Maxis is best known for The Sims series and Spore, games largely about customization and playing with the world around you. So when I first saw that Darkspore was coming from the Maxis camp, I was a little confused. Darkspore sounded more like a dungeon crawler than the create-your-own experience type of game that I’ve grown to expect from the makers of Spore.
Darkspore casts players as a "Crogenitor," a sort of overlord tasked with creating squadrons of heroic monsters in order to fight off hordes of evil creatures. The deeper plot involves E-DNA boosted super-monsters, known as the Darkspore, destroying everything in their path across several planets. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly dull and clichéd. It doesn’t help that your squad isn’t directly involved in the story, but rather the player has to hear all about it through computerized narration. The plot feels like more of an excuse to take random monsters and grind through several levels—and grinding is definitely the name of this game.
Players start each mission with a squad of three monsters, only one of which is playable at a time. Each of these hero-monsters represents a different class and element and comes with a special secondary ability. Sometimes, the ability is as straightforward as bolstered defense, but others are a little more unique. Sage, a green plant hero, for example, has the ability to create plant-based pets to do some of the fighting for him.
Combat works out to a simple matter of left-clicking on a creature to attack and watching the battle unfold. Heroes will take extra damage from enemies of the same type, but in the heat of battle, I found it hard to tell which monster was what type, and whether as a result I was receiving or dealing out additional damage.
Even with varying attacks to choose from (three for the individual hero and two others that can affect the collective party), the game boils down to a repetitive grindfest. The linear level design doesn’t leave any opportunity for further exploration, so the only thing to do is bash the monsters and collect items. It gets boring pretty fast. Until the end of each level, that is, at which point a horde attacks capped off with a huge boss. In most cases, though, my squad of souped-up heroes was able to take them all down without too much trouble.
Earning experience points (XP) works a little differently in this game than in other role-playing games. Rather than individually level-up each hero, XP is awarded to the Crogenitor and not the monsters. To make things a little clearer, XP is used to unlock new heroes, as opposed to bolstering the attributes of an existing hero. Attributes are adjusted by equipping items collected in each level. These items not only beef up a hero’s skills, but they also work as cosmetic features that can be adjusted to give the hero a different look.
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The customization feature is nice, but feels somewhat underwhelming considering Maxis’ pedigree. Yes, players can collect items throughout each level and equip them onto their squad members, but this isn’t the kind of deep customization feature that I’ve come to expect from the people that brought me Spore.
Items are awarded at the end of each level and there’s also the option to gamble on end-level rewards. After finishing each level, I was presented the chance to move on to the next to earn extra bonuses, but if my party was defeated at any point, all of my bonuses would be lost. Whether players use this option depends on how confident they are in their own skills and in their squad’s abilities.
The game works better as a cooperative effort. Darkspore supports four player co-op and PVP and the former I found definitely well worth playing with some friends. I joined some parties with random players to do the Campaign missions and, while it was the same linear grindfest, it was at least more fun, thanks to the addition of other players. I suppose having a ready pool of players online is one upside to the required constant Internet connection. But it's too bad that if there’s no online connection, there’s no playing Darkspore--even if it’s just for the single-player Campaign. The 10-15 minute timeframe to complete a level makes this seemingly an ideal game for on-the-go play.
Playing through Darkspore makes me wonder if this is a precursor to a larger sequel, in which Maxis will expand on the concept. It feels like the linear level design is a kind of trial balloon that Maxis put up to help it gauge interest in a new game with more open worlds. Likewise, the limited customization options game me a sense of Maxis getting its feet wet in a Diablo-type game before bringing out a larger game that allows players to create Spore-like creatures from the ground up. Darkspore left me feeling like I'd had the appetizer for a grander main course. As excited as I may be for that to come out of the kitchen, I couldn't quite fill up on Darkspore.