There are no cute creatures falling in love. There’s no dancing and singing to win over friends. There’s no hand-holding as you evolve from a single-celled organism to a ruler of the galaxy. No, Darkspore, EA’s latest sci-fi role-playing game, has very little in common with Spore, Will Wright’s all ages-appropriate evolution simulator. Sadly, while Spore shot for the stars in terms of innovation, Darkspore largely treads on well-worn paths.
You'll take on the role of a Crogenitor, a powerful being who once travelled the cosmos, genetically altering the DNA of creatures. Apparently, a few Crogenitors got a little carried away with the E-DNA (that is, "exponential" DNA), and the resulting instability led to reckless mutations – called “Darkspore” – running amok. You are woken from a deep cryogenic sleep, and you have to reassemble an army to take back the universe.
It's all a little hokey, but for a Diablo-style dungeon crawler I didn’t expect much. What's actually irritating is the near abandonment of the plot once the game begins. Between each of its six missions, a monotone voiced computer named “Helix” attempts to move the story forward with brief videos. There are no other characters to interact with and very little context to grasp while jumping from level to level. The game also takes itself too seriously – for a Maxis title that deals with cartoonish alien monsters, such lack of self-awareness is both disappointing and out-of-character for the developer.
As uninspired as the story is, the missions are equally unimaginative. If you're looking for much in the way of objective-based missions, you're not going to find it in Darkspore. Your tasks follow a predictable formula: see bad guys, click on bad guys, kill bad guys until you reach a boss, and then kill the boss. The hacking and slashing does feel good, the controls responding as you would expect from this genre, and there's a wide assortment of loot to keep you replaying the stages. The dungeons themselves come in a variety of flavors, the maps are generally easy to navigate, and I appreciated how well the levels flowed, encouraging me down winding passageways toward my goal.
Your "Genetic Heroes" accompany you into each of these missions as a squad of three. After each level ends, returning back to your ship provides the opportunity to enter the game's Arsenal Mode. Here, in the ship's lower belly, it's possible to unlock new heroes and assign them into a squad. There are over one hundred unlockable characters, which sounds amazing until you realize that there are actually only four variants of twenty-five heroes. That's not to say you'll need any more customisable creatures; the large assortment actually becomes a bit of an organizational nightmare, weakening one of the game's better features.
Indeed, the one element in Darkspore that both connects to Spore and differentiates it from other role-playing games is the character customisation. I fully expected that the game would use a similar character editor to that in Spore, but what's actually included here is a disappointingly scaled down version. Forget about creating a “from-scratch” character, as Darkspore’s customisation boils down to slapping on items, rescaling them, and changing skin tones.
Characters can be customized with items looted during missions by entering the Editor Mode. Dragging and dropping a pair of spaulders onto its shoulders, for instance, will adjust the creature's relative stats. The items can be placed nearly anywhere on the hero's body and scaled to a size that pleases you. It's unfortunate that the editor doesn't have the same level of depth as Spore, but it's actually quite fun attempting to make the creature as weird looking as possible.
Given the amount of time you'll spend refining both the look and stats of your heroes, it's unfortunate that it becomes a bit of a mess. Leveling up unlocks new characters, who in turn need editing, and the entire process can start to feel a bit overwhelming. I would prefer to have six to ten solid characters that I can focus on using as opposed to one hundred characters that are anything but memorable.
Heroes come in three classes: Sentinels, who occupy traditional tank roles in party-based combat; Tempests, who possess ranged attacks; and Ravagers, who act as your typical DPS/rogue warriors. Keeping the three-character squads loaded with one of each class is generally an obvious choice, but character "genesis" types can complicate things. The genesis types signify additional creature perks, but once you enter a mission enemies of the same genesis type will inflict double damage to your funky-looking hero. It's an interesting concept, tactically sorting your squads to ensure maximum defense and offense. Still, why wouldn't my character deal double damage on the enemy as well?
While it's possible to play solo – inexplicably, online only – or player-vs-player matches – small scale, quickly becoming boring – the game shines during online co-op matches. Whether playing with friends or using the game's surprisingly effective matchmaking, cooperative mode is the best reason to check out Darkspore. It's one thing to grind through a level alone, but nothing compares to the pleasure of tackling a hard boss with another player. I was having a particularly difficult time with one stage, but adding a co-op buddy made the challenge much more enjoyable.
Darkspore probably won't replace your favorite dungeon crawler anytime soon. The satisfying controls and mountains of loot really only serve as a baseline in terms of this genre's gameplay. It would have been great if Maxis could have added some variety in the game's missions, but as it stands, Darkspore is a fairly redundant game with a slightly interesting character editor.