Review by LordVanil
"A Universe not of Infinite Depth but of Possibility"
I have to give Maxis and EA credit; Spore is a gutsy game. It also needs no introduction. Spore is well-known as 'the next big thing' in PC gaming and comes as probably the most highly anticipated game of 2008. Conceptualized by Will Wright, the man who created The Sims, Spore is a game about... life, really. Life is a broad thing and so is Spore by virtue of its design. It's also a flawed game by virtue of its design, but most truly gutsy games are in some way. If Spore can be credited with anything it's that there's nothing else quite like it.
As stated above, Spore is about life, and namely the evolution of such. The game begins when a meteorite smashes onto the surface of a planet, and from this meteorite is spawned life. The player is a very small piece of that life and it is from there on in up to the players to become a much bigger piece of life and, ultimately, the only life to speak of.
Spore is a weird game because the game is separated into five distinct sessions of gameplay, each representing a specific stage of the development of the player's own species. The game begins at the Cell Stage where the player must steer their newly-spawned microscopic organism through the primordial soup of their world, either scouring for plant matter as an Herbivore or hunting other cells as a Carnivore. The goal is to grow larger and evolve methods to give you an edge over the competition, like more cillia for faster movement, spines for defense or attack, poison spitters, and so forth. The Cell Stage plays a lot like Pac-Man on steroids as you steer your little organism with the mouse, frantically devouring bits of food while jetting away from larger predators.
Once you reach the growth quota the game gives you, your organism grows legs and decides to leave the ocean for dry land, which heralds the end of the Cell Stage and the beginning of the Creature Stage. Here, Spore opens up a little bit and gives you a glimpse at the incredible power of its user-friendly customization tools. You can literally create any sort of species you like. Walking straw-men? Mustached frogs? Eight-legged monkies? It's all possible. I myself created a race of bipedal crimson raptors and the first time I saw Spore animate them perfectly and naturally I couldn't help but marvel at the technology at play.
The Creature Stage wasn't as exciting as actually creating my creatures but it wasn't unentertaining either. You make excursions from your home nest to either exterminate or make friends with the nests of other species. For comparison's sake the Creature Stage plays like a very primitive MMO and has the player mashing keys to execute either social or combat abilities. What abilities your creature has is determined by how you decide to have it evolve. As you traverse the prehistoric landscape of your planet you'll earn new parts which you can equip your species with via mating with particularly lonely creatures. It's all very simple but it's charming, and collecting various cool limbs and mouths and eyes you can experiment with is pretty compelling.
Eventually though you'll inevitably meet another quota and Spore will propel you forth to the third portion of the game: the Tribal Stage. At this point my aforementioned raptors learned how to start fires and make tools and I was able to clothe them in various tribal vestments. Here, Spore changes gears and becomes an extremely bare-bones RTS that has you plopping down very basic structures in your village and either making friends with or burning rival villages. Unfortunately the Tribal Stage loses the charm of the first two Stages and basically boils down to churning out more axemen or gift-bearers than your opponents. Thankfully it also ends quickly.
Once you've dealt with five other villages Spore enters the Civilization Stage. The goal now becomes to dominate your planet by either bombing, converting, or buying out the cities of rival nations. This is reminiscent of the Tribal Stage in that it's still functionally an RTS but some of the charm of the first two Stages returns because you are given the ability to sculpt and design your own structures and vehicles from the bottom-up. The tools are just as easy to use and strong as they were for creating your original creature and if you enjoy that sort of thing you can very easily lose hours just designing your own factories and gunships. Those same raptors that had just recently discovered fire were now imperialistic industrialists, crushing rival nations with their superior air power. Ultimately though the Civilization Stage is functionally as primitive as the Tribal Stage: you can only have three different types of units at once and victory comes easily by refining spice geysers you find for resources and dominating the cities of your foes.
Which finally brings the player to the fifth, final, and meatiest portion Spore has to offer: the Colonization Stage. Now the time comes to build a spacecraft and launch it into space where an entire star cluster of exploration, trade, and warfare awaits. Here Spore changes gears again, this time to morph into a space exploration game that sees the player zipping back and forth between solar systems trading spice, completing missions, terraforming worlds, brokering trade agreements, and conquering rival space empires. Those old raptors of mine had become quite the intergalactic bully by this time.
Like I said above; Spore is a weird game. Unfortunately it's also a shallow game. When your game is actually five games in one each is bound to suffer for it, and Spore is no exception. The Colonization Stage is reasonably substantial but getting there, creation tools aside, involves playing through four other sub-par, albeit short, experiences. Spore is also incredibly easy because there doesn't seem to be any way to truly 'lose' the game. When killed/destroyed/beaten back the player is just able to respawn as a cell/creature/space ship at no cost. It was obviously a design choice meant to cater towards casual players but it leaves people like me who've been playing games their whole life a little out in the cold. There is never any tension to anything you do or see in Spore. Evolution has never been so user-friendly.
On the positive side, Spore's production values are excellent. The technology at play with regards to the creatures themselves is pretty remarkable to behold. The game also scales well and will run decently on even low-end systems without much of a hassle. Being such a customizable game a very strong framework for player creativity had to be available in Spore and the game certainly does do what it promises to do in this regard.
Spore's innovative online capabilities are also worth noting. While the game boasts no true multiplayer to speak of it does connect to an online database called the 'Sporepedia'. The Sporepedia functions to store the appearances and details of every other creature, structure, and vehicle built by everyone else playing Spore anywhere in the world and uploads them into your own game, which means that the tribes you'll be crushing will actually be the tribes of other Real players. It's nifty and is bound to provide Spore with some desperately-needed longevity.
Spore is an innovative title. The sense of guiding your very own species from the soup of life to the farthest stars is an inherently charming one. It's a shame that it's also an inherently shallow one. And really, it's to be expected with a game as broad and different as Spore. It may not be a particularly great game but it is both an important and impressive one.
Anyone looking for a deep, long-lived game should look elsewhere, but if you're willing to try something different merely out of obervence of its differences then Spore is worth having around. It's a gutsy game.
The Good: Truly innovative, inherently charming, Sporepedia
The Bad: Shallow gameplay, way too easy
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 09/11/08
Game Release: Spore (US, 09/07/08)
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