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Darkspore gives us a first glimpse at its loot

Yes, the second half of Darkspore’s title is referencing the evolution-sim Spore. Except gameplay-wise, it’s really nothing like Spore. That’s because it’s dark. But seriously, Darkspore looks like a sci-fi take on Diablo, except it throws in the mentality of Magic: The Gathering by centering on the collection of heroes, which make up squads similar to a deck in Magic.

Above: These three heroes are exploring a planet that was destroyed by a black hole and then stapled back together with energy bridges

Darkspore’s story is that wise (or possibly unwise) beings from the past known as the Crogenitors mastered the art of genetic manipulation, creating living weapons. They also created something called exponential DNA, which proved difficult to control. One of the Crogentitors betrayed the others and injected himself with the new DNA, becoming the Darkspore. He then released the DNA into the universe, spawning endless, uncontrolled bio weapons.

The fun part will be taking on the myriad creatures infesting numerous planets by controlling three-creature squads of the living weapons, which are called heroes. They aren’t heroes in the typical sense – they’re monsters designed in the Spore creature creator. In fact, the creature creator has been integrated into Darkspore, but tweaked to fit the game’s action-RPG roots. While you won’t be creating your own heroes from scratch, you can go in and edit your heroes’ appearances extensively. Certain restraints are in place to ensure that a brawler type hero is recognizable on the battlefield (especially important for PvP, so you know what you’re fighting against), but the devs say their own players have still sculpted many creative and differing creatures within the class restraints.

Above: This fiery plasma-based hero can drop flaming meteors on enemies and wade into groups while surrounded in a wreathe of flames

Before landing on a planet to do some “dungeon” crawling, you’ll take time to edit your heroes (you can play with their stats and equipment), and select your squad of three creatures. Once on the planet, you actually control one hero at a time, but you can swap out another hero in your squad with the click of a key. The heroes come in types, like necro (creatures raised from the dead), plasma (creatures fused with elements), and quantum (creatures that teleport or affect time) to name a few. Since certain heroes are better at dealing with certain enemies, you’ll be swapping them out on the fly. Strategy is a big part of the game, so before you launch to a planet, you can see what enemy types you’ll be dealing with, and can arrange your squad accordingly.

Certain powers carry over when you swap heroes – so, for instance, if you swap from a teleporting hero to a melee hero, the melee hero can now teleport. All heroes have team-oriented powers, and this is because Darkspore is co-op focused. You can play with AI partners, but it’s designed to be enjoyed with friends. Two of you can build squads focused on complementing each other’s abilities. In battle, heroes have specific team powers like a haste aura that speeds up friendlies in a radius, or a ranged attack that damages enemies and heals friendlies at the same time.

Darkspore is a loot-centric game, but instead of just collecting items, you also collect heroes. There will be literally hundreds of heroes to discover and add to your collection, with even more pieces of armor and weaponry to kit them out with. The game is designed to be replayed – it uses an AI director similar to that of Left 4 Dead, which chooses what enemies to throw at you, how many of them to spawn, and decides what the enemies will do -all based on your play experience. This allows for each play-through of a planet to be different, while also being tailored to your skill level.

Above: While the characters are cartoony, their attacks are flashy and brutal

With Diablo so far off, we’re a bit excited to see how polished, pretty, and deep Darkspore looks. Its sci-fi setting and slightly cutesy Spore look might put off some loot lovers, but its action looks satisfying and tactical, and the art design of the worlds is imaginative and easy on the eyes. It’s also planning to release in early 2011, which smartly gives it a chance to fill the gap as mouse-click mongers everywhere wait for Diablo to arrive fashionably late.

Jul 21, 2010

My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.