for what could be a very exciting and fun-to-play game. Darkspore will be released on March 29th, 2011 for PC.
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