Version tested: PC
It's hard to shift the cynical feeling that Darkspore, Maxis' action RPG, is more about finding a way to recycle the no-doubt expensive character-editing tech created for the divisive oddity Spore than it is about creating a top-notch dungeon crawler. That's not to say it's bad, as dungeons crawlers go. But you can smell an air of 'systems first, personality later'. It's a robot with a toothy grin crudely painted on its cold, metal face.
Darkspore is a game about having an assortment of semi-customised cartoon monsters beat up a load of other cartoon monsters while hunting for loot to make them more efficient beater-uppers. It's sci-fi Diablo, more or less, but with a reasonably advanced character creator and the sort of tone you'd expect from a 70-year-old chemistry lecturer.
The voiceover-led plot – something about evil genetically modified beasties up to generalised no good, who must be stopped by non-evil genetically modified beasties – is so tediously presented and explained that not a single detail of it remains in my consciousness. Its tiresome prattle seems almost as procedurally generated as some of the creatures and levels are.
A limping, character-free morass of uninspired sci-fi tropes, read in a monotone by an unhappy-sounding woman with a vocoder, Darkspore's story is drier than a yard of Jacob's Crackers. It doesn't even remotely gel with the cheerfully over-the-top combat, claymation-style characters or general air of innocent violence. A shame, because it only adds to the sense that this is a game designed by committee; if it were removed entirely, Darkspore would likely have more personality, not less.
There are moments when Darkspore seems much more sure of itself. The invention denied the plot finds its way into your creatures' powers. Each of your heroes – of which there are 100 to be unlocked in total, although most are variations on earlier characters – has four active abilities in addition to what, in most cases, is a distinctive standard attack. There's impressive variety to these: one ED-209-type fellow can unleash a volley of 15 missiles; a purple, taloned beastie performs a stoutly effective teleportation attack; a spindly plant-thing can sprout a giant healing tree or summon two insectoid defenders.
Experimenting with new creatures' powers and wiping out a good dozen enemies with a button press is where Darkspore finds its voice. If playing solo, you enter missions with a squad of three beasties, only one of which you can control at any one time. However, each chap's third power is shared with the group, meaning you have five abilities at your disposal no matter who steps up to bat. The wise man creates his squads with this in mind, devising effective combos based on what's shared with whom.
In an irksome wrinkle, your creatures take double damage from enemies of the same assignation (e.g. Bio, Necro, Plasma, Robo), although the reverse doesn't appear to be true. There are other negative combinations to be discovered – generally by noticing that particular creatures fall over worryingly quickly. This means certain squads tackling certain levels are on a suicide mission, and favoured creatures must regularly be benched. This, in turn, ties in to a bloody odd gambling element to the game; once you complete a level, you're offered the option to immediately progress to the next, harder one with the same squad, without any chance to change members or equip new loot, and with the promise of bonus rewards if you can pull it off.
I often found myself weighing the desire for mega-kit against the likely tedium of carving straight into another long, samey level without downtime and possibly having to repeat it later if things went South. Then there was the risk of having selected a squad that was quite blatantly going to get its little pseudo-plasticine bottom kicked because the promised mission was populated solely by matching monsters. Tackling Darkspore on a mission-by-mission basis is a reasonably sure way to make it through the game, but if you want a shot at the rarest loot, you need to consciously put yourself on thin ice.
This system is clearly intended to promote strategy and diversity as well as risk-taking, but all too often it means sighing resignedly, returning to the Editor and laboriously upgrading your squad or assembling a new one. As the game progresses, you unlock the option to have additional squads to hand, which mercifully frees things up, but it leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. Is the game artificially withholding key features like this (other 'upgrades', play modes and even player-versus-player are treated similarly) until several hours in, purely to create a veneer of evolution?
The solo campaign is compulsive enough, built as it is upon the perennial allure of splatting monsters and collecting items with bigger numbers. But as the game wears on, it increasingly feels like a treadmill. There's some aesthetic variety to the levels, and a slow trickle of huge bosses fitted with interestingly brutal powers of their own, but behind that it's the same experience recycled and not blessed with the sense of escalation and place that helps the Diablo games rise above their simple mechanics.
Things liven up a little in co-op play. One to three other players in the mix means multiple heroes, tougher enemies and, most of all, more complicated and colourful ability combos. (Presuming you find decent buddies, anyway – partnering with a silent, selfish loot-fiend makes for pretty sour times.) In both solo or co-op, Darkspore is one of those games that could happily sit on your hard drive for months or years, forever able to offer an hour or two of pleasant, ambient time-killing and that vague buzz of satisfaction that comes from beating a boss and coming home with better loot. But when played intensively, it can end up feeling like a chore.
It would linger longer on the palate if the character creator was anywhere near as free or ludicrous as the marketing implies. Heroes' basic shapes are fixed, bar some minor adjustments to things like scale or spike size and location, although every upgrade you add (split into categories such as weapon, feet, defence and utility) is a visual one too. These can be resized, relocated and rotated to varying degrees. But due to a combination of the game's rather muddy, washed-out aesthetic, the need to have the camera fully zoomed-out to play effectively, and the inflexibility of the core creature shapes, you don't exactly end up with something you want to send pictures of home to mother.
For a game built, in theory, around the concept of creating unique beasties, everything ends up looking the same: lumpy with sharp bits stuck on and covered in what looks like watered-down poster paint. Maybe the harsh restrictions upon technology we already know is capable of so much more are a result of the infamous genital-creatures everyone built and shared online in Spore. That would be a shame, because jumping into a co-op match with a stranger and finding you're sharing your screen with a tower of bright green ambulatory testicles would cheer things up no end.
The stipulation that you have to be online to play, even solo – replete with DRM-style annoyances like logging you out and costing you progress if you have the temerity to leave the game alt-tabbed for too long – makes Darkspore seem even more like a game that's afraid of kicking back and relaxing. It's competent enough, but this game comes from Maxis, the once hyper-inventive creators of The Sims, Sim City and even the ambitious but confused Spore itself. You can't help but expect even its failures to be fascinating – or at least more interesting than this.
While never terrible, Darkspore feels like it's had its heart surgically removed. All the components for a giddily stupid, aesthetically imaginative action RPG are here. Somehow, however, they combine into a shambling golem that knows its basic purpose, but not a whole lot else.
5 / 10