During the multi-year development of Spore, Will Wright promised the universe. And while the evolution sim’s insanely rich creature creator wound up being a diversion unto itself, the ambitious 2008 game wound up disappointing most. Darkspore, a new PC-only RPG-mutation of the original, feels like a marketing person’s response to all the gripes against the shallow sandbox of Spore.
The first step in Darkspore’s attempt to capture the hearts and minds of the gaming demographic is to go pre-fab. You don’t design your own characters from the ground up, but rather recruit from a pool of creatures that look more Bionicle than badass. There’s a hint of “gotta catch ’em all” here, but the recruitment of said aliens is mostly uninteresting; players merely unlock new units when you level up.
Said creatures are thrown into squads of three and used to muscle through Diablo-style dungeon crawls. The environments are lovely, ranging from verdant but poisonous jungles to futuristic fortresses that look straight out of Starcraft. Combat is fun enough. Your units wield special skills, three unique to them and another three shared across the squad, and squads work like a three-way tag team, teleporting in and out of fights when health runs low. Darkspore’s most interesting wrinkle on the loot game is that all the new gear you earn during and after missions doesn’t just get slapped onto your character. Using a neutered version of the Spore creature creator, you add new claws, armor, eyes, and tendrils to your characters as you see fit.
Some will gripe that Darkspore requires an always-on Internet connection to play. If you consider having to log in and connect to a server—even if you want to play single-player—as a form of DRM, then you might agree. But there are rewards for playing Darkspore online apart from the virtual companionship: Bonuses to character experience and loot encourage you for engaging in the game’s thin but workable online community. Darkspore feels like a sliver of Spore. It has a mostly silly and self-serious story and a portentous soundtrack a la Mass Effect. But at the micro level, there’s substance to its meat and bones, and lots of stats, gear, and levels to chew on. Its hard, though, to say if that’s an improvement.