If at first you don't make money...
Okay. This one might be my fault.
When I reviewed Spore, I talked up the second and third phases of the game—the sections that were most like an action RPG. I pointed out that they were really fun, and that there was room for extrapolating those segments into a full-fledged game. And that's Darkspore in a nutshell.
[image1]You spend most of Darkspore in an overhead isometric view controlling a hero unit; through a combination of clicks and number keys, you will move, hack, slash, and blast your way through wave after wave of generic-looking enemies called—you guessed it—Darkspore. If you're familiar with any other Action RPG out there (especially League of Legends), then you're already familiar with Darkspore. It's raw, simple fun.
Darkspore differentiates itself by offering you squad choices; You can bring three heroes to a mission and swap out which hero you're running around with on the fly. This gives you a lot of flexibility in mixing and matching, and with 100 different heroes (of which there's really only 25 distinct ones, and then lots of variations upon those) there's plenty of experimentation to be had. What's more, each hero brings four abilities to the fight; you can use all four of the abilities of the hero who's romping around under your control, and one ability from each of your other squad members. In practice, you'll be running around with six powers at any given time.
Combat starts extremely simple, but it ramps up steadily, and the variety of foes you'll run into increases steadily as well. This is all to the game's benefit, of course; the moment to moment combat is where the game really shines.
Unfortunately, a number of the game's other elements don't fare quite so well. Wrapping up the gameplay moments are an incredibly grindy leveling track and a very arbitrary loot drop system that frequently doesn't give you anything valuable. Since equipment pretty much defines your heroes' level and overall quality in combat (and your level determines your access to more new heroes), it starts to get painful quite quickly. In many respects, Darkspore is based on all the worst aspects of Diablo II.
[image2]Spore's creature creator makes a return for the equipment management aspect of the game; the equipment is basically new bits that you can slap onto your heroes—claws, tentacles, spikes, etc. Unfortunately, you can't really do the single coolest thing from Spore: making new creatures. You're stuck with the 25 heroes the developers made. Some of 'em are cool, but there's a distinct lack of personalization, especially since most of your item choices will be made based upon statistics, not look. Kind of like how every WoW character looks like a clown while in their raid gear. [My paladin tier 2 set begs to differ. ~Ed. Josh]
As for the story? It's... well, lame. You are a Crogenitor, a being that can manipulate DNA with ease. Your race has discovered an extreme kind of DNA: E-DNA. No, it's not from a '90s Internet start-up. E-DNA is apparently what sets the Crogenitor's engineered creatures apart from, say, regularly evolved creatures with their normal DNA. The game is vague on that. Most of the story is either squirted at you by a surprisingly boring-sounding AI during the intro sequence, or a part of several chunks of text hidden away behind the occasionally awkward UI. You can read up on the history of your heroes, and you'll likely be amazed by how many of them seem to have lightning coursing through their veins partway through each short story.
As you progress, your AI with the personality of a bowl of rice will pipe up with descriptions of the planets you visit, events that happened in the past, and why life sucks so bad now that you're in the grisly future. Most of the time, it can be summed up as follows: Your idiot brethren made the Darkspore, and then the Darkspore killed everything, you moron. Go clean it up!
[image3]Music? Feh. New-agey, bad techno. I muted it pretty damn fast. The visuals varied dramatically. There are a few fantastic looking levels and effects; an awful lot, though, looks quite bland. This is most glaring in the early game, where everything looks kind of... well... flat.
In terms of multiplayer... well, let's get this out the way first: The game requires an Internet connection at all times. Network's down? You can't play. I don't care if everyone and their cousin has broadband and reliable Internet access these days - it still sucks that you can't just boot up your computer and play the damn game without doing a handshake with an EA server. For a game that you can easily play through in single-player, necessitating a constant Internet connection just feels like a giant accusation of bad behavior.
Anyway, multiplayer consists of co-op and versus. The game feels natural in co-op play, but very unnatural in versus. Co-op opens up the squad options even more, and lets you really play with the tactical options. Versus feels bolted on and badly balanced. Without a ranking system or a proper scaling between varying level opponents, you can walk right into a murder fest with surprising ease, and that's just plain frustrating.
On the whole? Don't bother. Darkspore isn't bad, but the developers really failed at focusing on the elements that are good and stripping out the other noise. I would actually score the game better if it had no multiplayer and no creature creator. Instead, we've got clown-heroes and griefer matches. Pass.