Two years ago or so, I wrote a cursory piece about a Half-Life 2 mod called Research and Development.
The thesis of this brief article revolved around the concept of “[identifying] and [isolating] a small part of a multilayered body of work, and then [molding] that into something that maintains the same level of quality on its own,” as the mod did with Half-Life 2’s physics-based puzzlery.
It was a fleeting idea, directed solely at a small project, but it bubbled up once again as I played Darkspore.
With the history of Spore looming large at its back, the existence of Darkspore–a game with obvious contrasts to its predecessor in both name and direction–initially seemed like something of an anomaly, perhaps even a contrivance. Considering the situation–the transposition of the lauded creature-creating tool set of the sci-fi evolution sim to a formulaic action RPG–several questions came to mind concerning the identity of Darkspore.
First and foremost were my doubts as to whether Darkspore was part of a planned progression for the Spore series–a practical extension and application of the original’s tools into a new and fertile genre–or simply an attempt to get a foot in the Diablo III door several (or many, as the case may turn out to be) months early.
The answer actually lies firmly in ‘why can’t it be both?’ territory. While it assuredly can’t out-Diablo Diablo III, Darkspore’s best qualities originate from the notion that it doesn’t have to. Steeped in that assumption, the game goes about characterizing itself in several ways. It begins by establishing an intermittent sequence of computer-dictated cutscenes and in-game narration that more or less lays down the business of its story; a nasty, universe-threatening conflict between the scientific-minded Crogenitors and their E-DNA-mutated mistakes, the Darkspore. Acting as a surviving member of the former, the player must reconstruct and utilize squads of genetic heroes to combat the spreading foe.
Planting you in the role of a Crogenitor–controlling the heroes from a remote, orbiting ship–plays up to the same removed creation quality of Spore, and contrasts with the direct role-playing of a Diablo. While heroes aren’t quite objects of complete disposability, the ability (once unlocked) to swap between a selection of three during each story instance eases the pressure of reliance upon the survival of a singular character. Subsequently, nimbly switching out one hero for another becomes an absolute necessity later on for taking advantage of the rock-paper-scissors matchups of your team versus the enemy. Combat control in Darkspore is the typical mouse-and-hotkey affair, with the latter containing not only a smattering of abilities unique to the hero in question, but (later on) a selection of powers from the other members of your squad. This expanded selection gives the line an effective diversity, and works largely to keep any one character type from being at a complete disadvantage.
In complement to its wide selection of unlockable heroes, Darkspore touts a repurposed version of the creature creator from Spore, though instead of using your artisan skills to craft a race of space-faring penis-beings, you’ll be upgrading the various members of your squad. This leads to my second initial question: can this translation of a detailed, nuanced system support the underlying premise and mechanics it represents?
As it turns out, the more-or-less defining feature from Darkspore’s pseudo-predecessor plays a fairly diminutive role this time around. Given that each available hero comes fully pre-built, there isn’t a terrible amount for it to do aside from the standard assignment of upgraded equipment. And that’s just fine, actually; allowing specific physical manipulation of a hero would be superfluous in the context of Darkspore, and using the system as a gauge to balance the benefits of loot is a non-extraneous solution.This loot, in question, is the byproduct of Darkspore’s interesting focus on the grinding of its levels. My third question dealt with the possibility of necessity and nuance in this particular activity, and how it would shape other facets of the game.
Darkspore presents its emphasis on grinding in a few ways, some more subtle than others. Chief among these is its “chaining” system, where players–alone or in co-op groups–can grind through completed and uncompleted levels–altered and scaled for uniqueness each time–one after another, building and risking the loot payout level as they go. Facilitating the player’s engagement in this experience are a steady jump in enemy levels as progression is made along the campaign segments, and the inclusions of ever-present chat and game creating and joining options. There’s deceptive depth in the way Darkspore handles this normally tedious trope; it scales grinding from a loathsome necessity up to the main activity, while providing ample tools and techniques to properly take advantage of it.
Built for the grind and light on the innovative, Darkspore still amounts to a thoroughly decent and enjoyable genre piece that does well enough in a few select areas to justify its slightly imported premise.
Things We Liked: The Chaining system changing the process of grinding. Simple and effective multiplayer components. Generally maintains a good combat balance.
Things We Disliked: Nothing terribly unique or innovative. Progressing through the campaign is noticeably more difficult if done alone. Hero navigation is often cumbersome.
Target Audience: Diablo III anticipators. Anyone looking for a solid co-op or action RPG experience.
(Darkspore – Developer: Maxis Software. Publisher: Electronic Arts. Available for PC. A copy of the game was provided by the publishers for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)