So the Darkspore beta popped back up on my Steam client yesterday and I decided to take another look. The game is still interesting, but they did a character wipe and now I have to start all over, which isn't too enthralling when I know they'll just be wiped again at some point. Still, it's a pretty simple, relaxing, mind-emptying game to play, so not bad when I want to play something but don't really have much energy.
Playing through the starting area again did drive home some of the flaws in the current system. The first flaw is the complete and total dependence on item drops to improve your characters. There's no xp in the game (for the characters anyway), just items. Equipping items increases a character's "level", which in this case is just an approximation of their overall power, and used as a guide for picking appropriate challenges. This means though, that the ability to improve your characters is tied entirely to the random drop system, and items are either character specific (these claws can only be used by Blitz) or element specific (these shoulderplates can only be used by Cyborg characters). The result is that you can go through a mission without getting any drops that are useful for the characters you play, and so you don't improve their power and are stuck replaying the same content until you do.
This ties into the second flaw, which is that you don't get to pick your starting characters. You will always start with Blitz and the bio guy (who's name I have forgotten), so if your first mission gives you nothing but quantum drops (as mine did), too bad for you. This could be rectified a little by letting players pick all of their starting characters, and giving a wider range of low level characters to choose from. Still, that's only a short term issue. After increasing your player level a few times you'll be able to pick more characters and can phase out the start characters entirely if you don't like them.
I would like to see more control over the development of the characters. Using items controls their stats and their "level", but the abilities they have are very static. Every version of Blitz you encounter the game will have different stats and look different (maybe), but will always have the same abilities. I'd like to see a little more customization there -- maybe one ability slot can be loaded with a choice of different abilities at the start of each mission.
As I played through the game last night it occured to me that Darkspore has a very "Ben 10" feel to it. If you don't know, Ben 10 is a Cartoon Network cartoon starring a boy with a special device that lets him transform into different aliens. Each alien has it's own repertoire of special abilities. There are aliens that can tank, aliens that do lots of damage, aliens that stealth, etc. You only get 3 "forms" at a time in Darkspore (out of hundreds available), but in many ways the gameplay mimics the cartoon. Each character you use has set abilities, and you can "transform" between the 3 at will.
I'm still undecided as to whether that similarity is a good thing or not though.