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Project Spark

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Simulation
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Team Dakota
Release Date: Oct. 7, 2014 (US), Oct. 10, 2014 (EU)

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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Xbox One Review - 'Project Spark'

by Brian Dumlao on Nov. 26, 2014 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Project Spark is an open-world digital canvas that enables anyone to build, play, and share whatever they can imagine and create in the game.

Many people play games, but a much smaller number of those people want to make games. In the past, unless you had the knowledge and discipline to code, the only avenue was to mod a game like Doom, and even that required knowledge of how all of the parts came together. Things are much better now, with suites and engines designed for this very task. Anyone with an army of tutorials at his disposal and basic knowledge of coding can make a game on the PC. On the console side, a creation suite for games was primarily limited to Fighter Maker and RPG Maker on the PSone, titles that have moved on to the PC with outstanding results. Console players didn't really get a chance to dabble in full-blown game creation until the LittleBigPlanet series on the PS3. For Xbox One players, their creation program lies in Microsoft and Team Dakota's Project Spark.

The creation process can be divided into two major parts. The first is environmental design. With a flat, 3-D space as your canvas, you can lay down the textures to give the world something other than a futuristic honeycomb look. The terrain can be terraformed and shaped to give some unevenness to a relatively flat space, create large mountains, and everything in between. Various props can be added and resized, and they don't need to be tied to the ground to work. The editing and terrain creation will be a familiar process for those who have dabbled in similar editors featured in the original Far Cry or the Forge tool from Halo 3 onward, but newcomers will be able to use it effectively after a few minutes of practice.

The second part of the creation process lies in the brains for every object, and it is here where the title displays its roots from the XNA title Kodu Game Lab. The brain logic is distilled into simple "when" and "then" statements, where the "when" section indicates what the game is waiting for to execute the actions in the "then" segment of the statement. It's simple to tell the game to move your character when moving the analog stick, but it can be more daunting to telling enemies to move only when they're in range of your character. Brain actions can go into several segments called pages, and they can occupy things other than characters. Everything from switches to cut scene activation runs on brains, and each element can be tweaked into much finer detail.

The brains are also responsible for determining if your game is compatible with a keyboard and mouse and compatible with mobile via touch commands. The only caveat is that the PC and tablet/phone needs to be running Windows 8, so those on older versions of Windows or other operating systems are locked out. Like the environment creator, this system feels intimidating for those not used to thinking about formal code, but you'll get your head around it after trying it a few times.

As expected, the PC version makes environmental creation easier due to the keyboard and mouse, but console players won't have too much trouble since it works rather well with the interface. Speaking of the interface, it feels much less cluttered when compared to those in professional image and 3-D editing programs. There are still plenty of things on-screen to deal with, and it can look intimidating, but it doesn't feel overwhelming. Though the game promotes manipulating every element from scratch, it has a few pre-made templates available to give beginners a good start.

Players can test several elements of their games almost immediately after creating them, and the transition between editing and playtesting is quick and painless. One advantage the Xbox One iteration over the PC is the ability to do both editing and playtesting of levels with a friend online. Just like real life, having a companion help with the creation process makes things go much faster, and collaboration is always good when it comes to fleshing out ideas or improving the formula. The editing feature, both solo and collaborative, is also active at all times, so you can pause the game anytime and immediately start editing things without having to quit the game and go into a different mode to implement changes.

The only real flaw in the creation process is in the tutorial, which is a bit lengthy but necessary when you consider the amount of elements you can manipulate. It does a good job of explaining the basics of what can be done in the engine, but it fails to point out some of the finer things, like the ability to customize your character's movement speed or add custom sounds and animation via the Kinect. The tutorial also fails to cover things beyond making a third-person action game. Project Spark promises more tutorials to cover making games of other types, but that remains absent roughly a month after the game's release. Luckily, the community has stepped up and provided a number of video tutorials that explain the finer points of the engine and provide a way to make games in other genres. If you plan to create all sorts of games in the engine, you must find those tutorials.

If you choose to simply play what's out there, you'll find a varied selection of games. Since just about every game using the engine is community-made, there are plenty of re-creations of third-person games, from The Legend of Zelda to Sonic Adventure to Fable (interestingly, the graphics look very much like Lionhead's creation due to the style). There are also a number of original third-person adventure games, with creators showing off either small adventures like a Godzilla brawling game or ones that they plan to make into a series. Some games move into other genres, like puzzle games, kart racers, pinball, and first-person games. Non-game projects have also shown up, such as small machinima productions, demos like a domino toppling short, and even object packs that are being given out so other creator don't need to create the same elements from scratch. The longevity of the game is completely dependent on community participation, but based on the output thus far, Project Spark looks to have a healthy life ahead for those who want to play stuff.

