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Originally, I picked Darkspore up because I wanted to see what Maxis would do with an action RPG built on Spore’s creature creator. Spore was a mediocre sandbox game in which you guided a species through its entire evolutionary process. The highlight was the creator, which offered the player a deep level of customization. How does this system carry over to an action RPG? It’s not quite what I expected, but the game does a bunch of things well.
If you’re like me, you thought you’d be making your own genetic heroes from the ground up for this game. Wrong. While this is disappointing, what they’ve done instead is fairly robust. Customization of your heroes is driven by what gear you pick up, which is then integrated into their bodies. You can mount dropped items almost anywhere on the hero’s body, with a couple exceptions like boots and weapons. There’s a wide palette of colors and color schemes, for even more tweaking.
I didn’t spend too much time playing dress up, but there were definitely a lot of options for crafting a unique appearance. In addition to making cosmetic changes, the gear solely determines your level. That is to say, there are no skill or stat leveling trees for individual heroes. Instead, you gain “Crogenitor” levels as you play, allowing you to do things like unlock additional squad slots, heroes, and the option to chain-finish levels in succession for better loot.
Not everyone will like it, but I feel it’s a fresh twist on the classic RPG formula. Probably a consequence of this leveling system, there is no way to trade with other players. I suspect the devs don’t want people getting power-geared too much, which would definitely happen if trading was a feature. I’ve been told that they’re implementing a way to drop items on the ground, which will allow friends to trade but doesn’t help much for trading with untrustworthy strangers.
You start the game on your ship, which is your hub for genetic hero customization, multiplayer chat channels and anything else that isn’t standard gameplay. To prepare for actual combat, you make squads of 3 heroes each. You select one of your squads for each deployment and you can swap between squad members at will, albeit on a short cooldown. Each hero has a unique standard attack, 2 core skills, one or more passive abilities/auras and a squad ability.
The squad ability is interesting because it is shared amongst all 3 heroes. Since there are upwards of 40 heroes in the game, there are many combinations of squad abilities to mix and match. At higher difficulty levels, you will need to find the right balance of survivability, damage and crowd control to avoid becoming dead. The possible combinations only increase as you add more buddies to your squad in multiplayer, which capped out at 4 in beta. There are two other considerations for squad composition.
There are 5 genetic types that your champions and enemies alike share: Necro, Plasma, Bio, Quantum and Cyber. Enemies of the same type as your hero will deal double damage, so you’re not going to want to bring a bunch of Cyber heroes to a planet that’s all Cyber monsters. Additionally, heroes are separated into Tempest (Mage), Ravager (Rogue) and Sentinel (Tank) classes. You’ll want to mix and match appropriately for different situations.
My overall impression of the game is mixed. On one hand, the combat is crisp and fun, especially when you’re cooperating with friends. The abilities are satisfyingly destructive and the heroes that I played all felt unique. It’s like playing league of legends in action RPG flavor, in that you only have a handful of spells available at one time, but a ton of different characters to choose from. There’s a good mix of enemy types with various special abilities you’ll need to adjust to. On the other hand, there are aspects of the game that worry me.
The level design is boring. All the missions unlocked for the beta had simplistic layouts, making you feel like you’re on rails. There’s only the bare minimum of exploration. The game rewards you with loot for finding badly hidden obelisks, which is hugely disappointing to me. Level randomization is almost nonexistent. Zones layouts do not randomize AT ALL when you replay them, other than obelisk placement and location/composition of monster packs.
This has the potential to get incredibly stale, especially since the game follows the Diablo format where you play it 3 times over on different difficulties. Additionally, the game offers arena style PvP which may prove impossible to balance given the sheer number of heroes. The hero customization, while not a failure, is mostly cosmetic, which is basically a cop-out. I would rather they left out any attempt at PvP balance and gave the player some manner of ability customization outside of items. Lastly, the hero editor interface is somewhat clunky. If there is a way to view all a character’s equipped gear at once, I haven’t found it. You have to assess it one slot at a time.
That said, I will be playing this game. The core gameplay is solid enough to provide action RPG fans with hours upon hours of casual fun with friends. But Diablo III this ain’t.