"Darkspore's combat can be mildly fun if the conditions are right. Repetitive and samey, perhaps, but enjoyable."
When I first played Darkspore, I was beguiled and impressed by the seemingly vast number of variables and options contributing to my success or failure on the battlefield. The menus were full of things I didn't quite comprehend, and I couldn't wait to learn it all and master every aspect. When I finally had the chance to start from the beginning, however, I found most of the depth dispelled after the first few levels. What initially appears to be complexity rarely seen in games today turned out to be an illusion erected by confusing menus and gameplay nuances that don't truly matter. The game is actually exceedingly simple: collect heroes, kill darkspore with said heroes, and pick up loot. Repeat until nauseated or until you beat the final, final level. The former is more likely because the combat isn't fun enough in itself after about ten hours.
Darkspore is a traditional loot-based action RPG in science fiction trappings with a dash of imagination. Players send characters through nigh-random levels and use one of five skills to destroy the darkspore threat. The game has a few mechanisms to set it apart from Diablo II and its ilk, however. First, the game boasts 100 different playable characters, or heroes. This includes 25 basic types and a few minor variations of each. As players kill darkspore and gain experience, they slowly unlock more heroes. Secondly, out of the roster of available heroes, players choose three to form a squad. Those three heroes are then interchangeable even during combat, and much of the game's strategy revolves around switching heroes at key times to avoid death and gain the upper hand.
Imagination comes into play with the hero editor, which is a modified version of the one found in Maxis' previous game, Spore. The system allows anything from enlarging body parts and equipment to changing colors and patterns. Pieces can be tossed away if they don't meet players' approval, and other details can be dragged on and adjusted to fit anyone's standards. Equipment adds another layer to appearance modification, and the myriad options ensure no two players' heroes ever look the same.
After selecting a squad, customizing heroes, and entering a level, players are thrown into near-constant battle with darkspore. Each hero has access to five attacks, two of which are determined by the other two members of the squad. Smart squad building becomes important for survival. Other nuances include a system by which enemies of the same type as your hero deal double damage to him, as well as an overdrive system that makes passive abilities temporarily stronger and environmental objects with various effects. And, of course, there's plenty of loot – hundreds of items with which to modify heroes in both power and appearance.
All this might make Darkspore sound like a deep and varied experience, but a few crucial errors in design ensure that the game remains repetitive and simple. None of the above mechanics seem to make much of a difference in practice, despite being theoretically intriguing. Due to a static difficulty and monotonous loot acquisition, I never had the feeling that equipping better items actually made my heroes more powerful. Nothing seems to matter except the five basic skills; not the overdrive system, not the terrain, and hardly even the double-damage system. The challenge is always the same, levels are nearly identical in design, and abilities never grow or change. Level 1-1 plays and feels just like level 6-4, and that is a damning trait for a video game to have, particularly one that focuses entirely on gameplay.
Despite this core flaw, players might end up extending already lengthy play sessions against their better judgment. In order to obtain more high-level items, players have the choice of chaining levels together. After completing a level at any time, players roll for a special item. If players proceed to the next level after completing one, they receive multiple special items. Losing an entire squad in that level, however, results in the loss of all special items. Players keep currency and other loot, but sacrifice those extra pieces of high-level equipment. The gamble is often worthwhile, but pushing the system can cause hearty disappointment. It's a system designed to be addictive in a game designed to ensnare players through addiction: devious and effective.
Darkspore's combat can be mildly fun if the conditions are right. Repetitive and samey, perhaps, but enjoyable. Even though there are only a few abilities for each hero, many have grandiose effects or subtly powerful ones. Cooldown times are mercifully brief, and area of effect abilities are particularly enjoyable, as are ranged attacks. The early stages of every level can be a bit boring when there are only a few darkspore on screen at once because the game shines when the battlefield is most chaotic. Later stages of levels practically pile enemies on top of one another to great effect, and bosses are perfectly challenging and intense most of the time.
