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.