Darkspore is an online point and click action RPG that appears to take place several years after the end of Spore, although this is never expressly stated. A race known as the Crogenitors travelled and colonised the galaxy, creating sentient beings known as the Darkspore. These were essentially genetically modified biological superweapons, created using E-DNA, an unstable substance that creates mutations in the DNA of an organism. Needless to say, this all went horribly wrong, and the mutants become self-aware, formed a hive mind and almost succeeded in destroying the Crogenitors. It’s like a robot apocalypse, but without the robots. Apparently, in their millions of years of existence, the Crogenitors never quite got around to watching Terminator.
Fortunately, a few members of the ancient race survived and formed an insurgency, and created new living weapons. You are one of these Crogenitors, and together with the other survivors from your race, you must defeat the Darkspore once and for all.
The story seems really interesting, and is told by a short cutscene that plays when you complete a new level. However, whilst the overarching backstory is intriguing, the details can be a little hard to follow. The cutscenes appear to require some knowledge of the history of the Crogenitors, which for obvious reasons nobody possesses.
No manual is included with the beta, so some of the following information confuses even me, and thus may not be entirely correct.
The campaign has three difficulties, and you must complete the entire campaign to move on to the next difficulty. It does not have a certain number of levels, but rather 24 threat levels. When you select a threat level, a map is allegedly randomly generated with the selected threat level. Having said that, I have played the same threat level more than once, and found myself on identical maps, so perhaps I’m missing something. Each threat level has different enemy levels. The first level has enemies with level 0-4, the second has levels 2-6, and so on. They are named in the same manner as older games: rather than going 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, they follow the pattern 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-1. As the first number in the level changes, the level becomes significantly more difficult, and the level range increases by four rather than two. You must complete a level before moving on to the next. I’m not sure about this next bit, but it seems to me that you have to complete the level on single player before you can move on. This really serves to discourage co-operative gameplay. An annoying remnant from the co-op gameplay that remains in the single player is the inability to pause. I can understand this when there are other people playing with you, but not when you’re playing alone.
Basic gameplay is relatively simple, and is explained by a short tutorial. You left-click on the ground to move your character, and left click on an enemy or object to attack it. I personally found it much easier to move by holding down the left mouse button and moving the mouse to direct my creature, as this avoids excessive clicking. Pressing a numerical button orders your creature to use a special ability, of which it can have a maximum of five. I’m not exactly sure what unlocks these, but it is presumably the creature’s Hero level, which is affected by the quality of its gear and your Crogenitor level. They also don’t unlock in order, which makes switching a bit of a pain as you get used to a new layout. You switch between your three squad members with the QWE buttons, or by clicking their portraits in the bottom right. The system works well, but it is often difficult to tell exactly which creature you should be using; fortunately, it doesn’t really matter.
There are some hundred living weapons that can be unlocked in the game, but only three can fit in your squad at any one time. Additional squads can be bought using DNA, which you collect by killing enemies and breaking objects. One annoying thing is that you have to walk to the DNA to pick it up; it would have been much simpler if you gained it automatically. Each of these living weapons has a Type, different specialties, and different attacks and abilities. The type only really comes into play when you are facing another enemy of that type; they deal you double damage. For this reason, it is often possible to finish an entire level without changing character. Luckily, though, the game becomes considerably more difficult as you progress, and your characters’ limited health values will mean that switching is essential.
Some enemies drop equipment when killed. If you are playing single-player, this goes to you. In multiplayer, however, all players roll a 100-sided dice, and the one with the highest value gets the item. It seemed to me that I was getting the item a disproportionate number of times, but this is only because you don’t notice when you don’t. Still, though, it would have been nice if all of the items went to everyone, like in LittleBigPlanet and other co-operative games. There also isn’t really any competition between players – not even a count of how many Darkspore each of you killed. Half the time, someone will have left before the end of the level. You can play with up to three other players online, and the more players you have, the higher the experience you earn, and the more difficult the enemies, which is to say, having more players is not an advantage, but nor is it an inconvenience.
Getting back to the equipment you pick up (or buy from the store in exchange for DNA), this, like your creatures, has a type, and only a creature of the same type can equip it. Each piece of equipment improves certain stats, and increases your creature’s Hero level; each piece also has a level of its own, which makes choosing between them much easier. They are equipped with a watered-down version of the Spore Creature Editor, which you can use to make your creature look all colourful and interesting, but won’t, because it provides no benefit and takes time. Perhaps if you were one of those people who spent hours designing buildings in Spore’s Civilization stage, you might enjoy this feature. However, other than the name, creature editor and possible story links, the games are nothing alike, which, in my humble opinion, is a good thing.
On top of the campaign, Darkspore has a Player vs. Player (PvP) mode, unlocked when you reach Crogenitor Level 9. This is remarkably unimpressive. Two people go into an arena and repeatedly right-click each other until one dies. You can, of course, switch and use abilities, but it takes far too long, it’s slow, and it’s actually quite frustrating. Nothing to write home about, and nowhere near as enjoyable as the campaign.
The game looks very impressive, as long as you don’t zoom in. The environments are colourful, and you can often see scenery and future parts of the level below the ground on which you are standing. Zoom in, and you notice just how blurry the creatures actually are. Sound effects are nice and crisp, but some in-level music would be nice.
Darkspore is shaping up very nicely, and while it won’t be the be all and end all of action RPGs, it could be a highly enjoyable co-operative and single-player action experience. It launches on 29th March 2011, only on PC. Act quickly, and you could get into the beta yourself and give it a try.