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Darkspore

"Darkspore combines hack 'n' slash gameplay with Pokémon-esque hero collecting and customization, and this is where Darkspore might entice an entirely different sect of gamers."

There I was at Maxis Studios playing Darkspore for the first time in my life, with one of the developers standing over my shoulder and dorks all around. My assigned account came with countless heroes, levels, and equipment already unlocked, and there was no tutorial for me. I was confronted by very slick, visual menus, but the lack of numbers was no help. I hesitated to click the mouse for fear that I would accidentally (and embarrassingly) delete one of my heroes or... well, I wasn't sure what was even possible. After spending some time in the dauntingly deep hero editor, one of the developers floating around the computer-stuffed room told me I could try out a level if I wanted. Thankfully, he showed me where to click.

Darkspore Day

About an hour before sitting down to finally try Darkspore, I arrived at EA Maxis Studios, an airy and whimsically decorated space in Emeryville, California. If I had been told after donning my name tag that I would later win a 2v2 PvP tournament, I would've set aside hopes for accurate precognition. If I had heard the prediction after being thrown into the game, I would have been even more skeptical. A total immersion experience like that is completely baffling in the best way possible: my confusion meant depth and complexity.

Complexity is a trait seemingly abandoned by many devs since the age of the Infinity Engine, but Maxis has created an RPG that is both playable and complex. That I could quickly pick up the mechanics and use what I learned to later conquer in PvP is testament to the game's accessibility. Of course, my situation was unique to the media visit experience; I'm assured that the actual game gives players a tutorial and slowly unlocks heroes and equipment, letting players properly acclimate to each mechanic. However, the fact that I still got lost in the action by the end of my visit proves that Darkspore is difficult to master.

A New Breed of Action RPG

During my visit, the dev team launched the open beta for Darkspore. This wiped the servers of the previously launched closed beta, rendering all progress up to that point void. Thus, many have experienced the game already, but for those that haven't, Darkspore is the logical next step after Spore. Related to Spore lorewise, Darkspore meets the demand most players had after completing Spore. As Lauren McHugh explained during my visit, players wanted Spore-creature carnage. They wanted to be able to battle other players' Spore creations in PvP combat. Darkspore answers that call, and does so in a fresh and compelling way.

On the surface, Darkspore is a loot-based, hack 'n' slash dungeon crawler in the vein of Diablo II. Darkspore's single-player campaign allows players to gather loot and unlock heroes, which can then be thrown into PvP combat. Those who don't want to go solo can team up with up to three friends in a game of co-op. Darkspore's inspirations don't end with Diablo II either.

Darkspore combines the aforementioned hack 'n' slash gameplay with Pokémon-esque hero collecting and customization, and this is where Darkspore might entice an entirely different sect of gamers. Out of 25 basic heroes, players select three for a single squad. Death comes only when all three heroes perish, and they can be switched at any moment, even in the midst of heavy combat. The switching mechanic is key to survival in any mode of gameplay, as each hero has unique abilities and properties, and each combination of three heroes has unique skills. Finding the right squad means finding heroes that work well together. Enter complexity.

A New Breed of Game Design

When depth meets multiplayer, fair balancing can easily go awry. Hence Maxis' philosophy of openness and collaboration with gamers like you. Darkspore is set to be released on April 26th, yet Maxis not only held a media event, but launched an open beta as well just a fortnight before the release date. As Darkspore executive producer Michael Perry explained during my visit, the video game development process was much more secretive in the past. With the requisite technology readily available and a complex multiplayer game at stake, however, we see the genesis of a new philosophy of design. Darkspore has grown and will continue to evolve as more comments and suggestions arrive from players who are busy playing the game, learning the imbalances and bugs, and reporting them on forums. Knowledge gleaned this way helps make Darkspore the most balanced and entertaining RPG possible, particularly when it comes to multiplayer. Maxis refuses to release a fundamentally faulty game, and the relatively late and recent release delay is perfect proof.