Besides the unchanging nature of combat, the battle system suffers from a few other problems. Darkspore is a click-to-move game, and attacks execute either by left-clicking on an enemy and keeping the cursor trained on him, or by right-clicking and sending out a more general attack. I found the latter the only reasonable way to attack, and the controls – both movement and attack – gave me trouble throughout. I would attack when I wanted to move and move when I wanted to attack. This made melee heroes particularly frustrating to play. The game also occasionally throws an elite opponent into the fray, which can eliminate entire squads whereas before that point in the level nothing presented much of a challenge. This is both unnecessary and evil. Overall, the combat is fun, but offers nothing fundamentally new. To go from the imaginative hero editor to combat that mostly offers tired game design is strange and unfortunate.
Speaking of, the hero editor is the best part of Darkspore next to the ability to switch between three heroes. Editing heroes is always entertaining, and with a little ambition, most heroes can be made to look hideous, absurd, or disturbingly sexual. Some heroes don't have as many pieces and parts to play with as others, but stat-less pieces can be brought in and applied for that very reason. I felt like a child in a sandbox, and when a game can generate those feelings, it's doing something right. Had the developers carried this farther and perhaps allowed players to create entirely new heroes – selecting type, skills, and appearance – Darkspore may have fared better.
Enemy design is another aspect of gameplay empowered by imagination. Regardless of appearance, most enemies feel unique and many require various strategies and attacks to overcome. Some darkspore dodge ranged attacks easily, while falling prey to melee blows. Others are immune to certain attacks or put up shields or auto-resurrection spells. Each type of darkspore seems to have its own tactics, if not a personality. Some attack in groups, others pounce quickly before retreating, and some charge the farthest hero. Bosses have even deeper strategies to defend their darkspore master, and I always enjoyed seeing how new enemies behaved.
Level design, however, does not fare as well as enemy design. Although levels aren't random, they certainly feel that way. Enemies are sprinkled across levels as randomly as jimmies on ice cream, but the result is nowhere near as delicious. Some levels are indistinguishable from others, and players are forced to repeat certain levels beyond the need to grind. I daresay that Darkspore would have benefitted from randomly generated levels; at least that would infuse them with an element of unpredictability. After beating level 6-4, an additional difficulty level opens up, but I found myself too bored to continue. I just couldn't bring myself to revisit all those levels again. And then there's yet another difficulty level after that...
Playing Darkspore alone must be like walking on the moon after you've already lived there for ten years: lonely and desolate without any of the novelty. Thankfully, an in-game match-maker allows players to find co-op buddies with ease. Filling out the party (four players max) isn't always easy, but setting forth with two people is still better than soloing. Having even one other player on the battlefield makes combat more chaotic, and that means more fun. Unfortunately, if other players are significantly more powerful, there aren't always enough darkspore to go around. Regardless, co-op is the way to play, and Maxis knows it: playing co-op boosts XP gain.
Squaring off against one or two other players in PvP combat might seem like an exciting venture, but Darkspore features no motivation to do so. Battling with friends for bragging rights or stress relief could prove fun, but fighting random players is both unbalanced and pointless. Without a ranking system or any other way to measure achievement, I expect PvP arenas will be barren in the near future.
A Diablo II action RPG benefits from being pretty, and thankfully Darkspore features colorful environments and smooth animations. The darkspore threat covers five distinct planets, some of which are more pleasant to visit than others. For instance, the forest planet outdoes the rest in detail and atmosphere, but elements like footprints in the snow and burrowing beetles help other planets come alive. I barely remember more than about three tracks from the soundtrack, but the synth music is serviceable and occasionally amplifies the setting. I would have enjoyed more atmosphere and immersion, but the aesthetic package satisfies overall.
I save the worst for last: the story. Plot and character development are never the focal points of an action RPG like Darkspore. Typically, stories in these games offer a neat premise and possibly a likeable Mario-esque plot. Darkspore is actually worse for including a story, and that is a rare event indeed. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever wished a game didn't have a story before. Darkspore's plot is an incoherent afterthought, and the less we speak of it, the better.
Having fun with Darkspore is conditional. When making steady progress in co-op during the first three-quarters of the game, Darkspore is fun. Outside those parameters, however, Darkspore doesn't quite make it. Had later levels felt distinctly different from early levels, or had the game allowed players to create their own hero, the game may have been more memorable. Those looking to bide time before Diablo III might find several hours of fun and many hours of addiction, but others likely won't get enough out of the game. Darkspore may touch the imagination in ways Diablo doesn't, but the gameplay cannot move beyond the mechanical and the meaningless. I didn't need a reminder why I eschew this genre, but I got one anyway.