Darkspore, developer Maxis' foray into the RPG genre, has gone far enough under the radar of the general public that it requires an introductory paragraph to explain how this isn't a sequel to Spore. Despite the name, and the Maxis pedigree, it's only faintly related to Will Wright's take on evolution. Built partly out of the recycled material of Spore's creature creator - what's widely considered the best thing about Wright's game - Darkspore is an action-RPG that takes notes from Diablo while giving you the ability to morph your hero character with new parts that you unlock using DNA as an in-game currency.
Despite being a traditional dungeon crawler, with the added conceit of being in space, Darkspore is hardly a Diablo clone. Surprise hits like Torchlight helped to propel the genre into this decade, and Darkspore attempts to bring to the genre novelty features alongside elements of other titles, and both of these are genuinely welcome.
The game is better suited to quick play sessions. Each planet you visit includes four missions, with each lasting around 15 minutes and the final ending in a boss fight with waves of reckless enemies running amok. Your basic objective in each mission is to make your way toward a teleporter, which whisks you to a new area once you have wiped out all enemies in your mission.
Who are your enemies? Well, the story is that the Darkspore are a race of creatures that have gone to the dark side thanks to a rapidly mutating virus. This is a virus created accidentally by the most brilliant minds in the galaxy, the Crogenitors, while experimenting with E-DNA used to make their warriors more powerful. And the result is a war. The Crogenitors are nearly defeated by the Darkspore, and you play the role of a surviving Crogenitor who has been kept alive in suspended animation. Your job is to reconstruct an army of warriors, the Genetic Heroes, using stabilised E-DNA and take out the enemies.
And to do that you have three basic classes. Sentinel, Ravager and Tempest, which in order take over the roles of tank, melee fighter and ranged magic. Beyond those three classes you have five races which determine the abilities of each character. The Quantum genesis race can instantly transport across the map, for instance, and Plasma genesis wield fire and so on. And it has an effect on how you deal damage: you'll deal less of it if you're up against the same racial type and vice versa.
Making up your team are three Genetic Heroes, with you switching between your characters to take out different mobs. As Sage, a Bio Tempest, you can take out enemies further away with ranged projectiles. As Vex, a Quantum Ravager, you can perform AoE attacks using Temporal Strike, which warps time around your enemies and slows down their movement in an area. The result is an almost Pokémon-styled switching mechanic whereby you build a squad and play out one character at a time in combat. Elsewhere in the game's 1v1 and 2v2 PVP matches you use the same tactics against other players, switching between your heroes depending on what they have in their arsenal.
Enemy races are randomly generated at the beginning of each level and listed before you beam down to the planet so you know what you're up against from the get-go, giving the game an additional Plants vs. Zombies flavour - another game the developers have openly acknowledged as similar to or even influential to aspects of Darkspore's design. Unfortunately the downside is how often the game feels too easy. Switching to new characters basically doubles as a way of getting a full-bar of health, and up against relatively easy mobs it makes the combat process that much less complicated.
But despite not being Spore's sequel it successfully mixes Spore-like character creation with combat in a way Spore never quite managed. And this is possibly the most interesting aspect of the game. Once you finish a level you can go back into the character editor with the DNA and parts that you've collected, and then use your accumulated DNA to buy limbs and re-design your Hero. The re-designs aren't exactly drastic. Unlike Spore it's focused more on function than straight and pure creativity, so unfortunately you can't expect to fight brigades of penis-shaped enemies in PVP. Limbs have more of a practical purpose in this game, with every part giving your Hero additional HP, strength, stamina, and so on.
But while it doesn't seem like you can make your own full-on creations it properly incorporates traditional RPG elements into the editor. And the result is a near-perfect balance between two genres (although saying that I should point out that I still managed to put tentacles in the crudest places I could find.). So far its novelty values are slightly more substantial than its addictiveness or replay value, but considering the game has just gone beta there's still time for some changes to be made.
Darkspore is due for release on April 1.