As a title, ‘Darkspore’ is both fitting and not. Yes, it is much darker than the original. No, it does not tie into its predecessor enough to be considered a sequel. The two games differ in almost every respect, from an apparent shift of target audiences to gameplay mechanics and visuals. The sci-fi aspects of the game are still intact but nearly all of the simulation elements of the original are gone. This game is about controlling an individual hero bred to kill. Gone is the happy, cute feel of its predecessor. Where Spore was about creating life and guiding it through simulated stages of evolution, Darkspore is about destruction, grinding, gaining upgrades, grinding, real time combat and grinding. Did I say grinding?
Darkspore appears to fall into a newly emerged genus of gaming tentatively dubbed Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), a genre boosted to popularity by the famous Warcraft III map, Defence of the Ancients (DOTA). Whilst the game does contain elements usually found in the MOBA genre, it still boasts a number of new features in an effort to set itself apart, the biggest differentiator being its focus on a single player campaign. Whether or not these features make the game more enjoyable is another matter entirely.
As mentioned, the similarities between Darkspore and other MOBA games are very noticeable. Like other MOBA titles, the game combines elements from both the real time strategy and role playing genres to produce a polished grind accompanied by much visual flair. Despite titles in this genre traditionally being focused on Player versus Player (PVP) combat, Maxis have taken a different route and introduced a single player campaign. It’s actually compulsory for players to complete a certain number of single player stages before enough experience can be gained to unlock PVP.
The first noticeable feature about Darkspore is its visuals. This game is absolutely stunning to look at. Players who regularly deck out their hardware are in for a treat. Hero skills get the graphical treatment they deserve and destroyable environments play more of a role than the usual passive backdrop. Heroes themselves are highly detailed as the creature creator from the original Spore has been brought over. I daresay this is the only resemblance leftover from the game’s predecessor.
Players control a single hero at a time and can switch out during combat between pre-planned squad/s of three. Once a hero dies they can no longer be used until they are resurrected. If all three heroes perish, the mission is failed. Darkspore can be credited with possessing a relatively short learning curve, although players may miss some key gameplay elements amidst the mass of options available.
In spite of how beautiful Darkspore is, the eye candy can only do so much during endless hours of repetitive combat. This leads me to the second prominent trait I noticed about this game – the grind. Your hero runs up against endless hordes of enemies, finishing each stage with a slightly larger horde and the final stage of each chapter with a boss. This essentially sums up every chapter in the story mode. It’s drawn out and at times painful, and the initial pace of the game could put off a lot of players. It’s simply not worth grinding through hours of missions that are essentially the same to get to the slightly more interesting boss battles and unlock additional features, which is a shame. A lot of end-game content will be lost to players who switch off after a few hours of repetition.
The repetitive battles could have at least been saved by an immersive, interwoven storyline but alas, this proves to be yet another downfall. The story feels tacked on and is not as seamlessly woven into the gameplay as it could be. It could be forgiven for resorting to in-game pop ups and text-block back stories, but the addition of a cinematic at the end of every chapter feels like a forced effort, and is made worse by the fact that they are boring to watch.
It’s almost hard to tell what exactly the storyline is. As far as I know, there was a war and the player happened to be on the losing side. Story pacing is disjointed thanks to the grind (even more so if you fail a mission and need to repeat it) and is interrupted by combat when it shouldn’t be. I don’t care about the war or even the fact that I’m on the losing side. The names of factions and planets mean almost nothing to the player in the midst of a battle.
The pain of grinding is lessened with the co-op option available, but I encountered so much difficulty in securing teammates online that I was forced to go solo more often than not. Statistically, an average of one successful matchup per ten attempts is not encouraging. Whether or not this is attributed to the matchmaking system or the lack of a solid player base remains unknown.
The PVP combat is a little more fun but yields very little reward when compared to the hordes of items and experience available in the campaigns. Not to mention that the choice between a 1v1 or 2v2 match seems rather limited in comparison to traditional PVP offerings.
Although Darkspore is a visually polished game which appeals to the inner MOBA beast in me, it is sadly let down by the halfhearted multiplayer action, grinding and awkward story. Playing with friends may lessen the sting of repetition but it wouldn’t be long before the lack of rewarding gameplay drive players to seek more fun alternatives.