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.
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.
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.
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.