What's interesting about Project Spark is that it is a free-to-play title with very few restrictions. You're free to grab it from the digital marketplace and can play it for as long as you'd like. All of the primary components are here, so you can build a game or play other people's creations. There are no restrictions, like currency or XP, and there are no timers to limit the amount of time you can spend with the game. In that respect, this falls more in line with a standard paid title than a typical free-to-play one, and for the more casual player, it feels rich in content, especially considering all of your content transfers to both the Xbox One and PC versions as long as you're using the same Xbox Live account.

However, there is a limitation placed on the creation side. The free version only places a limit on the size of the level you can make, and each level has to stand alone as singular instances instead of linked ones. You can only play with textures and props that belong to the fantasy setting; this explains why so many generated games feature that setting, while the title constantly teases you about items that aren't available. Some of the tools for the editor, like changing skyboxes on the fly, are unavailable, and the ability to edit other people's creations is locked if that level contains something that's not in the free set. You also have a small set of upload slots available before you have to delete something to make room for your latest creation.

Like all free-to-play games, unlocking all of the good props and material is dependent on credits, and those credits are earned by performing all sorts of actions. Completing specific challenges or exploring new areas gives you a good amount of that currency, and playing any of the community-made games also gives you credits. The simpler items are rather cheap, but a number of the more exciting items cost credits, which leads to some grinding, which can be fun and tedious, depending on what you're playing. Just about everything can be earned with these credits, but there are tokens that are obtained with real money that can be used as an alternate means of buying items. Spark Premium tickets, which allow for XP and credit doubling for a set period of time, can only be purchased with tokens.

The one drawback to the system is the use of XP gates to lock people out of some items. Even worse is that some rather mundane items are grouped together, with some of the cooler ones as being locked away until you reach a high XP level. It might be understandable to lock away a legendary shield until you reach level 40, but locking away a simple boot until you get to level 15 is ridiculous, and it makes the grinding aspect feel more laborious than it should be.

For those who are going for the Starter pack, there's a decent amount that expands the game. The Massive World Builder lets you create larger worlds, and you can link them into one package. More props can be added to the world, you can change times of day dynamically, and the visual filters are a nice addition. There are three builder packs that provide space and arctic elements, including new brains and props and small developer levels. There's also a pre-built champion included and a developer-created quest for the champion, Void Storm. Finally, there's a month of Spark Premium thrown in for good measure, making it a particularly good bundle if you plan to play this game exclusively for that month.

Void Storm is a good example of how the game can produce a multi-level adventure and an alternate tutorial to showcase the mechanics of the creation engine. For the latter, it succeeds by showing you how the brain system works without going into too much detail. It serves as a good backup tutorial for those who require more tangible examples. For the former, the game isn't that special. The fact that you can select between heroes that level up is nice, but the gameplay is rather pedestrian, with some basic hack-and-slash action that fails to bring anything new to the table. It is functional, and the puzzles are familiar, but anyone expecting something more detailed and deep will feel slightly disappointed afterward.

Void Storm also shows off an unfortunate aspect of the game engine: the performance. For the most part, the game performs rather well, with the frame rate holding steady amidst some lush backdrops and constant particle effects. However, the game pauses whenever you kill an enemy, and it is the type of pause that's akin to a system blanking out on which action to perform, as opposed to pausing for dramatic flair. With hordes of enemies appearing at any time, that sort of thing is constant and not something that should be visible when you're trying to convince players that you can make a good adventure title from the game engine. Luckily, the fan-made creations only seem to exhibit this behavior when they try to load up the world with tons of objects on-screen. It is a little disappointing to see this happening on both Xbox One and PC, hinting that the engine needs some optimization.

In the end, Project Spark can be a rewarding title, especially if you plan on putting in some time to learn how the creation system works. There's a level of depth not seen in a console creation title since the PSone era, and while there are plenty of simple games out there from creators, there are also a number of interesting games that speak to the title's long-term potential. Those who just want to play with these creations will be fine with the free version, as it's the best bargain for those who want quick but varied experiences without a high level of polish. For the creators out there, check out the free version to see if you can come to grips with the system, but dive in to the Starter pack if you want a wider range of elements to jumpstart your creative endeavors.

Score: 7.5/10

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