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Wot I Think: Darkspore

A strange beast shambles this way: Darkspore! 'Tis the progeny of Maxis, sim-creators, and it is... an action RPG? A bold genetic strangeness, then - but is it a virile cross-breed or an inbred abomination? Let me take some time you tell you wot I think.

Having carefully poured my tea, leaned back in my luxurious recliner/desk chair, and raised my gaze to the ceiling to think about the best way of phrasing this, I can state that it's, well, just a bit odd.

This is one of those games where two ideas were forced to mate and the resulting offspring came out with one eye bigger than the other. Moreover, its meat tastes a bit like an earlier era, when familiar systems (in this case action RPG whacking of stuff for loot) were more readily mixed with something a bit unusual (a character editor derived from that of Will Wright's grand sim-everything life-sim, Spore). What I mean is that Darkspore feels like it was meant to be a game in the spirit of one of those brave offshoot experiments that were so much more common in the home computer eras of Spectrum and Amiga. It's a game that's reaching for something, something that isn't there. What isn't there is a soul. The thing was born without that vital spark that made it really live.

Darkspore works like this: you are a “Crogenitor”, an alien genetics wizard, who has conjured up a number of “genetic heroes” - aka monsters from Spore on with with lots of weapons, powers, and RPG-style levels – to fight the Darkspore, which are various alien fauna gone bad. Your kind – the Crogenitor - has previously been dramatically defeated by the Darkspore (a story explained via undramatic robotic voice and fantasy art montage) and now they are back for their revenge turn. So far, so xenomongous.

And I suppose the creatures are actually rather charming, for the most part. They retain Spore's cuteness, while also managing to look vaguely like X-Men in fancy dress and/or a range of Transformers toys based on crustaceans. The story is badly told, but not damnable so. It's an offbeat sci-fi blather that manages to make a reasonable excuse for the hitting of swarms of monsters that you are about to do. Before the hitting, however, there is the planning. You are aboard a space-ship (which sadly looks a bit like the default “Hey, This Could Be A Spaceship” type demos you might get for a new CAD program or something) and that's where you find the editing and planning aspect of the game.

There are three screens to look at on board the spaceship, including one of your team, which is framed by a menu of monsters you can choose to have come with you for space-biff. Then there's the editor, which is a version of the lovely Spore monster editor, only with added to “loot” to be attached to your “heroes”. As these heroic monsters are adorned with spikes, extra eyes, and techno-axes, they level up. The higher the levels of the parts of your monsters, the better equipped they will be to harm Darkspore when you head into the wider world. It's a neat system.

Then, with battle-legs adjusted and carapaces dyed shocking pink, you're off to save the universe. That sounds like a videogame to me! And, for the first hour or two I maintained a bright-eyed optimism. Against all the odds of its ugly and complicated birth, Darkspore was probably going to be okay...

The universe that requires saving consists in a series of linear levels that are, for the most part, fairly pretty places to visit and make a fight in. They're not randomly generated, as Diablo-alikes have so often been, and there are a fair few of them. Having chosen a team and decked out the individuals to the best of their fiddly-tentacle potential, you can launch a mission into jungle worlds and bi-luminescent caves. Intriguingly, the game is permanently attached to a lobby system (yes, this amounts to always-on DRM) which allows you to grab someone to play co-op with, or do some PvP fighting against (once you've unlocked that PvP portion of the game). I'm not sure how many people will grab randoms from the void to play co-op with, but the option is there, and it also makes it fairly easy to find real world chums, too. Convenient for me, because I had to test this with a couple of real humans. I'll come to that in a moment.

Once in the game proper you find yourself in a familiar top-down action-RPG role, pointing and clicking to move or attack the Darkspore. Occasionally you'll let off the fireworks of your supplementary abilities to deal extra damage, AoE damage, or to heal up the character you are controlling. It's solid dude-whacking, and the powers are varied, solid, and often imaginative. What's fairly unusual about this within the realm of action RPGs is that really your character is three characters, because the team you select do not fight together, but can rather be swapped in and out of the fight at will. In certain situations they share abilities, too, so while you might be controlling claw-dude, you also get insect-tree dude's healing AoE thorns to help you out. It's a peculiar setup (like much of the game) but it works rather well, especially since you can swap out monsters to take on specific challenges as required.

It works even better in co-op, because the fact that you have three monsters in your pocket means that you can be the damage, or the tank, or the healer at any time. Need two damage dudes and one healer in your group? No problem! More tank, sir? It's instant, and easy. It's a splendid take on the MMO notion, but totally versatile and dynamic. This, I would argue, is one of a number of instances of superb design in Darkspore. This is a game that has had some serious work poured into it. Sadly, the icing is cracked, weird, and a little tasteless.

As pretty as the environments are, they're really without an essential character, and sort of collapse into a puddle of generic space-fantasy art. The same is true of both the Darkspore and your genetic heroes. While they all look fairly “alien” none look particularly engaging or exciting. Nor do they look particularly distinct. The Darkspore, on the field, seldom actually look evil or intimidating, and there really seems little to distinguish them from your own monsters, aside from the fact that you have a health and energy bar visible over you all the time.

The first hour of Darkspore gave me hope, but it slowly spiralled out from there into disillusionment. There is no acceleration into awesomeness beyond unlocking a few new powers, and the collection of bits and pieces of look might feed our collecting and loot-hoovering hunger, but the endemic characterlessness of the game means it's hard to engage for long without feeling the grind.

Oh, and finally, that DRM lobby system. It seems to be a little confused about what it wants. Or I do. Something is confused, anyway. I pulled out my network cable to see if it would boot me mid game. It didn't. But then later it simply crashed out to a “check your network settings” sort of error screen for no apparent reason. Clearly the utility of being able to jump into co-op with strangers – as I did - or do a bit of PvP when the fancy takes you, does not outweigh the annoyance of having this kind of DRM lurking in your cables, waiting to catch you out. It's trouble. It's unnecessary. EXCITING INSTANT UPDATE: DarkSpore's official Twitter says that there is no DRM here, and that it is "a client/server multiplayer game, like an MMO (or LoL, TF2, Guild Wars, etc)." So that clears that up, eh readers? (You can't play offline, basically, even if you choose to play alone.)

There are some reasons to celebrate the arrival of Darkspore, but they are few. There are other reasons to be indifferent to it, and they are numerous. There are reasons to avoid it entirely, and those are few too, but potent. As I sit here in the research crater – it's dark now, and I've moved onto the brandy – I recall that I rather favoured the idea of Darkspore. There will be so many unwanted progeny spawned from the loins of the gaming industry this year, and this did not deserve to be neglected among them. Yes, I wanted to like it, precisely because it's an outlier, and because it's a spin-off from a game that most people dislike, and because it's an experiment from a developer who usually doesn't dabble in This Sort Of Thing. That said, my leftfield underdog love isn't enough for me to recommend this strange crossbreed. That's not to say someone won't connect with it, just that there are better things out there to connect with, and spend money on.

I think, now that it's night time, we should take Darkspore to the woods and let it go. You're free now, boy! That's it, go find a new home. Someone out there will love you.

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