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Feature: Darkspore Impressions

In a distant galaxy, an advanced alien race called the Crogenitors specialized in genetic manipulation, which leads to discovery of E-DNA, an experimental gene sequence that opens up whole new branches of bio-engineering. However, E-DNA proves to be very unstable and gives rise to a violent breed of mutants called Darkspore. The Darkspore threat spread across the galaxy, destroying everything in its path, including the Crogenitors that created them. Players take the role of one of the last Crogenitors, awakened from a millennium of hypersleep to find that Darkspore have completely taken over the galaxy. But before your race died out, they managed to stabilize the E-DNA and used them to create heroes to fight back the dark tide. It becomes your duty to pick up where they left off by gathering an army of genetically modified heroes to reclaim the galaxy.

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In Darkspore, players embark on a dark sci-fi action role-playing adventure that allows them to collect and customize heroes. As players rise in level, they unlock new heroes that come with different powers and abilities. In total, there are 100 heroes to unlock, which serve as physical templates to build from as players acquire new equipment. Heroes are empowered by five different elements, which Plasma, Bio, Quantum, Necro and Cyber, each embody a variety of effects. The available classes are the Ravager for fast strikes, the Tempest for ranged attacks and support; and the Sentinel as the tank and heavy combat.

The feature that most separates Darkspore from other action RPGs is the Hero Editor, derived from the Spore Creature Creator. Although core physical characteristics are unchangeable, players can modify the look of their heroes using loot picked up from the campaign, loaded with different stat bonuses. So in addition to weapons, Heroes can be upgraded with eyes, hands, and antennae to enhance their combat abilities. Each hero has a number of slots, separated into categories like Offense, Defense and Utility, where one item can be installed. Some have extra slots, allowing for stronger Defense or Utility. The equipment will also determine the hero's level. Changes also cost money, and the game use DNA strands as currency, which can be picked up by completing missions and defeating creatures. If you like how a part looks but not its stats, you can strip it and turn it into a plain detail to develop the perfect look for your hero. However, we couldn't figure out a way to transfer stats from one item to another.

Once you're done selecting your heroes and customizing them in the Editor, it's time to head into a mission. The campaign maps are wonderfully detailed with surrounding that reflect the type of creatures you'll encounter. Bio type creatures are largely found in jungles while a lot of Necro and Cyber creatures are found on the remnants of broken planetoid shards. A squad of three different heroes can be assembled, and players can switch them out at any time. So if a hero is getting overwhelmed, you can switch over to another with the press of a button to better handle the situation. It's generally a good idea to keep the squad diverse, since a hero battling a Darkspore of the same element will deal and receive double damage. Each hero has two unique powers and a third one that any member of the squad can use. For example, if one character may bring a fire aura as a squad power while another offers teleport. As long as there's enough available energy (mana) a character can teleport into groups and hit a bunch of creatures at once. Building up a nice kill score contributes to Overdrive, which can be activated to temporarily turn a hero into a near unstoppable pummeling machine.

The entire campaign can also be played cooperatively, and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with playing alongside characters of widely different levels, except the loot might not be as worthwhile for the higher level player. It's possible for players to select heroes that work off of each other and assemble an unstoppable force. The tricky thing is that it's often difficult to differentiate between a teammate's pet and an enemy creature. Players roll for loot, so there's no fighting over who gets what, and pick-ups things like money, health, and energy are shared between all players. Sadly, we didn't see any means of sharing or exchanging loot with other players.

Darkspore uses an AI director inspired by the Left 4 Dead series that adjusts the game's difficulty according to hero levels, how many players there are, and whether or not you've played the level before. So you might see more advanced creatures appear as you replay a level for the second or third time. At the end of a mission, players can "cash out" and roll for a rare item. Alternatively, they can skip the chance to equip heroes with better weapons and go straight into the next mission. Continuing on means a higher chance for very rare items and more item rolls on cash out. However, players forfeit all rare item rolls if they fail during the course of a mission chain. Even so, while some heroes might have come close during certain boss battles, having a character actually die was a very rare event, especially in co-op.

We noticed that the randomness of loot drops could cause heroes to fall behind in levels. Unless you visit the currently scantly stocked item store regularly to purchase new equipment, you could end up getting a lot of drops for a certain element but not enough of another. The game could also benefit from allowing players to bind powers to the right mouse button instead of using it for attack, which is already handled by the left button. Additionally, there needs to be an overhead map so players can check to see what areas have been explored.

Players have a chance to prove their genetic superiority in PvP matches. The game currently supports 1v1 and 2v2 arena battles, which are very exciting depending on the kinds of heroes are in play. There's a lot of room for developing creative strategies and figuring out what heroes make the best fighting team. Best of all, the Hero Editor makes it possible to decrease heroes levels so players can battle against friends who are further along in the game. The only downside is that the PvP map we played didn't have any energy pick-ups available. So once both players spend all their available energy for special moves, victory can come down to whoever manages to get in the last swing or Tempests that can run away and blast from a distance. However a well timed Overdrive could also turn things around.

Another potential issue with the game is that it appears to require a constant connection to the internet in order to play. There's a persistent chat lobby that players can have access to, giving Darkspore a sort of MMO feel, but it means that players with network difficulties won't even be able to play a solo game. It can also be very frustrating to lose connection during a mission, especially when battling a boss creature.

Darkspore is shaping up to be the kind of game that can really get under a person's skin. Part of it is the easy controls and variety of heroes that can be combined into devastating squads. The dark storyline is surprisingly mature, detailing the fall of an advanced civilization as its own creation tears apart everything it built. Then there's the Hero Editor, where players will be spending a huge chunk of their time, sorting through equipment, picking out the heroes they enjoy most, and adjusting their look. This is the kind of RPG that's appealing to both creative types and players looking for a bit of alien bashing action. Beta test sessions are being held over the next month so players have a chance to get an early look at the game before its scheduled release on March 29th (April 1 in Europe).

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