Spore might not have known exactly what it was, but at least it was cute and cuddly. Darkspore doesn't even have that, trading away the light, airy styles of its predecessor for a bizarrely morbid atmosphere and a plot about the genocidal destruction of a creative race.
That's not what we expect from a Spore game, although perhaps the clue was in the title. Still, what we have in Darkspore is something that now knows just what it wants to be – Diablo – but doesn't manage to achieve it. It also effectively tosses away the one shining light the first Spore had, but more on that later.
So, Darkspore is like Diablo. You take control of a squad of three pseudo-claymation heroes who trawl through level after level, bashing bad guys (the titular Darkspore), collecting loot drops and exploring corrupted landscapes.
You can only control one of these characters at any one time if you're playing by yourself, although in multiplayer co-op, this obviously changes and you can have more than one hero on-screen at a time, controlled by your chums.
If you're on your lonesome, you'll just have to select a group of three heroes out of the 100 available to unlock over time (although there are only 25 noticeable different characters, with the 75 others just being variations on the other themes). There are three different types of character to choose from, each with their own skills and abilities.
Ravagers and Sentinels are tough nuts, for example, the latter being more useful as a slow-moving tank and the former being a quicker strike unit. The Tempest is more likely to heal and provide life-giving buffs, and uses ranged attacks instead of getting stuck in with his/her fists.
These three are split into five genetic types: Plasma, Quantum, Cyber, Necro and Bio. Each of these gives specific powers to the characters, so a Plasma Ravager would use fire and electric attacks, while a Bio Tempest makes use of life-force and poisons. Each character has three abilities that they can use, while two more are shared between the group, meaning that even a healer can do big damage with a shared action.
All this means there are plenty of variations on the three-strong team you'll be taking into each mission, the beginning of which tells you just what types of enemy you'll be going up against. The main reason you need to know this is because if you take heroes of the same genetic type, the enemies will inflict double damage on you.
But this doesn't happen in reverse at any point. It's a very strange design decision, although it does link in with the one Maxis took to allow you, after each successful level, to stick or twist by either collecting your rewards or moving straight onto the next level with your current squad.
If you do this, there's the chance you'll end up with a squad entirely unable to complete the mission, as the enemies might be the same genetic type and therefore you'll be hard-pressed to get anywhere.
This kind of defeats the point of the whole 'gambling' mechanic as you can't rely on your current squad being of use in the next level, especially later on. So you'll almost always just take the loot and hope for the best after each level, making the whole gambling thing pointless. Or maybe that's just me, I don't know.
Darkspore's also got the controversial “always online” DRM system for users to contend with, which if reports are to be believed, signs you out and loses your unsaved progress should you alt+tab out for too long.
One of the good aspects of being online all the time is that you and everyone else playing will be available for co-op matchmaking and PvP, if you can stand playing with random players. The latter mode is fairly weak, with only 1v1 and 2v2 modes available. There's a degree of tactics to employed in terms of your selection of characters and such, but it's nearly always the case that if you're the first to lose a player, the game's all but over.
Co-op then is where the game shines most, both because the solitary grind of a Diablo-esque game is replaced by interaction with a fellow human and the way two or three players can devise new strategies and tactics between them.
On your own, Darkspore doesn't really offer anything that exciting to the veteran loot grabber, but together with others it does raise itself up slightly. However, it isn't set up to maximise this cooperative aspect, given that there's no loot allocation or anything like that.
Now, what stood out from the original Spore was the creature creator, where you could spend hours creating your race, your buildings, everything. In Darkspore, forget all of that. All you get is the ability to plonk the occasional spike or piece of armour onto your plasticine pal. None of the heroes can be physically altered, so your stuck with a load of creatures lacking in that personal personality touch that you could have given them.
Having said that, you can barely tell who's who when the action gets going, as all the character models look alien and merge into one big scrap of a blob.
Darkspore is a strange beast. It's not got enough personality to be an interesting loot game and the treasure you grab is less than interesting in itself. It's not a bad game really, it just lacks any spark. The storyline is pedestrian and although a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals each character has a back story, you'll not care one jot about them. Each one is as interchangeable as the next depending on the situation. If you'd been able to create your own, perhaps this would have been different and a more personal connection with the action could have been established.
As it is, Darkspore is just a mediocre sci-fi dungeon crawler without the dungeons. It could have been much more, and perhaps with expansions and a rethink of the creature creator, it could be. But if that ever happens, it's doubtful there'll be many people around who'll give a flying one.
- Co-op loot gathering
- Lots of tactical options with different genetic types and character classes
- Always players around for games...
- ...but you've got to be online all the time to play
- Flat, mediocre gameplay
- No personality to the characters
The Short Version: A mediocre dungeon crawler with very little inspiration. Lots of loot, but it's boring loot. Lots of levels, but the gameplay doesn't make you want to play through them. Just lacking in flair and creativity.
Edit: A quick note on the always-online DRM - you'll also be signed out with an 'error' if you just happen to leave your game idle for a while. It doesn't only happen when you alt+tab. Oh, and you can't even pause when playing single player.