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Review: Spore

By the time you read this (about 6 hours after I posted it) Maxis’s Spore should now be available for download from Direct2Drive. Spore has been getting steadily hyped for several years now, but the thing about hype is that it makes bad games look better and good games look worse; In short, hype is bullshit, always has been always, always will be, and the value of a game should be determined through your own experiences playing it.

In a feat of apparent time-traveling, I have both bought Spore and I played it all the way through.  My impressions follow.

The Broad Fare

Spore is not a single game, but rather a smattering of five that work together, and each stage plays differently.

The first “Cellular” stage is a simple top-down two-dimensional arcade game where your little cellular life – not a far cry from the titular spore – attempts to survive in the harsh world of cellular life.  You swim about by holding the right mouse button and scoop up the food appropriate to your species.  Every once in awhile you’ve collected enough food to upgrade your cell, which takes you back to the creature editor where you can tack on some more cellular structures, which often have a function: spikes to injure enemies, ect.  In this way, this stage is a reasonably adept little time waster.  7.5/10

The second “Creature” stage is perhaps the most refined in the entire game, one in which you take control of a creature in a third person perspective, walk about to find food and other creatures, and interact with them in friendly or hostile manners.  You should be able to get through this stage in about two hours or less, but you might opt to stay longer since it’s very much full of that personal cuteness that made The Sims such as success.  9/10.

The third “Tribal” stage is a very simple real time strategy game in which your creature gains sentience and now lives on a tribal level.  It’s controlled from a disconnected overhead map perspective, which you use to direct your tiny tribe to bring the neighboring tribes into submission either by butchering them or befriending them.   There’s some charm in this stage, especially if you choose peaceful resolution, but little overall lasting appeal – it’s just as well the stage is easy to compete well within an hour.  6/10

Even though the tribal stage could use some refinement as a game, it still oozes charm.
Even though the tribal stage could use
some refinement as a game, it still oozes charm.
The fourth “Civilization” stage introduces multiple cities, city planning, building design, and vehicle design… but aside from that it’s pretty much the real time strategy game from the third stage taken on a larger scale.   Now, you use your units over land, sea, and air to bring the other cities on the planet under one government.   The simple tools given the player at this point would not be sufficient to really overcome the opposition, so you are actually given a number of powerful moves you can activate that give you an unbeatable advantage.  This stage lacks the charm of the earlier stages, and is very much a matter of brute-force real time strategy. 5/10

The fifth “Space” stage now puts you in command of a single powerful starship that you use to travel between planets and stars.  It’s very much a combination of the earlier stages: the ship controls like your cell in stage 1, the creatures from stage 2 are here, there are some planets with tribes from stage 3, some planets in the civilization phase from stage 4 (as well as your city building and diplomacy is taken from there).  In stage 5, you meet other races, reshape planets to bring life where there was none, and basically play a cross between God and a space explorer.

Up to this point, each stage is fairly simple and can probably be finished in about an hour or less.  Thus, the fifth and final stage comes as a bit of a shock: In over 2 days of playing it, I’ve yet to really complete it, though the progress bar for this stage has been advanced all the way to the right.
It can sometimes get a little monotonous when cries come in from halfway across the galaxy needing you to drop everything and pilot your ship over to help with raiding enemies or virus-infected wildlife again.  Aren’t there any competent people in the universe besides you?  Still, I have to say that I rather enjoyed this stage because it’s hard to find a good space game these days.  7.5/10.

Bringing the spread together

The interesting thing about Spore is not specifically the five stages of game so much as how they work together and outside the scope of the current game.
There’s the sandbox appeal that comes with what you can create in Spore.  The creature you create is a highly unique bit of virtual life, and that creature sticks around until the end.  You can think back fondly on when it was just a little cell in the primordial ooze and, now look, your once dumb animal is now communicating to you through your space ship communicator from a city populated by vehicles and buildings you created.

In a rather nice touch, animated gifs and jpgs of your creatures and other creations are automatically generated on the fly.
In a rather nice touch, animated gifs and jpgs
of your creatures and other creations are
automatically generated on the fly.
Second, there’s the way all five stages are tied together.  As you advance your little protozoic creature from beginning to end, your choices on how to overcome the problems in the game shape what that creature is capable of doing.  Is your creature an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore?  Does your creature prefer to solve problems using warfare, economics, religion, science, or something else?  What’s more, making these choices at different stages will reflect which of a number of powerful moves you have at your disposal.

Third, there’s the lasting appeal of seeing your creature go out into the Spore universe.  On an individual level, this manifests as your creature existing in the same universe that your new creatures come into existence in.   That means you can trip over your old creatures while cruising the galaxy with the new.   However, on the online level, this goes to new heights: You can now download other people’s creature and building designs and they’ll show up as creatures you encounter in your game.

Thus, despite the simplicity of many of the games’ modes, Spore has some level of replay value.  Most players owe it at least three replays to see how the game plays in peaceful, warlike, or neutral modes.  After that, you may not dig it out and play with it constantly every day, but you might dig it out once in awhile and create a new creature or shape your personal universe some more.  Spore is, if nothing else, a sandbox of unprecedented scale.

Overall, Spore deserves the 8/10s it’s getting. It deserves no 10s for the sparse civilization and tribal stages, not to mention the annoying persistent alerts in the space stage.  However, it deserves no less than a 7 for the sheer charm and unique gameplay mechanic it exudes.  Spore is a game that delivers many favorable memories upon its players, and I would be surprised to discover many PC gamers so heartless as to not want it in their collection — if only to whip out once in awhile and roll up a crazy new creature.

With any luck, Maxis will utilize Spore in much the same way they did The Sims series: by releasing regular expansions that add a number of new features and content.  This would be good because it would go far to flesh out the parts of Spore that feel sparse.  However, time will tell what will actually occur.

What can we learn from Spore?

From a game design standpoint, I would have to say that lead thing we learn from Spore is that an endearing presentation can make a simple game a lot more tolerable.  Nothing in stages 1, 3, or 4 has not been done better elsewhere, but they nonetheless stand as acceptable parts of the game because of the presentation alone.  Stage 2 manages to steal the show because it’s so very interesting to walk about as a alien creature on a strange planet, meet other creatures, and interact with them: many of the facial expressions are priceless, especially coming from a strange creature that looked like it stepped outside of a Dr. Seuss sketch.

Of course, this is not the only lesson one can pull from Spore.  There’s a remarkable amount of between-game interaction here that is masterfully executed and combined with a foresight for Internet community influence.  Every game released these days should be equally Internet savvy, and to integrate that level of blended gameplay diversity is a tough act indeed.

Were I to make any improvements to Spore, I think it would have been a good idea to merge stages 3 and 4.  The tribal and civilization stages could very well exist as a single, unified stage that would resemble the proven formula of Civilization (the game) – except with Maxim-esque deviation, of course.  Instead, we ended up with two hastily polished stages that Spore probably would have been better off without.
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