Spore is an amazing creative experience diluted by a broad gameplay focus. Darkspore has one focus: Building a better killing machine. I took my monster squad to task in story mode and player-versus-player combat and lived to tell the tale.
Darkspore takes the popular creature creation tools from Spore and weaponizes them. That's the simplest way to explain the upcoming science fiction action role-playing game from developer Maxis Software and Electronic Arts. It combines the isometric view and point-and-click combat of Blizzard's Diablo series with the powerful Spore customization engine to deliver a star-spanning space adventure that feels familiar and alien at the same time.
Why We Fight
Darkspore's story begins with the player waking up after eons of cryogenic sleep by a female artificial intelligence called Helix. You are one of the last surviving members of the Crogenitor, an ancient race that once traveled the galaxy, genetically altering the DNA of life forms they encountered to give them new powers and abilities. They created super warriors called the Genetic Heroes, the creatures the player controls in battle.
It turns out that ages ago a rogue group of Crogenitors began experimenting with "exponential DNA", an extremely powerful, extremely unstable for of DNA. They were successful in making even more powerful soldiers, but something went wrong. The soldiers mutated into twisted abominations and turned on their masters. The Crogenitors fought against these Darkspore for ages, but ultimately the battle was lost.
Now, ages later, the player awakens. E-DNA has finally been stabilized, and it must be used to breed more powerful Genetic Heroes to take back the universe from the Darkspore, one planet at a time.
Due to some issues with beta patching, the original plan for me to play through the game's campaign mode cooperatively with other players fell through, so I was forced to earn my first six Crogenitor levels on my own.
Story missions begin with squad formation. The player can bring a team of three Heroes on any given mission. Each Hero is of a certain type - Necro, Cyber, Bio, Plasma, and Quantum - each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore there are specific roles each hero fills. A Ravager hero is a close combat fighting machine, high on damage but not so great on armor. Sentinels are the game's tank class, standing between the enemy and Tempests, a more ranged-oriented role.
There's only one major caveat when forming a team: pitting Heroes against enemies of the same element is less effective. Thankfully each mission begins by showing you what sorts of creatures you'll be fighting against, allowing you to craft the perfect squad for any situation.
Once you've got your squad together you're dropped into the action. You control one of your three Heroes at any given time. The Q, W, and E keys on the keyboard allow you to swap Heroes out, with a timer in effect to keep players from overusing the explosive effect swapping has on enemies.
Controls are simple enough. Left-clicking your mouse attacks enemies, opens treasure obelisks, moves your Hero, and loots. The one through five number keys control your Heroes special powers, the first two being signature attacks and the last three special team-based powers unlocked as you progress through the first few missions.
The missions themselves are pretty straightforward. Fight your way through waves of Darkspore enemies to a teleportation pad that takes you to a final boss fight. Boss fights can consist of hordes of enemies with more a slightly more difficult enemy arriving in the final wave, or (at least in one case) one massive boss that takes a little more strategy to take down.
My initial team proves more than strong enough to take down the first several levels of the game. Blitz, my plasma Ravager, can teleport into enemies, stunning them before tearing into them with his claws. Sage, a bio Tempest, fires green energy from afar, using his powers to heal his compatriots while the minions he spawns whittle away at the enemy. When the situation looks bleak I switch to Goliath, my trusty cyber Sentinel, whose glowing sword and chest-beam attacks are always ready to save the day.
Waves of enemies crowd me and die in droves. Swarms of piranha that blink to random areas of the map when they're hit. Ethereal jellyfish that shoot slow-moving balls of teleportation, warping you about the screen like their own personal plaything. I am poisoned. I am slowed. Still I persevere.
At the end of each battle I gain Crogenitor experience, with new levels granting me the ability to unlock more heroes, purchase new weapons, and buy special upgrades.
I also get some special loot, though I'm given the option to let it ride, immediately jumping into the next level without tweaking my heroes. The challenge is greater, but so is the reward. I only let it ride once, and while the enemies do pack more of a punch, I can handle it. I opt out of doing it three times, accepting my more powerful reward and moving on.
