Darkspore: The Even Seedier Side Of Life

By Richard Cobbett on February 14th, 2011 at 8:00 am.

Darkspore. Roughly 75% prettier than these rubbish official screenshots will make it look. Sorry. There are plasma waterfalls and floaty space bridges and really nice looking crystals and everything...

What has eight legs, three eyes, and a nose that spits deadly mucus? Doesn’t matter, just kill it in the face and take its stuff. Richard’s been playing a pre-release version of Spore’s psychotic cousin, where life is simple, death is cheap, and the only good alien is one that drops a particularly snazzy hat.

For Darkspore, think Notspore. In fact, just forget the original game completely, because whether you loved it, liked it, hated it or loathed it will have absolutely no bearing at all on how you get on with Darkspore. The name suggests a sequel. It’s not. If anything, Darkspore is Spore’s mirror-universe reflection, complete with little goatee beard. Where Will Wright’s attempt to distill the face of God into a strategy game primarily focused on creation, this one is all about smacking monsters in the face with sticks. Spore was built around editing. In Darkspore, you mostly get what you’re given. Most importantly, where Spore was a huge pile of clever ideas in search of a basic game, Darkspore feels more like a basic game in search of clever ideas.

That basic game? Diablo, of course. It’s a hack-and-slash.

It’s not however a brainless hack-and-slash. It goes without saying that Darkspore is nowhere near as ambitious as its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t quickly start noticing interesting tweaks and edits to the stock formula. The monsters for instance, even in the opening levels, are far more varied than you’d expect – in behaviour, not just looks. Standard goons included teleporting enemies, enemies that run around eating corpses to become stronger, enemies whose shots teleport you, enemies who become temporarily invincible at 50% of their health, enemies who do hit and run attacks, enemies firing incredibly slow balls of plasma… all mixed and matched to make much more interesting battles than simply fighting ten skeletons or ten bats. Later, replaying a level, it became obvious that there was a Director at work behind the scenes, mixing things up and thankfully not opting to send the same Horde of tough enemies a second time around. Things like that make a difference, even if you are just running through mazes disguised as planets, each with yet another Horde/stage boss at the end.

'Excuse me, Creator? Don't you have better things to do than repainting this silly armoured bikini you keep making me wear?'

Darkspore’s only direct connection to Actualspore is the reused Hero Editor screen, which is very weak. You can’t actually create anything here, only pick a monster from a list and then bolt on new bits of gear. Many of the pieces are straight from Lightspore, only now blessed with silly sci-fi names like “Velorum’s Psychic Inhibitor” instead of “Oh, You Know, The One That Looks A Bit Like An Eyeball”. Once you’ve got a hero in the Editor, you can move pieces around or stick bits where you like (within reason – while you have a certain amount of visual freedom, different types are still slotted as far as stats go, and you’re further restricted by the need for DNA currency to pay for upgrades), or give them a quick paint job, but they’re never likely to actually feel like your guy. Making a blobby alien uniquely blobby just isn’t satisfying when you know what the tools could offer, even if they would inevitably result in The War of the Penis Monsters.

In battle, you control a squad of three alien heroes, but only one at a time. The other two are benched until swapped in, either because your current guy is in trouble (if a hero dies, you lose them for the rest of the level) or because you need their character type – Bio, Necro, Quantum, Plasma and Cyber, because that’s easy to remember – to best complement your current targets. Each comes with a few special abilities, as you’d expect, plus a ‘squad’ one, which you can activate regardless of who you’re controlling, as long as that hero is still alive.

YOU! SHALL! NOT! PASS! Unless you ask me nicely. And use the magic word. And promise to come to my birthday party. Sniff. I'm a freak of nature. What cruel creator engineered me without eyes that could cry?

In the build I was playing, the combat was fun, but definitely needs more balancing before release. The basics are absolutely fine, with even standard melee attacks feeling satisfyingly hefty, and each character having a decent range of special attacks, like the chest-laser that carves a swathe through everything on screen or a teleport swipe. They’re all cursed with endless cooldowns though – 10 seconds isn’t uncommon – as well as your standard mana pool. In a similar way, the many-second wait between switching characters really needs to go, if only for the times when you’re under siege and accidentally switch to a healer, leaving your broadsword-wielding hulk on the bench screaming “NO! YOU TOTAL, TOTAL ARSE!”

That’s something that can be easily fixed though, and the basic feel is solid. What I didn’t get to try out, unfortunately, was any of the online stuff. Make no mistake, Darkspore is an online game. You can play it single-player, but I suspect it’ll be about as satisfying in the long-run as Strip Solitaire. Your characters are saved online, and the real meat of the game is clearly going to be in the co-op mode, which lets you team your squad up with other players and make the most of the different class types and abilities at your individual squads’ disposal. Hacking and slashing with friends is the only real way to do it, and at least the initial abilities feel good enough to suggest that there’ll be some entertaining new ways of crushing skulls for the sake of whatever the plot I quickly stopped listening to is about as both sides get tougher. That’ll be especially true if the monsters stay varied throughout, demanding more tactical thinking than usual.

