Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: September 7, 2008
Spore is a sim-everything god game in which you nurture and develop your very own creation from a single-celled organism all the way through to an intelligent space-faring race over a five-course evolutionary odyssey. With the powerful creature creator toolset, Spore gives players unrivaled opportunity to express themselves using the equivalent of 3-D digital clay to create creatures, vehicles and buildings. It also has a seamless online sharing system that allows you to populate your game worlds with the imaginative offspring of your friends and everyone else on the Internet. While it's bursting at the seams with innovative features and tremendous scope, it falls a little flat when it comes to the actual gaming experience, which is often fairly mediocre and overly linear, especially in the early levels. However, if it's taken as a continuous journey instead of a set of individual destinations, Spore is quite an amazing achievement that rewards your time and attention with a fascinating, unusual and often highly compelling experience.
The journey begins with you playing as one of the prime ingredients in the murky waters of the primordial soup, a watery concoction teeming with life. The gameplay in this first cell stage will be immediately familiar to gamers who have played Flow on the PlayStation 3 or PSP, but it also bears a lot of resemblance to Pac-Man. You swim around on a 2-D plane eating to grow bigger and evolve while avoiding larger predators. What you can eat is determined by the choice you made at the start to be a vegetable or a meat eater. As an herbivore, you go for the algal greens while the carnivores scavenge and kill for scraps of flesh. It's all as simple as clicking your left mouse button and only engaging in as much as you can derive any sort of satisfaction from the growth process and seeing other creatures swimming about. Once you've earned enough DNA to evolve to the creature stage, there's really no strong incentive to revisit this level, so it's just as well that once any stage is unlocked, you can skip past previous levels straight to it.
Eating earns you DNA points, which can be spent toward upgrading your creature's parts. Perform a mating call, find your partner, watch their endearing mating ritual, and you'll be taken to the first of many creature creation screens. This toolset (which was released earlier as a stand-alone game) is definitely the star of Spore's show. It shares a lot in common with designer Will Wright's other blockbusting game, The Sims. In that game, the design and creation of a family, the house they live in and the way it's furnished was often more fun than the actual game, which could often quickly devolve into a repetitive cycle of virtual chores and bladder management. Similarly in Spore, the creature creator is a very powerful and surprisingly versatile tool for customization. A brief glance at the online encyclopedia of user-generated content will reveal the amazing breadth and variety of imaginative possibility that's out there, from Xbox 360 controllers to genitalia. Even if you're creatively crippled, it's not hard to create some hilariously ugly creature that you'll grow to love simply because it's yours. The real payoff, of course, is seeing your vision come to life, interacting in Spore's environments and struggling for dominance alongside the other animals.
In the cell stage, the creature creator is limited to simple 2-D modeling and swapping out functional body parts, like mouths for feeding or tails for speed. By the second level, the tools expand to allow you to truly pimp your animal. Crucially, the coherent art style of the various body parts, colors and shapes means that the creatures all still come out looking as if they more or less belong in the same universe. Even later in the game, you'll go from biology to architecture and engineering design as you craft town halls, industrial factories, houses, cars, boats and planes and even spacecraft. Perhaps the only drawback is inventive fatigue that sets in where you'll simply grow exhausted with having to create so many objects. When this happens, you can easily scour the vast online Sporepedia database of other people's creative offspring and select some to insert into your game. If you have friends who play, you can populate your worlds with their specific creations. There's something very anarchically satisfying about seeing your friends' creatures roaming around your game, and then ruthlessly turning them extinct for bragging rights.
Competition for life is tough, and throughout the game, you'll encounter plenty of bigger and meaner creatures attempting to dine on you or eradicate your race from existence. If you can't outrun or outgun your aggressor, you'll often simply start over again with no real loss or detrimental consequences. When you couple this with Spore's often dumbed-down mechanics, it soon becomes apparent that the game has some stripped-down and seriously oversimplified gameplay. Aimed fairly squarely at a casual gaming audience Spore makes things easy, accessible and non-threatening, but if that's not your type of game, you'll probably resent it. Especially in the first four levels, the gameplay could feel too limited and linear to the more hardcore gamers who might be used to a greater degree of challenge and depth in titles of a similar genre. In its defense, Spore does an acceptable job of scaling up the complexity and depth of the games through the first four stages, gradually giving players more to think about and deal. But it's not really until the fifth and final level that the design scope opens up considerably and offers some fun and substantive play.
