I recently had the opportunity to play the beta for Darkspore, a game still unreleased as of this writing. Darkspore is an interesting creature. Created by Maxis, best known for Will Wright’s Sim and Sims games, it is a kind of spin-off of Spore, Wright’s latest published game, which is perhaps best known for its creature creator.
Darkspore is essentially a fusion of that creature creator with a traditional Diablo-style “Action RPG” game, with a strange dash of Pokémon-style “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality thrown in. Though it initially seems to be an odd combination of elements, the end result is a revitalizing of the action RPG genre, made a little stale by too many Diablo clones set in varied but similar medieval fantasy worlds. Much of this is simply a change in visual aesthetics and narrative; where most action RPGs feature warriors, wizards, and rogues wielding swords, bows and spells, Darkspore has genetically altered creatures; from cyborgs, to multi-limbed plant-beings, to mutated insects; fighting scores of bizarre aliens with energy blades, natural weapons, and strange alien energies. True, these extraordinary life-forms are all controlled in a manner quire reminiscent of other game’s warriors and mages, but they certainly look and sound different. Further, instead of being locked to a single character, the player chooses three to bring along per mission and switches among them. Creatures are unlocked by purchasing them with points gained from missions and by reaching certain levels; there are literally a hundred creatures to unlock and take into battle, all with unique stories and abilities. Further, the creatures can be dramatically altered in both look and ability in the Spore-based editor, making each player’s version of a given creature unique in both looks and capability.
Another aspect where Darkspore seemed to stand out for me was in terms of how the abilities interacted. I quickly found myself combining different skills for maximum effect, adding a definite tactical dimension to the hack-and-slash gameplay. For one mission I teamed up with a stranger for a co-op session, and when I realized he was essentially going to charge in blindly using a melee-strong character, I switched to a six-limbed plant-based healer and ranged attacker; I spent most of the mission healing him and enhancing his attacks, while laying down a steady rate of fire from my distance attack. While many co-op games have complementary skills like this, Darkspore’s vast number of characters and skills allow for organically evolving teams of complimentary abilities, which I found quite satisfying. Further, every kind of creature has a base element and is weak against creatures of the same element. Care must be given then to what creature you use against what kinds of opponents, adding another layer to playing strategies. While it may be tempting to stick with a handful of favorite creatures, consideration must be given to keeping a balanced stable of creatures of different capabilities across all the elements.
Visually, Darkspore is a breath of fresh air. Strange, colorful creatures do battle over truly bizarre alien worlds; an early stage even has the battle occur on small planetoid shards spiraling towards a black hole. Definitely a nice change of pace from orcs and elves. The few stages I played were all very visually distinct and featured unique attackers and environmental hazards. This was enough to make me want to keep playing, to see what new bizarre landscapes the game had in store for me.
I honestly hadn’t expected much from Darkspore. The original Spore is known as a very innovative and unique game that is as much, or more, about creation than destruction. The idea of turning it into some kind of mindless dungeon crawl seemed to me like a quick cash-in that cheapened the franchise. Having been offered the free beta, I played it more out of curiosity than excitement; now I find myself eagerly awaiting the game’s release. My (admittedly brief) impression of the game is that instead of being an Action RPG with Spore elements tacked on, it’s an action game truly built around the idea of mutable alien beings that has enough unique twists and aesthetics to make it stand out from the crowd. It may yet fall into the classic Action RPG trap of repetitive gameplay, but my initial impression was very positive.