Darkspore, in case you've never heard of it, is a new action-RPG being developed by Maxis for EA. You can find out more here if you like. You can currently get access to the Darkspore Beta through Steam, for this week only. You must have a Steam account and an EA login (if you've ever played Dragon Age you've got one already), download the client through Steam, and you're good to go. I had heard about the game before, and since science fiction action-RPGs are rare, and good ones almost non-existent, I've been eager to see if the game will be any good. I'm tired of fantasy.
So far, I've been pleasantly surprised. The game is not Torchlight in space, which many of the screenshots might lead one to suspect. The game offers a fairly unique method of gameplay and advancement, and it's really only going to make sense if I describe everything in detail.
To start with, Darkspore is set in a universe where an ancient race known as the Crogenitors went around the galaxy mucking about with other race's DNA, trying to make ever more powerful creatures. Eventually (of course!) one of them stumbled across a very powerful mutagenic modification that started turning everything into monsters, and the monsters' main instictive drive was to convert everything to more of themselves and destroy whatever wouldn't convert. These monsters became known as the Darkspore, and wiped out the Crogenitor civilization, along with any others they came across. You play the role of a Crogenitor that went into stasis while computers anaylized Darkspore DNA and tried to find a way to stabilize it. You've just awoken from stasis and been informed by your trusty computer that a method to stabilize Darkspore DNA has been found, and it's now possible to confront the enemy.
You're just a weakling scientist-type though, not much use in a fight. Instead, you create genetically modified supersoldiers (heroes) and control them from the safety of your ship while they romp around on a planet's surface slaughtering everything they find. You can only control one hero at a time, but teleportation technology allows you to swap out squad members at will. This ends up being one of the key features of the game, as you deploy for a mission with a squad of 3 heroes (to start). Each hero is aligned to a specific element, and enemies of that element will deal double damage to your hero. So swapping out heroes when your current one is confronted by his/her/its own element is an important strategy.
Enemy creatures drop items, DNA, health capsules, and power capsules. Items are used to upgrade your heroes in the editor, and are generally element or hero specific. Like any good action rpg, there are a wide variety of items from common to rare, with various modifications and stat effects. DNA is used as currency for items and upgrades for your heroes. Health capsules and power capsules are used to restore your hero's hit points and power points respectively, and effect all squad members whether active or not. So a badly wounded hero can be swapped out for a healthy one, and that hero can collect health capsules that will heal the wounded one as well as themselves. It's a nifty system, and makes character swapping worthwhile even if you really really love the guy you're playing.
The heroes are not created by the player. Each hero is essentially a genetic template of one of the races the Crogenitors tinkered with. They are what they are, at first. Once you have activated a hero you can change skin colors and modify a few features using the Spore editor. Heroes do not level up like traditional action-RPG characters, instead they gain power (and "levels") by equipping items. The more powerful the item, the higher their level becomes. Items can be attached to the hero using the Spore editor, and can be placed almost anywhere on the body (with the exception of weapons), be scaled up or down, rotated, inverted, etc. While all heroes will start out the same, as time goes on they have the potential to become very unique.
As I mentioned, the heroes don't level by gaining xp but you, the Crogenitor, do. As you level up you unlock additional hero templates and gain the ability to purchase upgrades for your heroes. It's a simple enough system and doesn't require much explaining (which is good, since the tutorial mostly skips that aspect of the game).
Gameplay is fairly typical action-RPG fare. You have an isometric overhead view, left click to move or attack, and a number of abilities activated by the number keys. I'd say the pace is generally a bit slower than your typical actioner, and that suits me just fine. The visuals are sharp and enjoyable, though I'm not a big fan of the monstrous design of the hero characters. An internet connection is required, as you have to log in to play, but you can proceed through the campaign solo or set up cooperative games with friends. Co-op might be a lot of fun, and is one of the things Torchlight sorely lacked. Game performance was excellent, so I'm hopeful Co-op play would be relatively lag free.
My biggest issue with the game right now would be the mission content itself. Essentially you enter a map, clear some enemies, teleport to the next map, clear some more enemies, teleport to another map, clear some more enemies, teleport to a boss map, fight the boss, mission done. If all the content is like that, it's not going to matter that you're fighting different enemies in different scenery, it's going to get old fast. Hopefully further into the game you have more involved mission goals.
Still, I spent most of my playtime last night playing Darkspore instead of Rift, which says a lot about its ability to entertain. At this point I don't know if it's going to be a flash-in-the-pan like Spore was, or something that offers long term fun and enjoyment. Hopefully they'll do more beta events as they continue development so I can check it out some more.