Sun, May 15, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Video game review: Darkspore

By Seth Schiesel  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Spore, released in 2008, was the most over-hyped game in recent memory. Through years of prerelease publicity-mongering, the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, and its famed designer, Will Wright, managed to convince much of the general public and the gaming world that they had created an “everything simulator.”

Here, the story went, was a game that would capture and reflect the grand sweep of evolution, from cells drifting in the primordial soup all the way to the colonization of the galaxy. Given Wright’s stupendous track record with SimCity and The Sims, lots of folks bought it (the story, that is).

But when Spore finally appeared, the bald truth was that there just wasn’t very much game in the game. It was more akin to a novelty toy: momentarily interesting and vaguely provocative but lacking the challenge and structure required to keep an adult interested for long. You could create all these weird creatures, but there just wasn’t very much to do with them.

Spore never found mass popularity. In 2009 Wright left Electronic Arts, even as it tried to rescue the franchise with an inadequate add-on called Galactic Adventures. I thought that was the last we’d hear of this ambitious yet flawed property.

To my pleasant surprise, I was wrong. It has taken three years longer than it should have, but Electronic Arts has finally come up with an enjoyable real game under the Spore umbrella, called Darkspore. Released recently for Windows PCs, Darkspore is an online action-role-playing game that, while hardly groundbreaking, is at least reliably diverting.

The entire action-role-playing genre is about letting players pop on the computer for 20 minutes and make their virtual heroes just a little more powerful by romping through some sort of dungeon without a lot of strategizing and heavy intellectual lifting. You point and click and wipe out a few hundred monsters in swashbuckling style and then count the loot. Rinse and repeat.

In a great game of this sort, that rinsing and repeating might end only when you realize the sun is coming up. Darkspore is not that gripping (which for some people might be a good thing). But for the moment it is probably the best action-role-playing game out there.

The problem for Darkspore is that the moment may not last very long. Most daunting, it seems possible that Blizzard Entertainment, the king of online computer games, could release the long-awaited Diablo III this holiday season. Moreover, some of the original creators of Diablo, who have left Blizzard and created their own company, Runic Games, are expected to release their own action-role-playing-game, Torchlight II, as soon as this summer.

So Darkspore will soon be hard put to compete for the hearts and leisure hours of players who like this sort of thing. But on its own merits it is a solid effort. It will certainly stay on my hard drive, and I’m sure I’ll keep playing it from time to time.

Unlike most action-role-playing games, which are set in medieval fantasy worlds, Darkspore is nominally science fiction set in outer space. Of course bad guys are trying to take over the universe, and you have to stop them. There is more than a bit of Pokemon in Darkspore in that there are 100 different hero characters you can unlock over the course of the game, each with its own special abilities.

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