The creator of ‘The Sims’ returns to the primordial ooze in this genre-spanning evolution-em-up.
Way back in 2000, when we could count the hundreds of MHz of our computers had with just one hand, Will Wright had just wrapped up work on Sim City 3000 and the original Sims to begin work on Spore. How anyone can dedicate nearly a decade of their life to a single project blows this writer’s mind but he’s the creator of the best selling video game of all time so what Will wants, Will gets. Now that the day is here does Spore live up to the tremendous hype? Or after 8 years is it overripe?
In an eggshell, Spore takes you on a journey from the very beginnings of life as a microbe, through several stages of evolution until ultimately you have the power to destroy and craft planets from the safety of your space craft. The idea seems too much for a single game to handle and apparently it is, so the game is broken up into five very individual stages of life, each step is so separate that you can choose to begin at any stage of the game since each acts like a separate game with their own gameplay elements and goals. Because of this I’m going to make life a little easier on both you and I and break this game into smaller, easier to digest pieces.
Your life begins as a cellular lifeforms in the “Cell Stage”, where you’ll take the form of a microbe crashing into the sea of your chosen planet from the insides of an asteroid You’ll start with a random creature with either the mouth of a Herbivore or Carnivore and have to feed on your food of choice. Once the game begins you’ll find it very similar to a PC flash game/PS3 game called flOw (http://intihuatani.usc.edu/cloud/flowing/) go play it now and come back — I’ll still be here. Now you should have a basic feel to the first section of Spore and It’d be foolish to believe that flOw didn’t heavily inspire the whole feel of the cell stage, but Spore takes it a step further and really makes you feel part of the food chain when humongous creatures instinctively begin chasing you on sight and other creatures around you are dueling for their own survival.
You won’t just be swimming, fighting and franticly clicking as the first two stages of Flow are all about evolution, you’ll find the spoils of war often contain items as well as food and these items can be used when it’s time to evolve. Once you choose to evolve and find a mate you gain access to your first gander at the fabled creature creator, although to begin with you don’t have a lot of choice beyond changing the shape of your creature and adding a couple of eyes and mouths, unlockable items do grant some interesting abilities such as electric power or a mosquito snout where you can suck the goodness from the other residents of your pool. I had a lot of fun with the Cell Stage, but sadly it will only last about 30 minutes before you’ve grown to be one of the largest creatures in the pool and it is time to leave the waters and onto the creature Stage.
One nice feature of Spore is that although you can jump to any stage of the game, you will receive bonuses based on how you lived in the previous stage, generally encouraging the behavior you already set for yourself by giving you friendly or aggressive bonuses. Once you and a few of your fellow abominations of nature leave the ocean, your small pack builds a nest and you are sent off to complete a set of goals with a style and format that seems rather close to that of a MMORPG, which is rather a jarring change of pace from the previous stage (which is a feeling you’ll soon get used to). Besides the endgame this is where you will likely spend the majority of your time if you plan on building up the creature of your dreams (or nightmares) since upon completing the creature stage the design of your creature is locked and going forward you’ll only have the ability to add accessories. Since the point of this stage is to get your creature evolved most of anything you do here will unlock an item of some kind, usually along the lines of the type of items you are already using, if you have horns you’ll be likely to unlock larger horns, if you have a giant eye that sticks several meters out the top of your head then you’ll unlock more variations of that style.
A lot of designs can be found in bone piles scattered across the continent where as others can be eared by either sending your creature into battle or by dancing and making a fool of yourself in front of the other species. The creature stage has a lot of appeal since you can unlock all of the creature parts here, but it feels like a little more time could of been spent on the interactions between the different species. You do get the chance to ally up with other races but nothing really seems to be going on in the world and everything feels very unnatural for what you’d expect when living amongst wild beasts.
Now we reach the rather weak midpoint of the game known as the Tribal Stage. Your little nest has banded together into a tribe with the goal of either conquering other tribes or making peace with them (seeing a theme?), now instead of doing a little dance for the other creatures you are playing instruments for them. The game genre now switches to an RTS method and you’ll be tasked with harvesting food, building structures and arming your people with tools. You’ll unlock new structures by either befriending or conquering other tribes and then you make new tools by using those structures, it sounds pretty simple and honestly it really is. Much of the complexity and detail of most RTS games are stripped down to make the experience far more accessible, this is likely fine for some, but experienced RTS players will find the midpoint of Spore just a filler and not a compelling experience.
Next we move to the civilization stage with its roots firmly embedded in Sim City, sadly those roots aren’t feeding from the joy that is Sim City 2/3/4000, instead they’ve turned towards the evil of the Society brand. There is a little strategy involved here, you have three building types (residential, industry and entertainment) and each effects the neighboring structures giving boosts to their abilities. You could use a lot of strategy to lay out your city but since you can only place 11 buildings per city you can simply watch your cities output while mindlessly swapping the positions of the buildings that you’ve purchased.
