Part 1: http://ramblingmutt.com/?p=86
So, a few days ago I wrote about the video game Darkspore, and I was rather complimentary about it. This is not my usual style of behavior towards games, and it took me a while to write this because I was trying to figure out why I hadn’t nitpicked this game to death like normal.
I honestly think it was because it was a weeklong beta. For whatever reason, a week was enough time for me to go through the game and get a very solid grasp of it, but pay no money to learn that much. On most betas you have a short, hour-long experience. This is only enough time for me to notice dozens of annoying faults with a game and get irked by them. Regardless of genre and quality, I usually spend about the first 10 hours questioning the game’s ancestry, employment, and shoe choices of its mother in a loud voice with no pants on. Then the game finishes downloading and I start playing it.
The flipside is if I purchase the actual game, I resent it. I am in the hole for the entertainment it provides and it has to be more enjoyable than the money I dropped on it. While some games I don’t regret a single cent of their purchase (TF2, VtM: Bloodlines, Morrowind), others fill me with rage that these bastards absconded with my cash (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 2). I understand this seems to make me a fundamentally unpleasable person. This assumption is entirely correct.
Darkspore avoids this trap, like I said. I spent the first several hours gnashing my teeth and complaining about the immediate, obvious faults. The annoyance of excessive particle effects (“Ooh, the interior of my ship is so steamy for no reason!”), a clunky story (“Exponential DNA, or E-DNA, created the Darkspore by corrupting your species. Why not just call it the One Ring and finish the job?), and invasive, excessive EA data-mining were all immediately noted. The only reason I kept playing at all is because I could make equally extensive lists of annoyances in games I loved too.
Once I got over the first-impression annoyances, I certainly enjoyed it, as I mentioned in my previous post. There are, however, several issues I’d love to point out. This time, I even brought pictures!
First is the creature elemental types. There are five types of heroes you can play as: plasmic, biological, cybernetic, necrotic, and quantum. It was nice to have types that weren’t wholly themed around “elements” for once, and the actual themes of each type were nice and clear while still being varied. This led to some fun as a pokemon-esque “Select for type as well as abilities” feature, except for one glaring problem: there were no actual type-matching tricks, except that heroes take double-damage from other creatures of their type.
This was very frustrating, especially when I was just starting out and didn’t know the types. It’s compounded by the fact that hero types are not easy to figure out on-sight. Cybernetic is the only obvious hero type, and at the distance you’re dealing with even they can seem a little fuzzy. I can understand having a type-matching mechanism, and I can even accept “like is ineffective against like” mechanic, but I think that your hero doing half-damage to the enemy of the same type would have been a much better system. You’d be able to tell you were doing something wrong before your hero’s skull was converted into a chamber pot by your theme-sharing foes. I personally would have preferred a more interconnected strength and weakness system for types, but the lack of one is not a strike against it.
Another issue was a very mixed bag that started out as a slight plus and slowly drove me mad. You see, Darkspore uses the creature-generator from Spore for its heroes. While you can’t design new heroes, you can edit them, and in fact have to: all equipment comes as little visual doodads you glue to your hero. While a more mature gamer than me might try and place vambraces and pauldrons in reasonable spots, all my heroes were soon sporting absurd secondary sexual characteristics. And moustaches.
This wasn’t a problem directly, but it did lead to two other problems. First is the universal problem of any RPG that shows its character’s equipment precisely: “Man, this looks terrible but it has such good stats! Man, this is such a cool-looking piece of gear, too bad it sucks!” This is not a problem unique to Darkspore, but it is a very severe problem here. Having an orange hero with big smiley purple masks and a green weapon should have had a chance to blind enemies in line-of-sight, I think.
The second spore-construction problem was the sheer glut of items. In something like Diablo, I at least had issues with trying to optimize my hero’s gear. I’d spend a good 10 minutes doing as thorough a cost/benefit analysis as I could with regards to what item was superior. In Darkspore, you don’t have 1 hero to optimize. You have an ever-growing number based on level. Even if you tried to pare it down from the stable of 15 possible by the time I stopped, you still have a squad of three that you need to keep up-to-date. This is compounded by if you have two heroes that would benefit from the same piece of gear. This is compounded further by most items being tied to a particular element. It’s topped off by the game seeming to delight in giving items that would be great if your hero was a different party role. I played a plasma tank pretty faithfully my entire beta, and about 90% of plasma items I got were for casters. There is no trade option, and party loot is *always* randomly assigned. This meant that items that were perfect for my heroes would go to other people who didn’t use them, and I was stuck with a load of items that were of no use to me, but would have been great for the friend who played casters. Finally, trying to place the items on heroes in a place that either looked good, or at least looked intentionally comical, ate up more time. It got to the point that after every area, we were spending a good half-hour waiting for everyone to sell off all their junk, equip the best items, and switch around the squad as needed. It was a slow, boring, frustrating pain, and I worry that further on in the game I’ll be spending more time placing items on and off my heroes than going out and killing things.
The story was…well, on average, serviceable. There were brilliant parts and terrible parts. The general gist was sort of cheesy, but there were many concepts that added to the story. As a space-opera themed MMO, there were ideas that felt like exciting science fiction. Remnants of a solar system orbiting a black hole with plants that photosynthesized cosmic rays. “Oceans” of plasma trapped in magnetic fields high above the planet’s terrestrial surface. Precursor aliens uplifting individuals and species to fight a galactic war. Those are all some pretty fun concepts and I enjoyed them. Mixed in and throughout these gems, though, were truly clunky phrases and concepts. When the Necrotic-hero Homeworld “Nocturna” was conquered by the Darkspore, the compu-narrator informs us sadly that “The dark world…grew darker.” I heard that line a good 8 or 9 times when shepherding new players through the area. Repetition does not improve it.
There’s also not a lot of variance within a single hero. You get 4 skills, one of which you share with the other heroes in your squad, so you always have 6 skills per hero, of which you can at best change out 2. These skills never change, and only scale up if increased by stats. It makes sticking to a single squad rapidly become boring, and limits your customization of a hero you really enjoy. Similarly, while the first time you play a region it’s based on the story, any level you’ve played before is “randomized”, so that you never know what monsters you’ll be fighting or what the map will look like. Since there’s a solid amount of grinding in-game, just like any MMO, and only maps of areas you’ve already been in are available to be randomly used, I grew *very* sick of playing through the first level against my will.
Finally, the game is buggy, buggy, BUGGY. It has a memory leak somewhere and every time I played it, the game would start at 40% of my memory used, and was usually near 80% whenever I stopped. If I didn’t stop soon after the 80% mark it’d crash my machine. This wasn’t a big problem, because many other things crashed the game. If someone in your party left while a mission was loading, everyone in the party had their game crash. Sometimes, you just can’t pick up items. And if you try, you can’t move until you switch out heroes. Sometimes after defeating one of the major dungeon bosses, they won’t drop any loot because they died in the wrong spot. I honestly don’t count the many and thorough bugs against them, simply because as an MMO they’ll be forced to fix those over time.
As I said before, on net, I had fun. I was considering buying the game, even, because this sort of RPG is like an endless pile of lotto tickets to scratch. It satisfies the urge cooler people satisfy with gambling. Then I looked at the price tag.
Do not buy this game. Not at that price, at least. If it comes down into the 30-dollar range, I’d say go for it. It doesn’t have a subscription fee, so it’s an outlay of 30 dollars one time, but at its current price my hand spasms shut whenever I try and reach for my wallet. Chatter in-game from beta testers seemed to agree with me on the buy price, so if any high-ranking EA employees read this blog (Ha!) I’d say dropping the price might be a good idea.