Evolved for Combat
Will Wright spent close to a decade putting together his PC “god game” Spore, so it should surprise no one that his company, Maxis, is doing everything it can to make up for lost time. The game was ported to various platforms (including the DS already with Spore Creatures), there’s plenty of merchandise available, and Fox is even working on a movie. The hope is that, after years of refinements, sequels, and spin-offs, the Spore franchise will match the success of Wright’s claim to fame: The Sims games.
The latest in this long line of products is Spore Hero Arena for the DS. Like previous games, this title lets you design your own creatures. However, instead of turning you loose to evolve your own society, Hero Arena puts you on a quest to save the galaxy by traveling from planet to planet defeating evil-infested foes and accumulating new powers. In the process, it feeds you a steady stream of somewhat boring tasks to accomplish. As a result, it too often feels less like a breakthrough in gaming, and more like a typical DS cash-in on a successful license.
The single-player campaign follows a pattern. You land on a planet with the goal of collecting several things, the most important ones being battery power for your spaceship and fragments of meteors. Some fragments are blue and make your character stronger; the red ones are evil, and the goal of the game is to defeat boss characters to win them back and neutralize their power. As you walk through each planet, a variety of characters give you assignments, ranging from the mundane (win an easy, short “race”) to the interesting (win fights against various creatures despite various limitations, such as not being allowed to use charged-up attacks). Completing these tasks earns you fragments, brings you new powers, and unlocks options for creature creation.
When you’re done with a planet, you return to your ship, which serves as a hub for the game. You can evolve your creature or make new ones, a process that gives you virtually unlimited options for customization. You can also fight single matches against either the computer or other humans, choosing between straight-up brawls and goal-oriented competitions (such as “capture the egg”). When you’re ready to move on in the campaign, you can visit the ship’s computer and trace a path to the next planet, which your ship, using the battery power you’ve collected, will follow.
The arena battles are the feature that makes the game stand out the most, so there’s a lot riding on the quality of the combat system. As in sumo wrestling, the idea is to knock your opponent out of the arena. Whenever you land a blow, you decrease your foe’s energy, making him easier to move with future blows. As for controls, unless you switch to the traditional D-pad-and-buttons setup (which we recommend), you move with the stylus and perform various attacks with the D-pad (if you’re left-handed, you can use the stylus and action buttons instead). You can charge attacks by holding the button, and once you gain enough power from hitting your opponent, you can unleash special attacks by holding the L or R button and selecting a move from the menu that comes up on the touch-screen.
There are several problems with this system. Some come from the controls; it takes too long to pull off a special or charged attack when you’re in a bind, for example. The biggest problem, however, is that the tougher fights (some of which come early in the game) are frustrating rather than addictive or challenging. It often feels like your enemies can knock you back a great distance with a single blow (unless you react quickly enough to hit the block button, which stops your skid), but that your punches, bites, and spits do little more than keep them from advancing. In some fights, it’s almost pointless to try to push enemies toward the edge. Rather, you have to wait until they move there on their own (which they often do), and then use a special attack to score a point.
The multiplayer here is two-player online or four-player local. We found that the game took a long time to put matches together (perhaps there were very few people logged in), but that there was no noticeable lag in the fighting. Unfortunately, the brawls quickly descend into button-mashing; they would benefit greatly from a combo system and a little more emphasis on blocking. Also, the arenas are big enough that it takes a long time to shove an opponent to the edge, so lots of rounds end in ties. It’s not something we see too many players spending lots of time on.
To be fair, there are other factors that make all this more bearable. The most important one takes place not in the arena but in the creature-creation room. When putting your little guy together, you have to worry not only about how he looks, but also about how each new feature affects his fighting abilities. This is also a concern when choosing and upgrading your special moves (there are three types of them: one targets the nearest opponent, another targets all on-screen opponents, and the third doesn’t target at all). By taking the time to build a fighter whose features all work together, you can dramatically increase your chances of winning. Oddly enough, it’s a lot more fun and strategic to build a fighter than to fight with one.
There are other upsides to the combat in this game as well. For one, in order to build up special attacks, you have to land blows, which forces you to learn each enemy’s vulnerabilities, even if in the end you’re just waiting for him to step too close to the edge. Also, you can retry fights whenever you want, so it’s not as though every defeat forces you to play through a 20-minute level all over again.
The graphics and sound here are about average for the DS. The world is rendered in three dimensions. You have plenty of options in terms of your creature’s colors, and the rest of the world looks almost as charming as a Mario game. The music and sound effects aren’t particularly memorable, but they definitely enhance the experience rather than detracting from it.
Spore Hero Arena’s premise of designing creatures for the purpose of arena fighting is a good one, but the execution is a bit off here. The endless series of unexciting tasks brings the game down and often makes it feel like a cash-in. Also, the various problems with the combat system make it far less engrossing than it could have been. In the end, though, any Spore title is primarily about creature creation, and this game gets that right, at least.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
They’re in 3-D, which is a step up from Spore Creatures. They’re colorful and about average for the DS. 3.7 Control
The game allows you to choose between traditional and stylus control; we recommend traditional, but both work for the most part. Charged and special attacks take too long to pull off, though. 3.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
No complaints here, but nothing stands out much, either. 2.5
Thanks to the endless series of mundane tasks, not to mention a few problems with the combat system, this game isn’t much fun.
2.9 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.