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Darkspore review: Give it a hand

Steven Wong

If Diablo and Pokemon had a baby with Spore as the midwife, you'd ... well, you'd probably be scarred for life if you looked directly at it. But you'd also end up with Darkspore.

This sci-fi themed hack-and-slash role-playing game puts you in the role of a Crogenitor, a near-extinct race of advanced beings once responsible for seeding the galaxy with engineered life. Long ago, a figure named The Destroyer experimented with an unstable form of genetic engineering called E-DNA. Using it, he created an army of powerful mutant creatures called Darkspore that went forth to conquer the known galaxy. Awakened from hypersleep, your role is to assemble a collection of heroes, modify them, and take it back.

Gallery: Darkspore (Gamescom 2010) | 9 Photos

Gameplay is pretty straightforward: walk around and kill everything before it can kill you. Unlike more traditional action role-playing games, gaining levels doesn't uncover branches in skill trees, but rather access to more heroes. Each of the 100 fighters has access to three abilities, defined by their class and representative element, and one of those powers is shared among everyone in a three-member squad, meaning each battler has access to five powers at any given time.

Considering all the abilities, it would be great if you could bind a special ability to the right mouse button the way many other action RPGs allow. Having it locked as "stand and fire," which mainly helps people who are too lazy to hold down the Shift key, seems like a complete waste. Also missing is an overhead map for players to check for unexplored areas, which would have saved a lot of guesswork and walking around in circles.

As you kill your way through those circles, you'll find loot in the form of body parts loaded with stats (as creepy as that might sound), which can be attached to characters using the Hero Editor. It fundamentally works like the Spore Creature Creator, though it's being put to even better use here than in Spore. However, it's pretty far from a perfect implementation.

You can strip the stats off a part to create a generic detail item for decoration, giving your hero an extra set of pretty eyes -- but you can't transfer the stats from an item to a blank one. So it's not uncommon to have odd-looking appendages hanging off your hero out of necessity. Furthermore, there's no way to influence class or element types for loot drops, so your favorite squad of characters can go through periods in which they can't be upgraded to meet the next threat. What the game really needs is a way to either transfer stats or a market where players can auction unwanted pieces.

One almost incidental benefit to the loot system is the ability to actively control hero levels by switching out parts. So you don't have to feel too bad when you progress further than a friend or want equal footing during a PvP match.

Although there's an interesting sci-fi story, Darkspore doesn't have much of a personality. While the campaign is long and surprisingly challenging, there aren't any NPCs to interact with or side quests beyond fulfilling a handful of bonus objectives. There isn't even a way to replay cutscenes. It's also hard to get too invested in your characters when you're switching between them all so frequently.

There are a few major bugs, like one that made my characters inexplicably unable to attack or move. There's also the issue of requiring an constant online connection. To the game's credit, it will place you at your last position if you lose connection with the game server, but it doesn't pause the action while you're out of commission - not even in a solo game. So, if you happen to be fighting a boss or fending off a horde of beasties, your hero is likely to be wiped out before you reconnect.

That'll be especially embarrassing if you're playing with friends. Up to four players can come together with their squads to battle through the campaign, which increases the XP bonus and the chances of surviving a string of missions for a chance at earning rare loot. There's a huge variety of enemies with special abilities, so teaming with others isn't just a good idea, it's practically essential to survival.

Darkspore doesn't exactly redefine RPGs as we know it, but there's no other action RPG around that allows this much control over the look of your characters. There's a lot of room for improvement, but the living loot system and Hero Editor help Darkspore stand out among other hack-and-slash games.

This review is based on PC code of Darkspore provided by EA.

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