Why won’t Maxis let me play with its best toy? The awesome, Play-Doh-like Creature Creator that powered the wacky player-made monsters of Spore is a shadow of its former self in Darkspore, a loosely-affiliated hack-and-slash action RPG spin-off of Will Wright’s evolution game.
The modification you can do to your characters at the loot-equipping screen (which is essentially a crippled version of the Creature Creator) is limited to G.I. Joe-like functionality that only allows manipulation of accessories on 25 playable “hero” monsters that someone else already enjoyed the fun of creating. Being locked out of its creative power baffles me. Let’s pretend that we don’t know what we’re missing, though, and critique Darkspore’s colorful hack-and-slash gameplay for what it is: mildly entertaining with a lot of good ideas, most of which go awry.
The big idea is its best: instead of controlling a single hero, you can instantly swap between a team of three cartoony-looking heroes, each with its own set of powers and distinct health and energy pools, and each contributing one power that any team member can use. I quickly assembled a team of heroes with powers I liked, led by Arborus, the self-healing, plant-based tank who grows to several times his size as long as I maintained a steady stream of kills with his club. I even customized his accessories as best I could to make him my own.
Darkspore then goes out of its way to sabotage this by treating Arborus like a piece of walking loot, encouraging me to swap him out by unlocking new heroes as I leveled up. I wasn’t forced to, but it’s the only way to get new powers. Disposable heroes make customization feel futile, and I soon stopped bothering to learn their names—they were just Robot Guy or Plasma Dog-Thing to me.
Four-player co-op is definitely the best way to play—you’re constantly wading through waist-deep swarms of bizarre enemies with interesting abilities, and there’s always someone there to come to your rescue. There’s a very clever system for “chaining” levels together, letting you risk the loot you’ve earned in a mission for the chance to win much better loot by taking on increasingly difficult levels without dying. Long chains are only practical to attempt in co-op, so it’s a strong incentive to be social, and it gives you a reason to replay the non-randomized map layouts. The lobby system and friends list make it easy to team up, too, but I’m annoyed there’s no offline mode for solo play. Server delays make jumping in and out of the character editor tedious, and you can’t pause even in single-player.
PvP is in there too, but it’s rudimentary—1v1 or 2v2 matches are just slug-fests in a small arena. The triple-hero system gives it an extra dimension, but unless you save your best hero for last you’re unlikely to come back from losing a hero first.
Darkspore just leaves me asking questions. Why can’t I build my own hero? Why can’t I trade loot with other players? Why are heroes vulnerable to extra damage from enemies of the same type (e.g. robots) but enemies aren’t vulnerable to damage from heroes of their type? Why does this cartoonish game take itself so seriously, telling a downer story about an ancient race that was wiped out by its own creations? Can Maxis fix the glitches? And what were they thinking?
A strange animal, Darkspore doesn’t seem to want you to like its characters—and won’t let you make your own.