Spo-kemon-ablo: Natural Evolution
It’s amazing what only three years and a new set of ideas can do. Since the release of Spore in 2008, it was widely acclaimed as one of the most revolutionary games of all-time. Unfortunately, it was also heavily criticized for its superficial gameplay. Enter 2011, and Maxis Software is hoping to captivate game players with an all new take on the franchise’s huge potential.
The developers have taken a decidedly more complex route with Darkspore’s gameplay, turning focus from the “god-sim” aspect of the original Spore. They have now shifted gears into a persistent online action role-playing game, which compares more to Diablo II than anything else; with a dash of the Pokemon role-playing games thrown in for good measure. Luckily we got a chance to check out the game first hand, to see exactly how this combination can fair in the realm of the action-RPG.
If you’re a fan of gathering loot, then collecting a hundred characters with completely different abilities should sound just as sweet. These creatures, known as “Living Weapons,” are who you will be controlling during your attempt to eradicate the Darkspore. As you go from planet to planet and gain experience during your battles, you’ll be able to unlock more allies to fight at your side. There will only be a total of twenty-five “heroes” in all, but each will have four classes to determine their abilities within a total of five genetic types: Plasma, Bio, Necro, Quantum, and Cyber.
The Plasma type generally deals with fire and electricity abilities, while Bio characters are typically plant-oriented creatures with poison and/or healing powers. The Necro variety can deal darkness powers, like striking fear into enemies or drain their life-energy. Quantum-type creatures can manipulate time and space, and lastly, Cyber characters can use a variety of mechanical weaponry like guns and rockets.
Darkspore isn’t about controlling a single character like most role-playing games, but rather a squad of three creatures that are interchangeable during battle. This makes the gameplay very tactical with their abundance of abilities at your fingertips. Our first instance of the game was in a cooperative scenario, where fast-paced thinking became standard after facing wave after wave of Darkspore. Even if you wanted to, sticking with a single hero is not a wise choice. Enemies can assume an identical class and deal double damage to your character, while adversely being immune to some of your special attacks.
Because of the constant character swapping, the combat never felt stale. One minute we were a Cyber class hero, launching a barrage of missiles at an oncoming horde, and then we swapped to a melee-focused Quantum class hero to teleport in and finish off any stragglers. Only moments later we changed to a Bio class character, which gave us the ability to provide a health buff to our teammate. While our co-op partner gained poise under our healing tree in the midst of his ongoing battle, we sent off two of our plant minions to do battle in our stead. The strategic possibilities are almost endless and, depending on your method of choice, you can certainly create a squad that will suit any play style. Thankfully the controls were simple enough to maneuver in a flash, with powers being mapped to the 1-5 keys, and each squad member mapped to the Q, W, and E keys.
Of course, this kind of game wouldn’t be much without randomly generated loot to provide a ton of stat upgrades. Enemies can drop items and equipment to suit any number of your creatures, which can in-turn be applied via the insanely expansive creature editor. Characters can don a variety of armor pieces, weapons, and offensive and defensive buff units that are fully customizable in appearance. Everything, including most of the characters limbs or miscellaneous appendages, can be shifted, rotated, stretched, and lengthened into just about any form imaginable. If that wasn’t enough, there is also a variety of skin textures with a full-range color palette to make every hero in your collection completely unique.
At first glance Darkspore didn’t seem like something that would impress, but it certainly did. After a little time studying its ins and outs, it was clear that refocusing the Spore brand to a familiar gameplay formula was the right move. With an online campaign that can support up to four players, and even a player vs. player component, there will be a lot to look forward to when the game releases on March 31st, 2011.
Like Spore, but Dark
Spore came out in 2008 to both critical acclaim and disappointed gamers. Although Spore was a great game, it was another that fell short of developer promises. It was fun, but not revolutionary. As a result, Spore lost the attention of gamers quickly. Now, Maxis has returned with Darkspore, a game loosely based on its predecessor.
While Spore was all mechanics and freedom with no plot, Darkspore comes with a dark story. The Darkspore are a race of mindless beings that have been warped by an infectious and rapidly mutating virus. The virus was created by the Crogenitors—the most brilliant minds in the galaxy—in an attempt to harness the genetic properties of E-DNA. In a tragic mishap, the Crogenitors lose control of the virus and it’s released upon their world. The Darkspore multiply until they’ve spread across the entire galaxy. 1,000 years later, a single Crogenitor awakens from hypersleep to find that E-DNA has been stabilized and can be used to manipulate the DNA of the few who have escaped the reach of the virus.
Compared to the light, silly tone of Spore, Darkspore sounds pretty intense. Trailers and screenshots show that it’s not just the plot that has been made dark. Dark colors are used on the desolate planets inhabited by the Darkspore, and none of the creatures look cute. It seems that Maxis has taken a cool but not revolutionary mechanic and added the one thing that can make any game super cool: despair.
Darkspore is an action-RPG with a top down perspective much like Diablo, and there is a lot of strategy involved, especially with the customization of characters. Like in many MMOs, a player’s effectiveness in defeating the Darkspore will center on looting. Items and DNA strands must be collected in order to mutate the characters into powerhouses that can be combined into teams whose abilities compliment one another in just the right way as to create an unstoppable Darkspore-killing force. Characters will be split into classes: Ravagers (rogues), Sentinels (tanks), and Tempests (mages). Characters and enemies will come in one of five genesis types, which determine their abilities and appearance.
Like with Spore, Maxis is promising almost limitless possibilities with hundreds of abilities and tens of thousands of collectable body parts and armor that can be used to create unique creatures. The Spore Creature Editor has been enhanced to promote deep customization. However, we won’t know until the game comes out how unique the creatures will be or if it turns out that there is one way to put together all these elements and make the perfect warrior. Of course, then it would just be Pokemon all over again. Sure there are 150 Pokemon to train, but if you’re going to battle your friends, you’re just going to end up bringing six Mewtwos. It’s unlikely that Darkspore will be as bad as this, but like politicians, video games can rarely live up to all the promises they make.
Even if the stat customization is incredible, it looks like the appearance customization won’t be nearly as cool as in Spore. Instead of starting off with a blank slate with the ability to make almost any creature imaginable, the player of Darkspore starts out with a basic creature and is given the ability to change it a little. You start with a big, hulking mass with appendages, and you can shrink the hands and feet and armor and make it more glowy or paint it different colors, but it’s still a big, hulking mass. This is disappointing but not surprising, and is the main thing that makes Darkspore not Spore. Darkspore is less about creation and more about battle. At this point in the video game timeline, it’s too much to ask for both.
If, however, the customization is as amazing as Maxis promises, then the PvP arenas will be flooded with creators looking to show off their creatures. Multiplayer will be a big part of Darkspore, with both PvP and co-op being heavily emphasized in the game’s developer diaries. The PvP shown so far has been two vs. two players, with each person having a lineup of creatures that can switch in and out in an instant, provided they’re charged up. Teamwork is key in these battles, as the right pull with the right area attack, or the right stun with the right poison attack, can combine to make a deadly situation for the opponents. Co-op modes for up to four players will also be available.
While there is no short supply of action RPGs, there’s nothing quite like Spore. What Maxis is doing is taking a great idea and adding a ton of cool. Dark colors combined with an evil race of mutated aliens, endless battles, and despair is a prime recipe for a cool game. Add a ton of customization options and you have a mix of all of the best things that can be in a video game. The question is whether Maxis will deliver on their promises or disappoint us yet again.