The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Don’t let the name fool you; Darkspore has virtually nothing to do with Maxis’ 2008 release, Spore. Darkspore’s 100-plus creatures may look like products of Spore’s character editor, but they’re all pre-created and the only customization available to players is moving body parts around and making them bigger or smaller. Luckily the gameplay that takes the place of this customization is much more focused and addictive than Spore.
Darkspore uses the same formula popularized by Diablo and its many clones. You work through stand-alone levels, destroying out-of-control genetic monstrosities (the titular Darkspore) and gathering equipment upgrades (mostly in the form of new body parts rather than weapons and armor). You also gain levels, but they represent your overall progress rather than individual heroes’ strength.
This is where Darkspore breaks from the action-RPG tradition. Rather than powering up individual heroes, each level gained allows you to unlock a new creature (up to a total of 100). Creatures are grouped in squads of three, and any of the three in your currently selected squad can be called upon during each level. Since the creatures don’t level up or gain new abilities, the strategy in Darkspore becomes more about building well-rounded squads with complementary powers than grinding out levels – a welcome twist on the Diablo template, full of opportunities to create powerful partnerships.
Darkspore also features an annoying rock-paper-scissors system where each creature fits under one of five genetic types – plasma, quantum, bio, cyber, or necro. Damage taken and dealt is doubled when facing creatures that are under the same classification, creating a risk/reward tradeoff when building your squad. More often than not, this mechanic leads to you dropping a preferred creature when levels are full of opponents of a matching type. Then again, learning how to best use new creatures keeps the game from getting stale, so the minor irritation is worth the trouble.
While it may not create the long-term allure of Diablo’s gear grind, the variety of creatures makes mastering Darkspore a rewarding prospect. The game is seeded with clever hooks to encourage frequent play, such as increasing your chances of winning a rare item if you string multiple levels together and offering bonus rare item rolls on a daily basis.
Like so many games of this variety, the best way to enjoy Darkspore is playing co-op. Playing cooperatively gives you a noticeable bump in XP and item drops, and the gameplay is simple enough that even with random matchmaking success is a possibility. Since each player has a squad of three creatures to call on, it’s unlikely that you’ll bump into someone who doesn’t have a single helpful ally. You also unlock PvP mode at level 10, although finding a squad that’s balanced correctly for taking on other players can be frustrating.
Maxis' track record from the past few years stands as evidence that innovation does not always equal excellence in video games. Spore is an infinitely more unique and nuanced experience than Darkspore, but in the end, Darkspore is much more likely to stick around in the gamer psyche. It may not do anything particularly new, but the way it polishes and riffs on known gaming conventions should leave you happily clicking on bad guys and collecting new body parts late into the night.
Although it’s not an MMO, Darkspore is built around being online at all times using an MMO-style account and login system. Even if you’re rolling solo, you need to be on EA’s servers at all times. I didn’t experience any major downtime during my review sessions, though I got disconnected from the servers and lost some progress a couple times. Experience gained and items picked up during levels carried over after I was disconnected, but I had to restart levels that I was nearly finished with before getting logged out.