In its design, Spore's different levels chart and mimic other well-established video game genres. If the first level was homage to Pac-Man, the second level is similar in many respects to a role-playing game. After you sprout some legs and leave the briny blue, you'll roam through a large 3-D environment befriending other creatures if you're an herbivore, or eradicating them if you're a carnivore. The choice of kiss or kill isn't totally black-and-white because as an omnivore, you can choose either method. However, be warned that the befriending route involves a lot of overly simple Simon Says-style singing and dancing games where you watch the other creatures perform and imitate their moves. If you're successful, the end result is a lot of Jar-Jar Binks-esque cheering, which you'll either find cute and charming or nauseating and offputting.
Suffice it to say, I played through the second time as a carnivore and found that eating the other species was infinitely more easy, fun and rewarding than partying with them. Regardless of which path you take, there's a lot of repetitive grinding required to reach the next stage and not really enough depth of options or exploration to pull the level out of the quagmire of mediocrity. This is, however, the level where you'll spend the most time crafting the final look of your creature through various appendage upgrades that enhance your fighting or befriending abilities and these creature creator breaks provide some welcome respite from the tepid gameplay.
An often-heard sound from Spore's publicity gong was that the decisions you make have consequences for your evolutionary development path. This really comes down to assessing whether your gameplay choices reflect that you've chosen to be aggressive, passive or some opportunistic mix of them both. Spore attempts to link early dietary habits with later social stances and then confer benefits appropriately depending on your creature's temperament. For example, if you went on the rampage burning down rival huts during the tribal stage, your creature will receive the Gadget Bomb ability in the civilization stage and the Arms Dealer bonus in the space stage. This system works well in principle and tends to encourage continuity of character traits between the stages, but it can also become a hindrance if you suddenly decide on a change of philosophy midway through the game. In the space stage, I discovered that continuing to be a belligerent bully was not the most feasible way of playing because it closed off many avenues of exploration and made gameplay annoyingly difficult. Turning toward being more diplomatic, I now found my special ability to summon a horde of pirates to attack enemy cities wasn't exactly desirable to my newfound friends.
The focus shifts at the tribal stage from the individual to the herd. Here, the game falls more into the traditional real-time strategy hole, only without any of the depth and bells and whistles of other titles like Age of Empires. Similar to the creature stage, the idea is to win by either making friends with or wiping out the other tribes on the map. Food is the only resource you have to manage, and it's used for keeping your tribespeople well fed, making new babies and buying huts that give technology bonuses, like weapons for aggressors and musical instruments for the dancing-inclined. The creature creator takes a back seat in this level, and its only appearance is for jazzing up your animal with primitive tribal trinkets and accessories. There is some limited charm if you take some time to zoom in and examine your animals going about their daily chores. The expressive animation and grunts and grumbles manage to communicate a great deal of personality, and watching the fiesta-style campfire dance is a highlight. However, the tribal stage is ultimately the weakest and shallowest of all five levels involving either repetitive bouts of the same irritating Simon Says game, or ordinary and strongly pared-down, RTS-style combat.
Onwards and upwards to the civilization stage, and the camera zooms out even further to the level of entire cities brimming with your now-cultured creatures. This stage maintains the RTS style of gameplay but feels more like the Command and Conquer or Dune series. The single harvestable resource is even called "spice" in a none-too-subtle nod to that game. The creator tool makes a triumphant return now offering players the ability to make their own buildings, cars, boats and planes. It is just as flexible and easy to use as the creature maker and it's remarkably satisfying to improvise, making the design up as you go along. Perhaps the only downside is that depending on your playing style, you'll view the majority of the game from a distance and not really get a chance to appreciate the nuances in the appearance of your creations.
The difficulty shelf starts dropping off here with slightly deeper gameplay, more options to juggle and a few more consequential decisions to make. You can micromanage the mix of industrial buildings and entertainment venues in your cities, and it correlates to their degree of happiness and profitability. You also have to deal with creating the right mix of vehicles to serve your attack and defensive needs, all while claiming spice derricks and watching out for aggressive enemy maneuvers.