The Darkspore dev team doesn't get all their ideas from outside sources, however. They're very much gamers themselves, and their telling décor indicates a familiarity with the genre. There aren't just Diablo II posters and figurines decorating the Maxis cubicles; there are also a slew of Spore artifacts (obviously) and some stuffed Pokémon. The team has played the games Darkspore shares conventions with, and they know what worked in those games and what failed. Developers like Systems Designer Paul "100 spreadsheets" Sottosanti, for example, take inspiration from games like Diablo II. "The problem with Diablo II items," he said, "was it's actually pretty hard to tell when you look at a Diablo item what item level it is and if it's going to be better than another item you get a little bit later." Paul and the gameplay team wanted "obviously better items" as the player progresses. In World of Warcraft, Paul cited a different problem: "In WoW, you get a magic item maybe once an hour, once every half an hour; totally different than what we wanted." Indeed, my time with Darkspore taught me that equipment drops at a reasonable rate. Drop rates seemed neither stingy nor too liberal, which is important given that equipment replaces character levels.

As Paul explained, the dev team didn't want players to have to go back and level up a newly acquired character. Since Darkspore's gameplay hinges upon collecting new heroes, this was an important consideration. "The way you level up your character is by putting items on," Paul said, which allows you to "level up" any newly acquired hero simply by switching equipment from one character to another. This solves the problem of games like Pokémon, in which you have to spend an extra ten hours leveling up a Magikarp so it doesn't just splash around. By learning from the successes and failures of games like Diablo II and Pokémon, Paul and the rest of the Darkspore team can make intelligent design decisions.

Total Immersion in the Language of Darkspore

My time with Darkspore was brief and beguiling, but largely enjoyable. Aside from the visually stimulating interface and menus, one of the first things I noticed was the controls. I found them slightly difficult to manage. Darkspore is a click-to-move game, and since there is a crucial dodging aspect to combat, accurate movement is important. Targeting is also crucial – especially in heated PvP combat – and it's done manually by holding down the right mouse button or the left while hovering over an enemy. I found the right-button option more helpful, as keeping the cursor trained on an enemy can be difficult. Overall, I think the controls are Darkspore's weakest point, but they may just take some practice. I slowly became more adept at moving, dodging, and attacking over the course of the day, but I was far from mastering these basic actions.

Besides a basic attack (either melee or ranged), each hero has a unique ability, a variant ability, and a passive one. And, as previously mentioned, each squad has unique abilities as well. Generally, the only abilities that change throughout the course of the game for a single hero are squad abilities; each hero has a very limited repertoire of skills. While this may seem detrimental to depth and strategy, it allows players to master the few skills they do have, similar to what BioWare did with Mass Effect 2. Of course, every hero and three-hero combination brings with it different abilities, so a quick squad change can alleviate boredom. During my time with the game, however, boredom never came, and I only tried four of the 25 basic heroes.

Using an advanced version of the Spore character creator, every hero can be customized not only with equipment, but aesthetically as well. Each hero has various parts that can be moved about, colored, resized, and modified in various other ways to express individual tastes. This ensures that no two heroes – even of the same type and with the same equipment – look the same, something that plagues other online games. The level of customization is extraordinary in most cases, and you should expect to spend vast amounts of time in the hero editor creating the most absurd or badass heroes possible.

When the challenge is right, Darkspore is quite fun, and that's what's important here. Maxis knows no one will play the game for a deep story or character development or compelling themes. Darkspore is about collecting heroes, bulking them up with rare and powerful equipment, and laying waste to hordes of enemies. Darskpore can be challenging and intense, with giant brutes rearing up for a charge amidst colorful swarms of monsters shooting missiles across the arena. Like with any good action RPG, combat requires constant participation and strategy for survival. I tried out several levels on a few planets, and while they seemed rather randomized, they offered decent pacing. Waves of blood and explodable environmental objects make levels feel more dynamic and fun.

Levels are set up in sets of four, with a jump in difficulty after each set. Each group of four is set on a different planet in the science fiction universe of Darkspore. After the player completes a single playthrough on the basic difficulty level, another opens up, and another after that, called "Apocalypse," which offers an unbelievable challenge. We were not allowed to preview these other difficulty levels, but the devs made sure to mention that not even they have beaten the last levels on Apocalypse. Doing so, they say, would take hundreds of hours of loot grinding.

