Maxis’ 2008 creation simulation Spore was a triumph of creativity and ambition, but – final stages aside – middling to poor as an actual gaming experience. In non-sequel action-RPG Darkspore, Maxis look to remedy this by reducing the scale and enhancing the Diablo and Torchlight-style point-and-clickery, all while attempting to keep the creative spirit outlined by Spore alive.

It’s an unexpected direction for the company and the franchise, but one that makes a lot of sense given the criticisms levelled at Spore’s story (or lack thereof) and utility beyond being a tool with which to create phallic-shaped aliens.

Sometime in the future, a race of scientists known as the Congenitors have perfected the art of genetic tomfoolery and created armies of super-creatures whose might is recognised throughout the galaxy. Unfortunately, the discovery of a DNA-modifying amino acid transforms many of the galaxy’s inhabitants into hostile beings known as the Darkspore, who immediately go about wiping out all other species like a breed of mutant fascists.

Suddenly finding themselves on the very cusp of extinction, the remaining Crogenitor eggheads flee to distant worlds to begin building an insurgency against the Darkspore menace. As one of these few surviving Crogenitor, you are tasked with assembling a small army with which to drive back the Darkspore, lest the universe be completely overrun, providing genetic engineering opponents with the biggest “I told you so” opportunity in all of history in the process.

You begin the game with a squad of three heroes, although there are a total of one hundred to unlock (four variations on 25 base hero types). Each hero’s genesis is from one of five genetic types: plasma, quantum, bio, cyber, and necro. As you’d expect, each type comes packaged with its own strengths, looks and Achilles heels, and are further divided into three distinct classes: the bulky and brutish melee tank that is the Sentinel, the more balanced but less hardy Ravager, and the weak but mage-like Tempest. Damage is dealt via melee, ranged weapons or using the three special abilities given to each hero. The effectiveness of any given attack depends on a plethora of character statistics for both you and your intended target, including the relation between your genetic types.

Only one hero appears on screen at once, but they may be teleported out in exchange for another at any time (unless your hero exchange cool-down period has not elapsed). Despite this, off-screen squad members are certainly not useless – each contributes a squad ability to your team which may be triggered regardless of which hero is currently in play. This introduces additional tactical elements to the game as it means you can combine different types of attacks to reap large damage bonuses. For example, a Necro Ravager’s squad ability could be invisibility which triggers an automatic critical hit on the next enemy attacked. If triggered when a Sentinel is in play, any area-effect abilities he has will automatically critically hit everyone they touch. This feature makes careful squad selection a must, as does the further wrinkle that creatures of the same genetic type as your hero inflict double damage upon you. Unfortunately due to the procedural generation of enemies, you have no way of knowing in advance what you will face on any particular level, so luck plays as much of a role here as anything.

Rather than level up your heroes, you instead level up yourself (the Crogenitor) to unlock other heroes as well as better weapons and detachable weaponised body parts. This clever conceit gives newly-unlocked heroes a fighting chance on the harder levels, and means you aren’t penalised for experimenting with the game’s many heroes as you unlock them.

The currency in Darkspore is DNA, which is handily dropped by vanquished enemies to be hastily spent fusing new appendages and weapons to your avatars. This is achieved via a much-streamlined version of Spore’s creature creator, wherein you stick things to your frankenbeast and resize, rotate and colour them until you’re satisfied that it looks as garish as possible. Vast amounts of loot are handily dropped by the slain or recovered from closet-like Obelisks hidden around levels, and these items can be welded onto your heroes as mentioned, used to temporarily boost certain attributes, or to replenish health or your special ability meter depending on their type.

There are six worlds to conquer in Darkspore, each of which consists of four levels. Environments vary from the gleaming cold and the metallic to the verdant. The looks of each are similarly varied, but the level layouts themselves are uninspired; each level is a dull linear march through scattered enemies that will barely dent your health bar towards a large swarm of bad guys accompanied by a boss. It’s not uncommon at the boss battle to see heroes fall in quick succession, and then it’s back to the start of the level for some more grinding.

At their heart all RPGs is a numbers game: a multitude of factors are rapidly added and subtracted with each click, and the result is expressed as damage inflicted. As such, they can be approached like an algebraic equation of sorts: enemy X is vulnerable to weapon Y wielded by hero Z but only if R and S are already present.

Such simple resource and inventory management-style gaming is perfectly fine (and is something Maxis have built their stellar reputation on), but in the absence of cracking gameplay it must be camouflaged by a compelling narrative lest it all seem a bit clinical and empty. Here - like its predecessor - Darkspore falters. Given that a point-and-click system by its very nature only allows a certain amount of ducking and diving during combat and that the narrative here is not only thin but is cast off with disinterest, it’s hard not to view Darkspore the way Neo came to see the Matrix: pretty and initially exciting, but cold and mechanical just below the surface. Rather than being propelled forward by a gripping narrative, Darkspore players are instead presented with what essentially amounts to an extended arena mode, and that’s a real shame.

It’s the main problem with the game, and although it’s somewhat tempered by the many possible combinations of heroes and the plethora of customisation options and loot available, the overall experience of Darkspore is one of moderately enjoyable grinding rather than galaxy-conquering epicness.

Two factors make it worth checking out, however. The first is a gambling system wherein the loot acquired on a level can be wagered against the player’s ability to complete the next one without perishing. Fail to do so and the loot is lost, succeed and the player’s chances of being rewarded with high-powered weapons and equipment at the end of that level dramatically rise. Yes, it’s another numbers game, but it will keep many playing past their curfews because unlike in the rest of the game, it feels like something is at stake.

The second factor is the multiplayer. As the singleplayer already requires a constant Internet connection, it’s only a click away and is certainly worth investigating. It allows the player and up to three others to form a party and play through the same levels as singleplayer only this time there are many more monsters to defeat and get experience bonuses to be gained. Besides, combining the abilities of four independently-controlled heroes adds a welcome amount of chaos to the game, as well as providing players with a chance to showcase their ridiculous creations to others online.

Best of three rounds Player versus Player combat is also available (including a Two versus Two mode), and again it would probably be a whole lot less fun were it not for a tiny tweak: the loser(s) of any given round are allowed to tinker with their squad before diving back into the fray but the winners are not. This allows players to experiment wildly with different heroes even if they are losing, and they’ll have the advantage of knowing exactly what kind of team they’ll be facing so can adjust tactics accordingly.

It’s inevitable that simulation kings Maxis created Darkspore the way they did – near-plotless and mechanical – for that is all they have known since their inception. Hardcore RPG fans won’t mind a bit and will revel in the variety and imagination on display, but others are advised to try before they buy.