Will Wright has made a game. again.
I reviewed it for Acegamez.
My Evolutionary thoughts first published here.
Full text below the cut:
After years of crafting games allowing us to play God in every situation, from city management to Big Brother style, game auteur Will Wright wanted to craft a grandiose and epic game. The aim was to create a game that would be the ultimate life simulation, integrating aspects of all sorts of gaming genres and distilling an epic single player experience that would also incorporate a multiplayer community. Instead, what we’ve ended up with is a game of many different pieces lashed together into a disjointed yet intriguing and fairly enjoyable whole.
This is largely because Spore is essentially a game of two halves, the more immediate part being the survival and exploration simulation, which is to be expected. The other half is the Creature Creator Workshop, which was released to some acclaim in both its full and demo forms earlier in the year. Its release managed not only to garner a huge amount of interest in the game but also provide content for the game itself, as the different creatures, buildings and vehicles that are encountered in the game are randomly selected from the thousands that have been created by Maxis and the Spore community. The other side of Spore is the life simulation, which it is being so heavily sold upon. In theory the game lets you evolve a species from the lowliest amoeba up to a civilised space-faring being – but in practice it’s a little more complex than that.
Before going onto the game proper, it’s important to explain that the creator is essentially a cut and paste builder that looks like the warped offspring of children’s educational software and the car shop in your average racing game. From here you can select from a vast array of limbs, claws, extremities and, in the vehicle sections, windows, guns and rocket-boosters. Each creator can be run independently of the game after its segment has been completed, allowing you to access all available parts and making it possible to create anything from a flying iPhone to a walking Starship Enterprise. Once finished, these creatures can be shared with the rest of the Spore community and in turn appear in other players’ games.
This brings us to the life simulation, which is split into segments, each following an evolutionary stage of your race’s existence, the first of which is frankly so similar to the web browser and PlayStation Network game flOw that it’s surprising that lawsuits aren’t being filed. It’s a top down 2D interface where, exactly like in flOw, you use a mouse to direct a microscopic beastie that swims around a primordial soup, eating other creatures and subsequently growing in size. It’s here that it becomes apparent that, much like life itself, Spore simply isn’t going to be easy on you. Within minutes you’re surrounded by a variety of similar-sized cute amoeboid life forms that are either food or competition, depending on whether you chose to be a vegetarian or a carnivore. There are also other copies of yourself floating around, which comes in handy when it’s mating season.
Simply put, you have to eat as much as possible and, if you’re lucky, find and break open meteor chunks that unlock new body parts in the process. Every so often, a giant screen-swamping predator swims after you and, usually, munches you into kibbles; but death isn’t much of a hindrance in Spore, as in seconds you’ll hatch out and be back in the water. Eat enough and you’re allowed to sing for a mate and then pay a visit to the creature creator to add bits and bobs to your plankton-esque avatar. Now re-read that paragraph well, because the primordial stage is quite literally a microcosm of the entire game. Each subsequent evolutionary step simply adds layers and options to this basic concept. After a certain point you become the biggest fish in the pond and it’s time to be dumped unceremoniously on dry land. A quick trip to the Creature Creator gives you a chance to add legs, or rethink things completely before the cycle begins again, this time in full 3D, roaming a picturesque and slightly garish landscape that is more than a little reminiscent of Shiny’s classic real-time strategy, Sacrifice, but essentially it’s mostly the same as the quite short first stage. This bizarrely is both Spore’s greatest asset and its Achilles heel; it adds to the experience in dribs and drabs but never fundamentally alters the basic gameplay mechanic. Spore has a brilliantly ramped learning curve, leading you slowly from the simplicity of eating and mating to the political shenanigans of arguing peace with cities, never swamping you with hosts of options – at least not until the last stage.
Moving onwards and upwards, the game unceremoniously jumps to a primitive village culture, and a culture shock it is, as you’re suddenly faced with a community of creatures in a real-time strategy style interface. Suddenly you have to contend with villages of grumpy tribes and wage war, or solicit peace from them with offerings of food, music and dance. Much as before, this is a simple addition of an option or two on the previous design, only with the added bother of gathering food from your kills and using it as a basic currency for upgrades and sweeteners in negotiating a truce with your neighbours. By now you can’t alter your creature’s body-shape but instead you can cloth it with various grass skirts and bone masks. While these add nothing more than aesthetics to the experience, this also lasts through the Civilisation stage, which abruptly occurs, whisking your race into a modern society as soon as you have mastery over the other sentient species. Now you are the only race and it’s a war of attrition between you and the several colour-coded cities around the map. Just as before it’s winner takes all and your actions to this point will decide if you are a warlike, religious or economic society. In practical effect this means that your vehicles (the individuals are no longer under your control) use either armaments or iconography or trading. In any event it’s a tank rush, with no real strategy involved, other than bribing a few strategic alliances then sending as many craft as possible against everyone else.
The end of the Civilisation stage brings you to the point at which the game comes into its element; the Space stage has evidently had more time spent on it than any other part of the game. There is a massive galaxy map, complete with many hundreds of systems, each with planets to explore, complete with wildlife and, in some cases, rival space-faring civilisations. This is when the game opens out and begins to throw possibilities at you, as well as asking you to suddenly contend with dozens of options and menus that appear out of nowhere. Gathering food and money becomes collecting ore from colonies then trading it at planets; but the paltry returns from this mean that most money must be gained by taking assignments from planets. These vary from such fun activities as abducting aliens from one planet and taking them to another, to wiping out other races entirely or even painting planets a different colour, all the while forging alliances wherever possible, building up your fleet and hearing vague rumours about a secretive race called the Grox.
This is where the game starts to fall down, because by expanding its scope and scale, Maxis has also made the progression during this phase incredibly slow. With the Space stage several times the magnitude of the rest of the game, it takes hours to amass the sort of power and achievements that took minutes in the previous stages. What’s more, it is theoretically almost endless, with the entire galaxy to explore and alliances shifting within it. The Space stage feels like an almost completely different game; ironically, the factor that keeps it most like the earlier parts is the superficial simplicity of it all. As the engine and space travel might look and feel somewhat like Sins of a Solar Empire for Dummies, it has virtually no depth or political strategy and tactics are as meaningless as they were in the early creature stages, with no benefit other than knowing that there is one less enemy species around. Ultimately this simplicity is what will make Spore rise or fall compared to expectations, as the game has been tooled for the casual audience. Hardcore fans of any of the genres that are present in Spore will likely feel handicapped by a system of controls and options that are designed to be simple. Conversely, younger players and people looking for a fun game with highly diluted versions of many different genres will love its intuitive controls and abject silliness.
The biggest draw for this game is certainly the Creature Creator and being able to manipulate the in-game avatars so completely is a definite step forward in game design, as well as the masterstroke of allowing players to send each other their designs, which has effectively built Maxis a giant library of fun toys without them having to lift a finger. Their work on the presentation varies though; while the cutesy graphics are endearing and the animations incredible considering their ability to adapt to the weird and curious designs of the user-base, the sound design is lacking, the entire game is filled with instantly forgettable muzak, the nonsense languages of the races are irritating in the extreme and the individual sound effects do nothing special.
Spore will most likely appeal to those who don’t expect much from it. It’s a curious step in the evolution of games artistry that will take its place amongst games like Black & White that, although interesting and innovative, never quite live up to their potential and promise.