And that's just the single player experience.

Your Biggest Enemy is Your Friend

After my autodidactic tutorial, I was thrust into a game of four-player co-op, which included Maxis Software Engineer Daniel Kline. Once we got into an appropriately challenging level, we still powered through the enemies for the most part, with only a couple of heroes getting badly injured. I had to remain attentive so as not to lose my hero in the mess of vibrant characters onscreen. Some abilities are built for multiplayer, so it was nice to see them in action, but not until the mini-boss did we encounter anything particularly interesting. The mini-boss managed to kill every hero of every player due to an insidious auto-resurrection ability. That ended our co-op experience.

And then came time for the 2v2 PvP tournament, ready or not. I had no beta experience with Darkspore and very little PvP experience in general. Earlier that day, I had battled another visitor one-on-one, but that was my only advantage going into the tournament. I was in Team 1 with my partner Chris "pwyff" Tom from Zam, and we were up first. At least he was experienced.

Darkspore PvP is intense. There may have been a material prize on the line, but the bouts would have lost little of their tension had they relied on intrinsic reward alone. I found 2v2 particularly enjoyable because the battlefield is fuller and more cluttered compared to a 1v1 match. Strategy is doubled, and if you make a fatal mistake, you still have backup. The action is more constant and relentless during a 2v2 match, and running away to catch your breath is more difficult. We didn't have to worry about the individual participants' equipment levels; Maxis took care of that with automatic adjustments to make things fairer and more fun for everyone. The dev team knows that gamers will play Darkspore for the PvP, and they're making moves to ensure the experience is a balanced and fun one.

Part good fortune, part skilled partner, and part quick learner meant a win for me and Chris. We worked our way through the brackets and defeated the competition in several passionate bouts and went home with the prize: a signed copy of the game. Unfortunately, it isn't ready to be played. There's more work to be done before April 26th, and the servers will be wiped again.

The Evolution of Darkspore

Maxis promises to continue the development of Darkspore right up until April 26th and beyond. During the visit, the devs showed us a previously-unseen level that is still in the works (each level takes at least a couple of months to complete), which won't be finished until after the release date. Darkspore will be a dynamic RPG with major patches and tweaks for balance and fairness as time progresses beyond the release. In an example of the team's perpetual problem-solving, Gameplay Engineer Michael Arsers showed us something still in development.

The unfair distribution of loot in a co-op game is always a concern, but Michael was working on a new system to remedy those old problems. Called by him "a little bit of a trade system," the new mechanic will allow players to drop items gained in a level, which can then be picked up by another player. To maintain balance and prevent cheating, equipment will be automatically adjusted to the players' current equipment level. Michael and the others want to encourage gamers to play together, and this is just one exciting new way they're achieving that. Look forward to this fix in the near future.

The End of Darkspore Day

According to the developers at Maxis, Darkspore is the answer to the major criticisms directed toward Spore. They created Darkspore to fill two voids found in its spiritual predecessor: PvP and depth of gameplay, or choice. These are the things players wanted, and instead of making an expansion or similar add-on, Maxis made an entire game. From what I saw of Darkspore and its dev team, they seem to have succeeded in their primary objectives. Darkspore offers fun PvP and plenty of player choice and strategy. Basic combat seems simple, but squad building, skill mastery, and other complexities might well occupy tens of hours. There are aspects of the game not covered in this article as well, mostly because I didn't fully grasp them in the time I spent in game. And, that's a good thing.

Darkspore's hack 'n' slash core gameplay will appeal to a horde of gamers, but the collectable heroes and customizable appearances will attract fans of Pokémon and other such RPGs. When I walked away from Maxis Studios, what stayed with me were the hero editor and squad mechanics. These whimsical additions make the game unique and more palatable than Blizzard's well-made, but rather sterile RPG offerings. Clearly, Darkspore is an action RPG made by a group that adores the genre. After meeting the developers, playing the game, and winning a PvP tournament, I can't help but be excited to play the game from the beginning, building my repertoire of heroes as I go, with the goal of holding PvP rematches in mind.


© 2011 Maxis, Electronic Arts. All rights reserved.




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