Will Wright's Maxis Software surprised us all in 2008 when it released its groundbreaking hybrid RTS/RPG/action/God game, Spore. Building on that game's near-endless customization and action game potential, Maxis is set in a few weeks to release Darkspore, a competitive, hero-centric RTS that aims to compete with games like League of Legends and that game’s fan-mod precursor, Defense of the Ancients. This month we took part in Darkspore’s online pre-beta event and were given the chance to try out the game's single player and co-op modes; from what we saw, the game is shaping up nicely and should offer a considerable amount of fun.
Unlike Spore, the focus of Darkspore isn't mere evolution—it's customization and combat. Before letting us jump into customizing creatures and having them engage in combat though, we were shown a cinematic explaining the fiction behind the game's core conflict. In a first person view, we came out of cryosleep and found ourselves on a space ship. Having lost our memories, we were informed by the on-board computer that we were a “crogenitor”, or genetic engineer, one of many who had bungled an experiment, thus turning entire planetary populations into unstable genetic mutations. After the disaster, we'd been put into cryosleep for an indeterminate amount of time with the aim of one day waking, building an army of heroes and leading it to victory against these mutations—a group of monsters which had come to be known as Darkspore.
The game then started and the tutorial took us through the basics on an ethereal, star-filled matrix with a hero called “Blitz”, a two-legged reptilian creature with big, nasty claws. Blitz was set against little blue lizard things called Clorosaurs and moving plants called Lethal Blossoms and took them out with electro-charged melee attacks like “Storm Striker” and “Voltic Slash”. Attacks were executed with either left clicks or the number keys and all movement was done by clicking (a movement scheme we're definitely not sold on, considering how this game plays out). As we used Blitz to fight our way across the map, we stopped to collect items from fallen enemies and from glowing obelisks to use later in the hero editor. We also stopped to pick up green and blue capsules that replenished our Health and Power gauges. The latter was used to execute special attacks like Blitz's “Ride the Lightning”, which allowed him to teleport from one place to another while dealing damage. During combat, we also realized that enemies were dropping what looked like DNA helixes and found out that indeed, that's what they were. We later found we could use these collected DNA samples to purchase additional hero augments.
Post-tutorial, we returned to our home base, a place called the “Arsenal”, where we managed our heroes and squads. Darkspore allows players to have up to three heroes in a squad and the Arsenal kept them all lined up neatly and ready for us to swap in and out. The Arsenal was also where we accessed the Editor which allowed us to make use of the augments we’d bought and found on the battlefield. In addition to placing extra armor, spikes and eyeballs on our heroes, we were also able to use the 360-degree paint setup to customize the look and color of them, making them look sort of like scaly, reptilian hot rods.
Once we'd outfitted our heroes and tried every possible paint color combo, we set out to try the single player campaign with three of the few heroes at our disposal (heroes unlock as you progress). Along with Blitz, we took Sage, whose Rejuvenating Blast healed allies while his Dendrones protected him, and Zrin, whose fiery Plasma Column and Sun Fist easily turned enemies to ash. During battle we could use only one hero at a time but were able to quickly swap among them. Portrait icons in the lower right corner of the screen showed the three heroes and allowed us to click among them. This let us strategically utilize each hero's specific skills and since powers come in five flavors: bio, necro, quantum, plasma and cyber, it was important to know how to use these skills to counter specific enemies.
Using our heroes well in general kept them all alive but since each of them had his own Health and Power gauge, as long as one of them was alive at the end of the level, we still won. Once reaching the end, we were taken to a score screen that gave us bonus items, a chance to roll for a rare bonus item, and the provocative option to continue on as we were or stop and go back to the Editor to upgrade. Choosing the former and winning the next level we were told could grant even greater rewards, but trying and losing would strip us of every last reward. It sounds like a simple idea, but it definitely added a new psychological wrinkle to the idea of progression.
After several levels of the single player, we decided to try the co-op, which it turned out, played much like the single player. Darkspore’s co-op supports up to four players but our map had only two. We landed on a rocky planet and began following the obvious path across it, using our doubled-up powers to take out the trash as we went. The planet had strange plants that exploded on contact (good for taking out enemies) and weird trees that when destroyed, somehow caused enemies to run in fear. When defeated enemies dropped gear, the game auto-rolled for us and determined the winner, regardless of who picked it up. (Smart move on Maxis' part.) We fought our way through the level easily, feeling so powerful that we really weren’t co-operating so much as running up to separate groups of enemies and mowing them down. It wasn’t overly challenging in those first levels but was undoubtedly entertaining. The event ended shortly into the co-op session so we didn’t get to discover the kind of challenge the game might have had in store for us and we were told that PvP was unfortunately, unavailable at that time..
So far, Darkspore is looking like a solid step in the Spore franchise's evolution. Its concept is strong, its art direction is polished, clean and elegant and its gameplay—even in the limited amounts we saw it—is potentially exciting and addictive. We enjoyed customizing our heroes and using their unique abilities to take out hordes of interesting enemies and can only imagine how much more fun it will be to take on other players in the no-doubt chaotic multiplayer mode. Darkspore is set for release March 29, 2011 exclusively on PC.