If Spore is the cartoon you watched as a little kid, then Darkspore is the revamp for teens with edgier characters and flashier graphics. Maxis is venturing into new territory: the action RPG, a far cry from Sims-style gameplay. Darkspore could be thought of as Diablo mixed with Ben 10's interchangeable alien heroes click-clicking through hordes of enemies.
You start off the game by awaking from cryogenic sleep and realize you're one of the last remaining Crogenitors, a gifted race that knows a thing or two about manipulating the ol' double helix. But as Bioshock's splicers will tell you, rearranging DNA never ends well. Instead of singing creepy songs and hanging onto the ceilings of Rapture, in Darkspore, this tinkering of DNA eventually produced the monstrous darkspore, some evil entity spreading its corruption across the universe. It's your job to recruit the help of 100 genetic heroes to suppress the spread of darkspore baddies.
Playing Darkspore will feel instantly familiar if you've played any isometric hack-and-slash game. The holy trinity of tank (or in this case, sentinel), rogue (ravager), and mage (tempest) is here, and loot must be picked up off the ground like candy smashed out of alien piñatas. The twist is that you select three heroes before each level, and are able to switch between them at any time with the Q, W, and E keys.
Heroes come in five different flavors: plasma, bio, necro, quantum, and cyber. You've got to have variety in your team, just like in Pokemon—if you try to fight enemies that share the same type as you, all the damage your hero takes will be doubled. Luckily, you're told what kinds of darkspore populate each level, and you can create three squads that can be swapped between stages. As you kill more and more mutants in the 24 campaign stages (I played the first 10), your Crogenitor level will increase and you'll be able to unlock more from the overwhelming pool of heroes.
When I first started playing, I felt like I was reliving childhood memories of browsing through the Toys-R-Us action figure aisles. A hulking purple skeleton that smashes face with a giant axe? Awesome! Floating tentacle-teeth that shoot black holes which randomly teleport you? Cool! I even quickly grew attached to a favorite hero: Vex the Chrono Shifter, a DPS'er who could freeze and rewind time. Each member of your squad has two active abilities and one global ability that carries over between each hero. One of my favorite combos was having Blitz, the Storm Striker's plasmaball shield combined with Vex's time lapse burst damage. The UI is incredibly clean and easy to understand, and each level has bonus objectives for better chances of rare loot.
But I have to admit that by level 7, I was already burnt out. The graphics and landscapes look amazing, but the levels are utterly boring, and being forced to back-track through an empty dungeon feels as crappy now as it did in 2000. Sure, there are 100 heroes with their own backstories to learn about and collect, but when each of them only has three unique abilities, you've seen all they have to offer in a flash. Darkspore almost forces you to not get attached to one hero: even though I loved using Vex, I could only cast his Chronoblink so many times before I just didn't care anymore. The backstory of the Crogenitors is initially interesting, but when none of the mission levels provide any sense of continuity, interest fades fast. PvP fights are limited to 1v1 or 2v2, and offer some straightforward-but-short-lived fun in a Marvel vs Capcom kind of way.
Boss fights were another big highlight of the gameplay, providing an enticing reward for trapsing through the generic alien landscape that blocks your access to them. All of the bosses I encountered were entertaining, with huge enemies firing projectiles reminiscent of bullet-hell shooters.
So what does all this have to do with the original Spore? Well, that creature creator system that garnered the first game so much attention is back in Darkspore...sort of. Disappointingly, you can't actually create heroes from scratch, but you can customize nearly every facet of the pre-existing ones. Items you "equip" to your heroes are actually spare body parts, so you can customize your favorite heroes for "decked-out warrior" or "minimalistic brawler" looks.
I've compared aspects of Darkspore to some pretty great games—Bioshock, Diablo, Pokemon, Marvel vs Capcom—but right now, the game feels like it's missing something to tie it all together in a unique package. In this closed beta state, Darkspore is flashy and fun at first, but it never quite made me feel that same addictive urge to immediately reopen the game after I closed it to continue my hack-and-slash for loot, like the best dungeon-grinders of yesteryear did.