canuckeh's Spore (PC) review

Spore has an odd way of putting a smile on your face.

One could make a case for the Civilization games having the greatest storyline in gaming, or at least the greatest of the “choose your own adventure” type storyline in that they let the player control history of a global level by dictating the development and actions of a single nation. It looks like Maxis is opting to one-up the Civ games by dictating the course of history on a galactic level by manipulating the evolution of an entire species, none of which remotely look like a human being, but most of which are cute and cuddly enough to be made into stuffed animals regardless of how many mandibles the player gives them.

I wonder what creationists think of Spore. All this game needs is soulful music and you have the SchoolHouse Rock episode on evolution. Thematically, it creates a cute and cuddly take on Darwinism, perhaps moreso in an attempt to reach out to the same predominantly female audience produced by Will Wright’s last major hit, The Sims. But at the same time, that’s also what I like most about Spore, the way it spoofs reality. The Sims was great in how it pokes fun at human nature, materialism, the corporate ladder, the social life and other facts of life (and I will admit that most of the above was lost in the midst of the many, many Sims expansions released over the years. After the recent Ikea expansion pack, I have to hope that some kind of Sims Fight Club expansion is planned to redeem the franchise.) Likewise, Spore ribs on the ideas of the development of intelligent life, survival of the fittest, peace and warfare, even the idea of extraterrestrial beings. I can’t help but be proud of my creature as it does a happy dance because “its brain grew” and it started to become more sentient.

I can’t help but wonder why else I like Spore so much, because if you broke down the gameplay aspects piece by piece, you essentially have 5 games, 4 of them simple enough that could’ve been done by a single programmer in Flash barring a graphical downgrade. Let me just talk about the actual gameplay for a few paragraphs. At the cellular level, you basically click in areas to move your cell of a creature, leveling up and growing by eating things smaller than you and surviving by avoiding things bigger than you. Eventually you reach a point where your creature is big enough to grow legs and walk on land, and there the game becomes the equivalent of starting a new character in World of Warcraft or any MMORPG. Either you make peace with other species or you kill them, depending on whether you opt to be an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore. The difference being that you either dance to other creatures or devour them, but both are the equivalent to MMORPG combat at its most simplest of levels, and each “quest” is just the same; kill or dance with 5 or so enemies to complete the mission. After enough leveling up, your character discovers tools and the theme from 2001 : A Space Odyssey plays.

Woo

The next two stages are essentially real-time strategy games on the most simplest of levels. First your creature forms a tribe and advances by slaughtering or making peace with other nations. Resource management is limited here to the occasional session of mining fish or fruit, and your tactical options here are limited to a handful of equipment types and buildings to construct in your single hut. Eventually your tribe becomes the dominant species on the planet, thus beginning the Civilization phase. You can guess what game is fixing to get cloned in this phase. Actually, the civilization phase is largely the same as the city phase with the difference being you have land and air units in addition to your tank and you can take over other cities by whatever means necessary. Again, there’s no depth at all and the gameplay is just there to showcase something else I will get to. Eventually you “unite” your species under one government and become advanced enough to create an intergalactic spaceship. This space phase is the 5 game, the one that’s a bit more fleshed out and will take more than an hour to complete. Actually, to COMPLETE this game will take a long time, as there’s some 250 achievements to collect before the game deems you God (I didn’t get this far for the record, I’m only human) but this phase gives you a ton of room to do whatever it is you’d like. Explore and colonize planets, make peace or declare war with other races, collect and sell artifacts, establish trade routes, etc. This aspect of the game feels extremely fleshed out, and in particular is aimed at people who like to explore, as there’s a downright dizzying number of galaxies and planets with their own evolving species to control. Okay, I’ll admit that I’m not really big on how much of a pain it can be for a single ship to wage war on an empire on another planet, but for people that thought Sid Meier’s Pirates was an exciting adventure, they’ll enjoy space exploration here.

Yes, one out of five games doesn’t sound like a winner, but what makes Spore work is how they’re tied together in a manner that makes you care about your species, and makes you want to see your creature develop. To be more specific, the game gradually introduces more ways to make your creation unique. In the first two stages, you can use the game’s currency to customize your creature however you see fit, and this game really lets you run wild with your imagination. Place as many legs, eyes, mouths and sexual innuendos on anywhere you please and contort them to any size you desire, and your critter will move appropriately. At the tribal level, you can outfit your critter with bits of clothing just the same. Then at the Civ level, you can go bananas with how you design air, land and sea vehicles, along with what your City Hall, residential area, factory and “entertainment facility” looks like, and then finally your spaceship. On top of molding your species into a design that suits you, the game gives a great sense of growth and progression, like watching a little puppy grow up before your eyes, except the puppy eats other dogs in an attempt to establish the dachshund as the dominant species.

Spore is also great in how it ties all of that into its online integration. No, you can’t compete online against other players, that wouldn’t work as it would negate the possibility of letting you choose how you want your species to advance because every single player would be a bloodthirsty 6-eyed Genghis Khan. Rather, the game will beam into your system the creations of other players, including creatures, buildings and all that. So should you allow the use of this feature, the galaxy will be populated with all manner of unusual creatures. It gives the game a similar appeal to City of , where half the fun is just going to the central area and checking out all the unique and interesting creations other players conjure up.

So I guess you can say that Spore is aiming for a “Game 2.0” type vibe. It’s an early attempt at giving the gamers their own version of DeviantArt. The people who will like Spore the most will be the ones that like to create, and likewise like to see the creations of other people. If you want some kind of Starcraft-like strategic depth then you’re going to be let down, but I could say that all of that simplicity, that shallow gameplay also works in the game’s favour. Really, how many people nowadays have the time and patience to pick up on all the keyboard shortcuts of a tactical real time strategy game nowadays?  Likewise, if your mentality on life is that the journey is more important than the destination, then you’ll dig Spore as well, as this is the seemingly rare case of a game where you can’t help but be proud as your creations grow and mature. Or at least mature in a cute, cuddly way. I’ll admit that I thought it was adorable when my creatures were talking about inventing the Atomic Bomb in their Sim-ish language.

Finally, lets be honest, there really isn’t anything like Spore on the market right now, and I think that should be rewarded in of itself.

Pros : Incredible sense of scope too, in how the small area you started playing in suddenly opens up into an entire planet within a galaxy within a universe. The spaceship section of the game really makes you feel like some kind of deity.

Cons : You can’t advance in certain areas without designing one of the previously mentioned customizable aspects first; this breaks the flow of the gameplay in the civilization phase, where out of the blue, you’re forced to take the time to create 6 different buildings or vehicles before being allowed to progress. Likewise, once you reach the spaceship phase, there are so many different gameplay concepts that need to be explained that the tutorials pile up en masse.

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