(WARNING: The following blog post contains dangerously high levels of videogame babbling. If you have never lost yourself to the filthy habit of World of Warcraft or its sundry competitors, be advised that reading this post may result in several minutes of your life gone that you’ll never get back. While the author attempts to explain concepts for non-gamers when possible, reader discretion is advised.)
So, Steam had a weeklong beta for an MMORPG called Darkspore. Being an absolute nerd for gaming investigation, and gifted an entire week to dissect this puppy, I ripped the game open and proceeded to tunnel in like Mark Hamill on a cold winter’s night.
My nerd pop-culture quota now fulfilled, let’s actually get into the game. After writing this as a single monster post, I realized it needed to be split, so I lopped off the rear end where all my complaints are. If you’re annoyed by the glowing review, wait until I get to complain.
Darkspore is an “Action RPG” a term that’s only slightly less diffuse than the term “RPG” has become. In this case it means you’re playing something closely resembling Diablo or Torchlight. Monsters roam about the screen, and you slowly proceed forward, introducing your instrument of violence to said monsters in real time. Monsters then detonate like gore pinatas and provide you with highly randomized goodies. This is a solid formula, which has upsides and downsides:
THE UPSIDE: is that a proven formula tends not to be bad. At least for me, these hack-n-slash RPGs give the same rush as gambling. Each minion of whomever-it-is (bad guys are sort of interchangeable in this genre) I pulp into something resembling pasta sauce is a fresh lotto scratch ticket. Maybe this one will reveal that I am now the lucky owner of an item 15% better than the last! I can hardly wait!
THE DOWNSIDE: is that a gameplay style already done tends to be stale on some level. Why should I shell out fresh money for a Diablo 2 reskin? This is much worse in games than, say, books because mechanics are much harder to make feel new compared to a story.
I would say after about 20 hours in that the makers of Darkspore were cognizant of the upside and the downside both, and worked to mitigate the downside. The game does not play as pure Diablo. Instead, you have three heroes you can switch between with quick cooldowns. This is your “squad”, and a squad can be made up of any of about two-dozen heroes that I saw. While like any other MMORPG your class options are limited to tank, melee DPS, and caster, they did their best to make it novel. I played 3 “ravagers” (the melee DPS), and each played somewhat differently, enough that I could choose one of them over the others. They were all based on moving fast, using hit-and-run, but of the two I actually enjoyed playing, they played as mirror images of each other. One had an ability to swiftly home in and strike enemies with a sprint. The other had a short-range teleport that stunned anyone at the exit point. The sprinter played like a standard melee DPS, rushing to intercept enemies and hitting very hard, but the teleporting character let me play slow guerrilla warfare, zipping about and hitting what I wanted to, albeit nowhere near as hard as the sprinter. The same happened with tanks: I had an all-tank squad, one for dealing with single big enemies, one for handling large swarms of small weak ones, and a third who had buffs and healing for when someone else had a tank out. Being able to switch out not only whether you’re a warrior or rogue, but whether you’re a rogue who hurts people or a rogue that enfeebles the enemy, and then after being both rogues getting to switch to warrior, can be quite fun.
The fun is enhanced in my nerdy little brain by the fact that your squadmates share powers. Putting the one-on-one tank with an area of effect burning ability in the same squad as the teleport rogue meant that my tank could now also teleport wherever he damn well pleased, a storm of hatred and plasma searing everyone who thought they were safe in the back row. My friend who invited me to play found a way to chain several invincibility powers from various heroes together to only have a few seconds of vulnerability the entire time he was playing as an attack caster. Keep in mind, these were just combos we found from several hours playing a limited game. My filthy minmaxing little heart sings at the prospects the full game has for wondrously overpowered synergies.
Another thing I felt they did very well was enemy AI and mechanics were also quite engaging. There was no enemy without at least some quirk to enliven the fight. As a tank, it was far more interesting trying to identify various foes and their capabilities to determine order of threat than blindly charging in taunting. Even minor enemies were dangerous, not because they could swarm you, but because they often had abilities that needed to be neutralized. For example, one relatively common enemy was a very powerful long-range enemy, but had no functional skills once you drew close. He was paired with enemies that didn’t do much damage, but would teleport you away from him when you got too close. Just a simple setup like that meant I was constantly trying to be as effective as possible, rather than charging in and mowing down expendable mooks. This was enhanced even more by the fact that enemies had AI behaviors in keeping with their abilities: healers and casters ran away to keep distance, burst damage units and units with the ability to charge would zoom past tanks to hit at the weaker back row members, and trap-layers would ensure choke points or in front of enemy swarms were the area you’d get stopped at.
All and all, I really enjoyed it. They took a simple, classic mechanic, and did a *very* good job of adding new traits that I found interesting. What’s more, these weren’t glossy surface tweaks, the squad system with shared abilities pretty effectively reforged the system into something new, and I appreciate true novelty.
Well, now that that tongue-bath is over, stay tuned for Part 2, where I get to be my furiously cantankerous self.