The Calm Before the Storm
In between levels I'm given the chance to attach items I've purchased or looted to my Heroes using an interface pulled directly from Spore. In the editor I can place items I've acquired directly onto my Heroes, adding to their statistics while cosmetically altering them to my liking.
I can't go hog-wild, however. Each piece has a DNA cost, and each Hero has a DNA limit. DNA points acquired during the campaign mode will give your Heroes more room for improvement, so the more you play a certain character the better he, she, or it will become.
Each new part also increases the level of your Hero, a statistic that is mainly used to match up players in PVP combat. A level three Hero can quickly jump a dozen levels with the addition of the right piece of equipment.
Along with new parts, I can also go deeper into the editor, changing the color and composition of my Heroes' exterior, personalizing my team so that my enemies remember the squad that took them down.
Once I hit Crogenitor level seven I was able to purchase the unlock that granted me access to the PVP arenas in Darkspore. This spelled certain doom for Thomas Vu, Darkspore's lead producer.
After spending the better part of three hours reaching Crogenitor level seven it was finally time to put my newfound skills to the test in Darkspore's 1-on-1 battle arena. While 2-on-2 battles will be the game's primary focus, 1-on-1 battles give players a chance to test out their customized squads against other players in a more relaxed setting.
The setting wasn't so relaxed for Darkspore's lead producer, however.
Thomas Vu and senior systems designer Paul Sottosanti were the only two people left with me on the voice chat channel set up for our little beta test by the time I got around to trying PVP. Thomas walked me through gearing up my squad - I stuck with Sage, Blitz, and Goliath - and once he knew my Hero levels he set his up to match mine. It's a nifty feature of the game, allowing even the most advanced players to bring their battlers down to earth to take on the little guy, should they feel the need.
One-on-one PVP battles take place in a series of smaller arenas. The match begins with one member of your squad sitting alone in a waiting room, giving you time to switch between the three members before the battle begins. Once it does you are warped into the arena proper, and battle begins.
Each battle is a series of three matches, with the player winning two of those three declared the winner.
My first match doesn't go so well. Thomas knows his Heroes, as well he should, and this is new territory for me. I spend the vast majority of my time simply trying to catch up to his Heroic representation, randomly clicking the one through five buttons in hope of striking it lucky. I almost do, but Thomas defeats the last of my three Heroes with a sliver of health remaining.
Time for strategy.
In the second round I give chase with Blitz, using the groups lightning shield ability to damage him when he gets close. On the run, he puts distance between his Hero and mine, but Blitz can teleport, stunning the enemy when he lands. The combination of the lightning shield and teleport is potent. So potent that Thomas tells Paul they might need to lower the lightning shield's power. Blitz takes out two of Thomas' Heroes, and I bring in the might Goliath to bat cleanup.
In the third round Thomas tries to play keep-away, but Sage's minions hone in on him wherever he goes in the arena. All I have to do is switch to Sage, see where the minions go, and then switch back to Blitz, teleporting to his location. The match ends quickly, and I've won the battle.
We go for one more. I quickly dispatch Thomas' crew in the first round. In the second round he attempts to tweak his squad, something losing players may do between rounds. He tries to bring in a Hero with the power to go ethereal, hoping it would save him from the lightning shield.
It does not.
From the way Thomas and Paul are talking, I wouldn't expect the lightning shield to be quite that powerful when the game ships in late March. You can blame me for it.
Sowing the Seeds of Destruction
While the single-player or cooperative story mode missions in Darkspore are entertaining enough, after playing only two full rounds of player-versus-player combat it's easy to see where the lasting draw of the game lies.
The story mode serves as a means to an end; a place to earn DNA customization points and equipment to build the perfect trio of arena battlers out of the game's 100 or so Heroes. It's an expansive training ground from which players will emerge, primed and ready for PVP dominance.
I'm already planning my perfect squad. Head over to Darkspore's official website to sign up for the upcoming public beta test, and get a leg up on the competition.