The best sci-fi yarns are the ones that offer audiences something familiar; an element of humanity that spurs emotional investment. The problem with Darkspore, a new action role-playing game for Windows PCs from Maxis - the same folks behind The Sims - is that it exists completely in the alien.
In fact, our protagonists lack not just human personality, but any personality whatsoever. They are exotically shaped warrior mutes capable of expressing themselves through combat alone. Without the game's cold, computer narrator, who explains that we must guide these genetically designed brutes in their fight against a galaxy infested with corrupt creatures, it would be difficult even to distinguish whether we were on the side of good or evil.
While it may be impossible to connect with our crusaders, there is no denying the draw of the game's frenetic action. Play feels similar to classic dungeon crawlers such as Diablo and Dungeon Siege. We explore beautifully detailed alien worlds and sparkling space platforms, using mouse clicks to order our heroes to attack the villainous creatures that swarm forward. Number keys enact a variety of inventive special abilities, ranging from teleportation and guided rockets to the conjuration of small pet allies and trees with healing properties.
- Platform: Windows PC
- Developer: Maxis Software
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- ESRB: Teen
- Score: 7/10
- The good Deep hero editor is intuitive and powerful. Teaming up with others makes for easier slogging, better rewards. Bloody combat is fast and frenetic.
- The bad Soulless story and characters. Fans of solo play may be turned off by emphasis on online play.
- The verdict This action RPG with a sci-fi bent delivers fresh ideas and strong online play, but its cold narrative fails to captivate.
As the game progresses, players gradually unlock dozens of genetically modified heroes. Drawing inspiration from distant cousin Spore - Maxis's 2008 species simulation game that has players evolving whole races of creatures - Darkspore includes an editor that lets players modify their extraterrestrial champions, attaching and manipulating armour, claws, eyes, weapons and more to change their look and increase their strength and combat level.
Indeed, while you may never grow attached to your heroes' essentially absent personalities, there is a chance you may become partial to their customized appearances and skill sets. Just be cautious of how much time you put into curving individual horns and tentacles to your liking; most alterations are fleeting, quickly supplanted by more powerful add-ons as they become available.
The lengthy campaign, composed of scores of 20-minute missions, can be completed alone, but such an undertaking will almost certainly prove dauntingly difficult and involve countess failed quests. Sharing the battle burden with a couple of experienced players, on the other hand, will not only improve your odds of success but result in noticeably improved rewards in terms of experience points and rare items that can be equipped in the editor.
If you're feeling particularly cocky you can pit your squad of heroes against those of other humans. But be warned: Player-versus-player competition can be particularly challenging.
Whether action RPG devotees accustomed to solo adventures marked by epic stories and chatty, charismatic heroes will warm to Darkspore's soulless alien narrative and all-but-forced online play, is an open question. I can't deny that that I was entertained by its intense battles and deep hero customization capabilities. Still, the action RPG part of my heart pines for a meatier tale and more memorable personalities.