Saturday, February 12, 2011

Knowing more of the game

Though it may share the same name as 2008's Spore, Darkspore couldn't be more different from developer Maxis' all-encompassing strategy game. This hack-and-slash action role-playing game shares more in common with the likes of Diablo and Baldur's Gate than anything else. We recently had the chance to hop in the beta and click our way through some of the campaign, both in solo and cooperative play, as well as get into a little player-versus-player action.

Andromeda is one of the many heroes at your disposal.
The tale of Darkspore began with the Crogenitors. These intergalactic troublemakers were scientists and researchers who traveled the stars experimenting on whatever species they could find. Their ongoing mission: to breed the ultimate soldier. Naturally, this backfired on them pretty fast. After happening upon an unstable new strand of DNA, dubbed "exponential" DNA (E-DNA), the Crogenitors decided to juice up their warriors even more--making them harder, faster, and stronger--until they finally broke. From their remains came Darkspore, beings who kill fast and breed fast, and soon, they blanketed the entirety of known space. As one of the last remaining Crogenitors, it was our charge to team up with the AI, HELIX, and breed up a couple of heroes to go save the galaxy.
Our first hero was Blitz. Fresh off the evolutionary assembly line, Blitz was a fast melee hero who excelled at gutting enemies with a pair of nasty claws. Right away, it was apparent that Darkspore isn't straying far from genre conventions; you click to move, click to attack, and click to have fun. Clicking on any patch of terrain sends your hero to that spot, and clicking on any enemy orders your hero to attack. While melee combat was very straightforward, ranged combat added a little extra excitement. Against a ranged opponent, a simple click isn't always the best solution. Most ranged attacks come in the form of slow moving balls of energy, and if we were nimble, we could duck and weave in between the shots to get to our assailant. However, it didn't help that most of these shots came from tiny, insectlike quantum darkspore who would then teleport away when we got close.

Each hero has its own special abilities.

Thankfully, Blitz had just unlocked his second ability, ride the lighting, which allowed him to teleport to where our cursor was pointed and deal damage upon entry. Heroes have four abilities assigned to them; the first being their standard attack ability. The second two are hero-specific spells--in Blitz's case ride the lighting and electron sphere (basically a large fireball)--and the fourth is a party spell, which any hero in a squad can use. For Blitz, it was plasma wreath, a shield that shocked those who got too close. The stages themselves followed the typical layout of narrow bridges and pathways opening into larger arenas where packs of minions were waiting to be mowed over. As in Left 4 Dead, each of these stages has an AI director who dynamically spawns in packs of minions for you to battle based on your level and number of co-op companions. Across the game's six planets, each with four sectors, you'll never slaughter the same pack of baddies twice.
The only thing were concerned with was loot--and lots of it. And it just so happened that the darkspore were (un)willing to oblige. Loot comes in all shapes and sizes, such as DNA (your intergalactic currency), weapons, and armor. If up to three of your friends are along for the ride, loot is divided up automatically based on a random die roll regardless of who picked it up. Massive black obelisks were also scattered throughout the level, an infrequent gift from the AI director, which contained even more loot and, occasionally, a healing item or two. Once Blitz hacked through a world's worth of critters, we arrived at the end-of-level swarm. These swarms were our favorite part of the journey because they distill the action down into a few frantic waves of carnage. For the lone Blitz, it was a touching victory, with ride the lighting saving our butts on multiple accounts.

You can customize your heroes in a variety of ways.

After we survived the swarm, it was time to return to the ship to make an important choice. We could either end our current play session to try our luck at getting a rare item or we could take our chances and continue on without having the opportunity to equip any of the new items we'd collected. Pressing forward would mean that the next stage would be more difficult than the last, and if we failed, we'd forfeit any chance of getting the prize. But, if we succeeded, our chances would greatly improve. Ultimately, we decided not to yield to the temptations of avarice and enjoy what bounty we had--even if we didn't win a pair of ultrarare shoulder pads.