Unfortunately, the path to the end of the level is still completely linear and involves either converting or destroying all of the other civilizations on the map. If you were a singing, dancing socialite up to this point, your affability is translated into religious zealotry, and you use the power of preaching to convert other cities to your side. Watching your holographic preacher towering over the enemy city and hearing the religious fanfare broadcast by your fleet of conversion cars is both funny and original. If, on the other hand, you believed in progression at the expense of others' existence, you'll predictably become a military nation that best expresses itself through nuke diplomacy. A questionable implementation in terms of difficulty is the inclusion for each civilization of an easy-to-achieve kill switch, which will convert or destroy all enemy cities in one go and end the level rather abruptly. On the whole, the civilization stage is more enjoyable than previous levels, but it still falls short of offering a fully engaging and challenging experience that you'll be yearning to come back to more than once or twice.
When the entire planet has fallen under your banner, it's time to take to space, and creating a spacecraft is really the last time you'll need to use Spore's excellent creator tools. Gameplay returns to a more solitary focus, with your ship as the central avatar exploring the game — this time on a galactic level. The scope of this title's tremendous ambition is really revealed on this final level, which takes a sudden plunge into the deep end in reproducing a space trading, combat and exploration game that stems from the archetypal Elite and X series. It's probably a good thing that Spore lacks the incredible depth and complexity of those offerings, but the leap into substantive, open-ended gameplay is so sudden that it's nearly jarring. In terms of design, it feels almost like a different team worked on the space age. For example, the HUD is now dense with myriad options, buttons, toggles and information screens that will have you reaching for the manual or online help. Navigating between galaxies can often be intimidating and frustrating. If you wanted to pick holes, you could accuse Spore of about-facing too abruptly at this point and possessing an overwrought user interface.
However, there's certainly a more to like than dislike about the space stage, which, for the first time in the game, opens up the possibilities of things you can do and accomplish while still maintaining a nice degree of accessibility. Spice is still around and is the only commodity you will trade in, but it now comes in three different flavors and values. Solar systems are arranged into empires ruled by different races, who are one-dimensionally defined by their master traits: aggression, trade or pacifism. I found it made the most sense to try to stay on the good side of all of the races, since you'll often need to pass through and explore their air space during your travels, and if you're at war with any of them, they'll do their best to make your life miserable. Of course, this is fairly bad news if you were hoping to rule the entire galaxy with an iron fist.
There's plenty of Sporebucks to be earned by performing often inane and mundane fetch quests for other races or laser-frying sick animals to prevent them from spreading an ecologically disastrous plague. These can quickly grow tiresome, and some relief comes from interacting with the other races who come with some pretty fresh dialogue. At other times, you can simply explore the inky depths of space by touching down on planets to search for lost relics and valuable artifacts. In this and throughout Spore, the presentation is fantastic and has its own instantly recognizable art style. Skimming over the surface of an alien world in your spacecraft and seeing your early creations vying to get a foothold in the ecosystem is hugely rewarding and makes you almost willing to forgive everything you had to go to get there.
Maybe you feel like expanding your space empire? This can be accomplished by selecting a hospitable uninhabited planet and planting a colony. Like the cities in the civilization stage, these colonies require micro tending to make their spice trade profitable and part of this effort requires you to ensure the atmosphere is as hospitable as possible for life. You can control the temperature and humidity of the planet by using a combination of powerful terraforming tools and the introduction of plants and animals from other planets. The whole process may take a while but the first time you transform a barren, rocky volcanic wasteland into a lush garden paradise is a moment to remember. In addition, should the urge seize you, you can even craft the terrain of planets to your liking by raising and lowering land masses, and painting both the skies and seas.
With the equivalent of five games in one, Spore is a case study of breadth winning out over depth, and many gamers will resent how unchallenging the majority of the game is until the space age, which is almost too little, too late. Ultimately, the thing that sets Spore apart is the creation engine, and if playing God and molding your very own animal leaves you cold, then you're probably better off playing any of the aforementioned games that Spore imitates poorly. If, however, the dormant 3-D modeler in you yearns for an outlet for creative expression, you'll get a ton of enjoyment in seeing your vehicles, creatures and buildings come to life in the game. To really get the most out of Spore, you also have to be able to emotionally invest yourself in your creature and its fate and care about its evolutionary journey through all five stages of life. If you stick to macromanaging its appearance and habitats from an arm's length, you'll miss the endearing details that make Spore unique.
In sum, Spore is not the gaming paradigm shift it might have been touted as, and it is quite possibly overrated. However, that's not to say you should dismiss it outright, since it's a highly impressive and ambitious undertaking unlike any other before, ultimately hitting more of its lofty targets than it misses. In doing so, it delivers a gaming experience that you shouldn't miss.
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