The civ stage also marks the occasion where the creator tool starts to become a nuance. So you design your city hall and your three building types, then your three types of vehicle, then the 3 types again for the other city types, Religious, Economic and Military, eventually you may have created 13 separate designs by the end of the stage. You’ll soon start to feel your desire to create new and interesting objects slip away, replaced with apathy and selecting existing objects so you can just get on with what you are doing. Your different units will effect how you go about conquering the globe: Religious units require you to right click on an enemy city and fire rays at them until they convert to your religion and join you, Military units require you to right click on an enemy city and fire bullets at them until they fall and join you, Economic units are a little different and you setup trade routes with other cities until you can ultimately purchase them. The civilization stage feels equally as weak as the creature stage and although you do get to design some interesting vehicles with the tools provided the actual gameplay here is very short and simplistic, with little strategy required to win even on the harder setting.
Finally we reach the Space Stage and this is where the meat and potatoes of Spore is found, in fact I’d go as far to say that excluding the creation tools it feels as if much time was spent on developing this stage as every previous stage put together. The space stage plays a lot like a space RTS, such as Sins of a Solar Empire, things are still trimmed down in many ways but here is where some standout originality comes in. Along with the available war and diplomacy options you can create new colonies on other planets, this alone isn’t a big deal until you work on improving the planet so you can place additional cities and increased planning options. To improve these planets you need to balance the ecosystem which is like trying to find the right bowl of porridge, you have to get everything just right, by heating up or cooling the planet while also maintaining the correct atmosphere levels, okay perhaps that’s not a whole lot like porridge. To begin to terraform the planet and get a template atmosphere you can perform feats such as calling down asteroids, summoning volcanoes or vacuuming up clouds, once you have met environmental conditions you are required to start dropping down plants and creatures from other planets to get everything stabilized.
It seems a lot more complex than it really is, but the metamorphosis of a planet looks fantastic, espically when you decide to bring about the ice age to a less than hospitable neighbor by freezing his planet solid with a sustained ice beam. There are lots of little things to keep you busy in the space stage, trading various resources between planets or doing a few side missions to raise your reputation and earn a little extra money to buy that doomsday weapon you’ve always dreamed of. Despite these tasks there is no main task here and ultimately you have to create your own goals in a massive galaxy with so many solar systems that most people won’t even scratch the surface of what’s available, because ultimately you’re just reapeating the same actions over and over.
Spore isn’t much of a challenging game, mainly to keep things accessible and removing the need for any detailed strategy. Trying to add extra challenge by selecting a harder difficulty doesn’t do a whole lot to add value since the AI appears to behave in much the same and just the damage multipliers are adjusted, it’s all rather a moot point anyhow since you have infinite lives through every stage. To be fair Will’s games haven’t been about lives and difficulty in the past either, both Sims and Sim City are without any clearly defined goals or structure and rely on the player to make up their own fun just as Spore does. Most of the fun you’ll get out of Spore is really to be found in building rather than doing, which is why so much has been said about the creation tools and why the Creature creator was released early to build hype and interest.
I’ve always found creation tools in games to be either overly complex or terribly simple and they never seem to feel like more than tools where the entire plan in to finish so you can use the pieces. In Spore you can use the creator to build something amazing and not really care if you ever use it, building it is most of the fun. The tools are so easy to use; draw out a spine, drag on some arms and legs, give it some eyes, a mouth and you have something totally unique to you, spend a little more time on it and you have something that can look amazingly professional without it feeling like you put in any real effort. The whole game survives because of the creation tools and everything is made that much sweeter by the endless options brought to your planets using the wonders of the internet. Anyone that has an intent of spending a lot of time in the space stage will be very thankful for all these options to keep you looking around and exploring, then rather than blocking the obscene content you can simply eradicate them from existence
It wouldn’t be a review without a little thought to the audio and visual aspects in play here. The graphics do a fine job of doing what you’d expect without anything really exceptional as far as pure power it’s more the nuances of style that you witness at some points of the game such as looking at the giant creatures in the depths of the water or burning a planet with the godlike powers of your space ship. The audio is fantastic, the generative music fits well into each stage of the game, advanced creatures banter along in native simish and the other creature sounds are varied and usually appropriate to the creature you’ve tried to create, depending on the mouth you have chosen.
Spore has a lot of ambitious ideas, but seeing them split across five games that don’t have any individual value is unfortunate. I suppose that wanting five fully feature rich games is just greedy but the experience as a whole just feels like it is spread a little too thin and simply a sandbox for the offspring of the outstanding creature creator.