Back in our ship, we now had the opportunity to upgrade Blitz and recruit some new heroes to our team. Individually, your heroes don't collect their own experience or gain levels. Instead, all the fighting and bloodshed feeds into your Crogenitor level that then determines how many abilities and which heroes you can access. A hero's individual level is determined by the fancy threads you choose. Because Blitz was essentially naked, we headed into the character editor and hooked him up with a new pair of claws and some spiffy shin guards. Outside of the weapons, all of these items could be turned, tweaked, stretched, and otherwise modified using the original Spore's extensive creature creator. What might be a simple tail for one hero, could be twisted into a sweet pair of devil horns for another. Once we had our gear in order, it was time to hit the paint shop. Here, we could choose from a variety of textures and colors, as well as a pair of ominous-looking robotic paint hoses that would spray down our hero with a fresh coat of awesomeness. We went with a red and gold color scheme reminiscent of Iron Man.

Collecting DNA lets you buy items and weapons back at your ship.

Each piece of armor also occupies its own armor slot. This means at some point that the bat wings you worked so hard on are going to be outdated by superior equipment. Does this mean it's time to suck it up and trash them? No. In this case, you can head over to the item shop and have them stripped of their stats and made into accessories; same great look, just no great points. Because Blitz was still living in space poverty, he didn't have this luxury, nor did any of his new friends. Our return to the ship had unlocked Wraith, a necro sentinel (aka a zombie tank), and Sage, a bio tempest (aka a walking tree with a healing gun). Each of these heroes came with its own unique abilities, including squad abilities, which, when combined in combat, allowed things to really get interesting.
In total, there are 25 alpha heroes. These are the basic, core heroes who have their own backstory and abilities. Then, there are 75 beta, delta, and gamma heroes. These are variants of the alpha heroes with the same type and class but with different abilities. Perhaps you want your heroes to all be extremely specialized in one area or you want hybrid heroes to cover all the bases. These new abilities won't crossbreed into other classes or races; they are only meant to complement, not completely change a character's role.
These party abilities opened up a brave new world of combo potential, with Sage's strangling briars snare proving to be the most useful for the team. For instance, Blitz could use strangling briars to snag a pack of lesser foes, which slowed and damaged them, before teleporting in and dealing the finishing blow. Wraith's party ability, ghostform, was a great defensive asset to the team as it made the caster incorporeal and immune to damage for a brief time. After blasting our way through a few more sectors and racking up ton of new gear, we recruited Goliath, a cyber sentinel (aka robot death machine), to our team to give Blitz a breather.
Next, we decided to head to the player-versus-player arena and cut our teeth on some three-on-three combat. Playing the PVP felt akin to a simplified style of Defense of the Ancients. Sure, there aren't any towers to defend or minions to kill, but the ebb and flow of the fights themselves was similar. You never want to stand still and always want to be moving in and out of range of your opponent, depending on which of your three heroes you're currently using. For our team, it was all about baiting the enemy into range of our snare and unloading on him with our two heavyweights. Most arenas will feature some sort of environment hazard, which can work for or against you.
PVP is divided up into one-on-one and two-on-two matches, and each match lasts three rounds. If you want matches to count toward your rank, you're going to have to bring a friend because only the two-on-two games will apply. In between rounds, the loser has the option of switching out his or her team with another to better counter what the opponent just played. Heroes who share the same type, such as two necros, will deal double damage to each other, and all heroes will have a similar body shape depending on their class. Sentinels are big and hulking; ravagers are small and nimble; and tempests are tall and skinny. You may not know what tricky spells these characters have hidden up their sleeves, but based on their looks, you at least have an idea.

There are hundreds of ability combos out there for you to experiment with.

After going three matches in the ring, we decided to call it quits. Overall, Darkspore is shaping up to offer delightfully simple pleasures; its complexity grows out of your team combinations and the interplay between teams and your co-op allies. And while this game lacks the ability to build heroes from the ground up, the developers have been allowing community members to try their hand at building enemies for the game. Thus far, this has been a huge success, with thousands of entries received at every request. It's also something the developer plans on supporting after the game's launch. Grab a friend and get ready for Darkspore on March 29.

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