Darkspore is Maxis' latest effort in the realm of making customization fun, and where Spore (the game on which Darkspore is partially based) somewhat failed to include an enjoyable game aside from the customization, Darkspore succeeds. Or, at least, seems to be on track to based on our time with the game’s recently held beta.
In the Darkspore beta, you start by learning about the evil Darkspore and your role in defeating them. You're a Crogenitor, a person who makes and reforms Heroes that are later used to kill the Darkspore and stop them from destroying planets.
Darkspore plays very similar to other top down third-person games like Torchlight and Diablo. You control your character by clicking on the ground where you want them to go, and attack by clicking on enemies or by using an ability. Enemies often drop health and mana resources, and when you defeat a boss, they drop parts for your various heroes.
The first Hero you get is named Blitz. Blitz is a nice fella who favors quick, agile attacks but has relatively low survival skills. He starts off red with medium size pincers but you can change all of this later in the character customization area. For example, my Blitz ended up blue with gigantic pincers and really small feet.
Each Hero gets a passive ability as well as a few castable abilities. Blitz's passive ability is called Deadly Precision and allows his critical strikes to deal 50 perecent more damage. He also starts out with a castable move called Ride the Lightning, where he'll teleport to wherever the mouse cursor is placed and deal damage to the enemies around him. If he kills the enemy he attacks with Ride the Lightning then the cool down on the ability is reset.
Another Hero we played around with looked like an adorable preying mantis and his name was Sage. Unlike Blitz, Sage's main focus was healing rather than dealing a lot of damage. Sage's passive ability is called Dendrones, where he spawns two little pets at a time to help him kill enemies. He also has the Tree of Life ability, an area of effect heal that lasts for 6.5 seconds and then explodes, healing an extra 20-30 HP for those standing near the explosion.
Players can switch between Heroes at will, but there's about a five second cooldown on switching. If one character isn't being used and is low on health, and you bring out another character, the other character will regen when the new character grabs health regen items or replenishes their mana. This brings strategy into play, because you can begin fighting a boss with Blitz, take a ton of damage, and then switch to Sage to deal damage with his pets and heal, which will also heal Blitz who's in the stable.
As you defeat enemies, they will sometimes drop items you can later use to customize your hero and make it more powerful. Levels themselves also reward items, and the more levels you play in a row without customizing the better the items you'll receive. Let's say you play level one and then want to customize, whereas I want to play levels one through four without upgrading or customizing, I'm doing something more difficult than you and the game rewards me for that effort.
You can customize just about every body part your Heroes have, including their weapon, hands, feet, what they use for offense, defense, utility, and of course, what their skin looks like. Weapons are unique to each hero, but all other items can be used by everyone.
As you make your way through the solo campaign, more and more Heroes become available to you. You can build a collection of heroes and upgrade the ones you already own to make the ultimate fighting force for the levels.
What struck us most about our time with Darkspore, aside from customizing my characters and giving the ones I liked the best the strongest items, was the level design. There isn't a huge map that lets you know where to go in the levels, and the game rewards you for thoroughly exploring each area with new items. The space atmosphere is played out gorgeously and each level looks different from the last.
I also got to play through a few levels in the co-op mode. This was basically the same exact experience as doing the level myself, but I could share loot with a friend.
If you need a break from the campaign, Darkspore also features a very robust competitive player vs. player section, which I didn't get to try out in the beta. But we do know that there will be over 100 different fully upgradeable Heroes to choose from, so it’s easy to imagine that people will definitely find the strongest and use them to their highest potential.
Overall, I must admit I wasn't expecting the gameplay in Darkspore to be as fun as it was, especially after the lackluster effort in Spore, but I was pleasantly surprised. As someone that enjoys Diablo-esque gameplay, the game felt natural, well balanced, and looked beautiful.
Darkspore is coming out exclusively for the PC on April 26, 2011.