There’s some interesting sounding matchmaking going on in the background too, though I didn’t get to see it directly, combining both your heroes’ level and an invisible rating of how good you personally are. This is definitely in place for the PvP mode, and is hopefully in co-op as well, coupled with the fact that you can only play levels that both players have unlocked. Both look to benefit from an almost slot-machine approach to loot drops that give you a reason to replay old levels and find more gear to kit out and level-up your various squads.

Darkspore offers another way though, with a gambling system linked to your victory. Finish a map and you’re offered a chance to effectively roll for a nice bit of rare kit. Alternatively, you can gamble that chance, play the next level, and potentially get something much better. At the start of the campaign you can only win a couple of maps before you have to cash out, but as your character level rises, so can the stakes. It’s a gimmick, but quite a clever one.

Argh! Sarien Spider Droid! Why's there never an Orat around when you need one?

Nothing about Darkspore is likely to set the gaming world on fire, at least not as long as Fox News doesn’t get it into their heads that its name is an anagram of “SATAN IS MY MASTER” or something, and it’s certainly no Spore in terms of ambition. If anything, that lineage is a detriment, not simply because Originalspore never took off, but because it makes the steps backward in terms of freedom and scope so much more noticeable than if it had just been a new game called Darkswarm, or ideally, something even less 90s and shit. On its own terms though, Spore may have given up on playing God, but Darkspore is definitely in with a good chance of hacking its way into a comfortable new niche – at least online, if probably not for solo play.

Darkspore is set for release on March 29th, 2011.

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18 Comments »

  1. Collic says:

    It’s encouraging that there seems to be a real game this time around, but the stripping back of the creature creation stuff is a little disapointing. When I heard about this I was hoping that stuff would stay intact, along with the ability to create asymmetrical designs- the one thing that bothered me about the original editor. Asymmetry is something you often need to create something truly original looking and unique in my opinion.

    I’ll be watching this with interest though, it seems to have solid potential. Excellent write up, as always :)

    • JuJuCam says:

      I believe asymmetry was unlocked in a somewhat recent patch of the original Spore. I could be wrong though – haven’t touched the game since I first played it.

    • alseT says:

      I don’t know about an official patch, but there was a mod released very soon after the game that let you make asymmetrical creatures.

    • Collic says:

      Interesting. Thanks for that !

    • JazzTap says:

      As a longtime resident of the Sporum, I can say that there was indeed an official patch to add asymmetry – by my figuring it came out a fair while ago, though unfortunately it’s also the latest one.
      http://www.spore.com/patch

      Far as my opinion goes, I got hyped up a bit for Darkspore by hanging around the two games’ forums. Disassociation aside, there were nonetheless numerous contests to design the appearances of various NPCs in Darkspore conducted using Spore. And there were some developers hanging about the Darkspore forums, posting tidbits about the lighting engine, which was cool.
      http://forum.ea.com/eaforum/posts/list/1664814.page

  2. karry says:

    “Darkspore is set for release on March 29th, 2011.”
    Thank god, from reading this i was thinking i missed it.

    You know what else spits deadly mucus at you ? Zombies. From space. Seriously, SPAZ guys/girls/whatever need some publicity.

    • nofing says:

      Yeah, I didn’t even know it existed until yesterday and now I just can’t wait for it to be released.

  3. amandachen says:

    Okay, so not much of a game? Another one to avoid.

    • zoner says:

      Thank god you gave your two cents. I wasn’t sure what to do.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      Yes, heaven forbid someone give their two cents in a comment section.

  4. Mac says:

    I’m glad I took a punt and pre-ordered this on the EA Store over christmas (along with Crysis 2) for just over £15 :)

  5. StingingVelvet says:

    I was in the closed beta this weekend and it seemed fun. Not a lot special about it though really, from my perspective, just Diablo with a creature editor instead of loot.

    I’ll get it for $20, assuming the final game has an offline option.

  6. MadTinkerer says:

    Let’s see: Darkspore is all about beating up your opponents and stealing their DNA. DNA is in bodily fluids! Bodily fluids such as those used in procreation! And Darkspore combines this with violence!

    Clearly Darkspore is a training simulator for future rapists. How many tentacles can you fit on your abominable creatures, eh? EH!?! Sick filthy perverts.

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      Buzko says:

      A training simulator for female rapists, at that. Or ultraviolent phlebotomists.

      Interesting.

  7. J-Han says:

    I don’t know about anyone else but I thought that in general the levels in the closed beta were too easy. I liked the game but I hope they make it more challenging for release.

  8. Jimbo says:

    Sporing?

  9. gryffinp says:

    I can’t say I’m too interested in this, but it does look promising. Maybe a demo would change my mind.

  10. Ergonomic Cat says:

    If you’ve played through Torchlight, and all the mods you can find, and you don’t want to torrent D3, then I think Darkspore is a nice filler. Especially if it’s $20.

    I played the beta, and enjoyed it. I played it for about 30-45 minutes at a go, and enjoyed it. After about that time, I felt like I was done for a while. Not bored or annoyed, just satisfied.