Creativity, freedom, and user-generated content combined
From a bacteria to a space empire - in a day! Not long ago such slogans seemed the most appropriate for Spore. To develop a living "something", from single-cell beings to a hi-tech civilization. Will Right – most probably the only person in the whole game industry that wouldn’t be laughed at when he suggested such a grand idea. And now that the game is here, did September 2008 really “become a cornerstone of history in electronic entertainment”? Well no, not quite. It’s not the best game of all time and across the generations and, as it turned out, not even the Game of the Year across either fans or publications. But that’s not the point. Maxis have created a tool for border-free imagination, and in comparison with it all other components of the gameplay slowly fade into the background. Really, who would dare tell you, that colonization of the nearest solar system by a hybrid of a grasshopper with a duck is boring?
Right now in the world of Spore there are amazing events taking place: thousands of people worldwide are trying to discover the flaws and shortcomings of this almost ideal game for the genre. Because of unusual and brilliant concept idea, many expected if not for a miracle, then something at least bordering the impossible. Now that the time has come to put ideas to light, Will Right's genius has really come through, but some will still turn their backs in disappointment. But why? The well-known game designer has honestly presented all his promises: five stages, immense possibilities of the editor, and unique interaction of players among themselves by means of "Sporepedia". And yet people have searched for the game to produce elements which are not meant to be a part of it. Maxis never conceived the game as a hardcore simulator, and to anticipate that each game stage will carry a revolutionary concept - is quite frankly silly. So, if you for some reason decided to hope that the creature stage will somehow challenge Diablo, and the civilization stage will surpass the classic Civilization itself – then you, to put it mildly, will be unpleasantly surprised. It is possible to reach final gameplay stage in about six hours - all depending on how customization-happy you are with your creature, but once you get there – do not expect the credits to roll. There will always be planets you have not explored, other civilizations you have not yet met/destroyed/traded with. But the essence of Spore isn’t even in that. It’s in the game that you play in the development stages, leading up to your grand finale, that decide what kind of path you will take once you get out into the depth of space, what kind of creature you will be, and what allies and enemies you will make.
In Spore it is impossible not to fall in love with your creature at the very first stage – the Cell Stage. Your big-eyed bacteria floating just on the other side of the screen – it is definitely one of the most unusual characters found in a recent game. But it’s not just the fact that Maxis have created such a cute and remarkable hero that makes the first stage so attractive – it’s because the stage itself is also devilishly beautiful. The beauty doesn’t come courtesy of the latest graphics technology, but rather thanks to the breathtaking visual style, that looks to be characteristic for older arcades than modern consoles. You watch other little creatures swim by you, all trying to survive and find their place under the sun. After the simple choice of becoming an omnivore, carnivore, or herbivore, your only remaining task to progress through this stage is to consume the food you require to grow (the food depends on your choices above). As you consume plans, or other creatures, or both, you will gain points which you can then spend to improve your creature and also get through the evolution stage.
The creature editor at this stage of the game is extremely limited, and it makes sense. As a bacterium, there are only a few limited upgrades you can add which increase the various stats of your creature. Feel free to experiment at any time, because everything is refundable and you get your DNA points back if you sell a part. You only get a handful of attack, defense and speed creature parts to use or find out in the ocean, and there is a limit on how many parts you can have on your create – the "complexity" level will not let you add any more parts to your cell until you remove some. This limit is low at this stage, which understandable.
After you gain enough DNA points, the game tells you that you are ready to advance to the next stage. You aren’t forced to, so if you haven’t found all the creature parts yet and want to keep swimming around – you can. But once you’re ready, the creature editor offers a set of legs and you make your way to shore. In the Creature stage, you are tasked with controlling one of the creatures you have created and make your way across the globe, gathering more hidden creature parts and meeting with other species of the world – some of which you will likely recognize from their cell forms in the previous stage. The tasks are simple – either dance and make friends with others, or attack them. The dancing is like a quick mini-game, you try to match your opponent’s moves by hitting the appropriate dance button in your little action menu. There is no penalty for failure, so you can try as often as you’d like. If you choose to go the fighting way, the game becomes very action oriented. You have a range of various attacks that you click/use and try to kill the creature before it kills you – afterwards replenishing your health by eating it. At any time, you can go back to your nest and `create` some followers – you can have a party of 4 creatures to guide on adventures. Your allies will repeat your actions, so you’re always controlling the same creature. The basic goal is to advance through the land to the next nesting area that gives you an extra character slot and a chance to evolve your creature.
At this point, the creature editor is very wide open. Depending on how many parts you have found and how many DNA points you have, you are able to suit up pretty good to take on the challenges of war or dance – different parts will give you boosts in your stat areas related to what you wish to do. The selection is fairly good, but its clear that EA has planned to milk this franchise like the Sims – the Cute and Creepy parts pack is already announced – so don’t hold your breath on endless customization when it comes to creature part selection if you just have the original Spore game. Once you gain enough DNA to advance to the next stage, the game will once again warn you – this is also the last chance you will get to edit your creature’s basic stats and parts, so do so wisely!
The third stage in the game is the Tribal stage. Here, your subordinates have gained the ability to organize themselves. From this point you are controlling a group of creatures with various tasks that can be assigned – hunting, fishing, gathering or building. It plays like a simple resource-based strategy game. You have a few buildings you can build, and only up to a certain number of creatures you can have at any given moment – each needs to be assigned a task so that your tribe is both fed and well protected. This is where the game becomes directly competitive. Your task in this stage is either to make friends or destroy all other tribes – of which there are 5 (randomly generated). If you want to make friends, you’ll have to build some buildings which give you access to musical instruments. Get your creatures to pick them up and head off to the closes tribe. If you were a violent creature in the previous stage – your music may take some time to work and you may be attacked at first. But if you’ve been nice to others all the way, this will go pretty quick. The minigame is similar to the creature stage – you try to match the music instruments as the other tribe plays them. Not much strategy to this.
If you want to go the violent way (and you will have little choice if you are a meat-eating creature and didn’t exactly make friends in the previous stage) then build the military buildings, as well as be prepared from occasional attacks from other tribes. There are a few options for weapons, but the attack buttons are the same so you do not have to think much about what to give your troops – just keep it balanced between the weapons. All-tribe rushes work best, especially after you just got attacked and reduced their tribe down in size. With each tribe you defeat or befriend, your base will allow for more buildings and more creatures for you to control (up to 12).
The creature editor changes a lot in this stage – you can now add various upgrades to your creature such as hats, armour plates and belts. The bonuses are similar to those of creature parts, but it is now clothing. Once all the tribes have been eliminated, you are once again offered to advance to the next stage.
It seems your tribe has really advanced now, and are ready to build machines. This is the first time you will encounter the vehicle editor. Unlike the creature editor, all parts are here and available to you from the start so you may spend an unhealthy amount of time customizing your ride. The vehicle parts work similar to the creature parts – they give you various boosts during driving, attacking, defending, etc. Once you have your car ready to go, you are shown your 2-3 initial cities. The point of this stage of the game is no surprise – eliminate all opposition by means of trade, alliances, or war. The resource gathering continues in this stage, but done a little differently – you send out your land vehicle to a resource point and capture it after a certain short period of time. Your opponents can at any time drive by and steal it away, so keep on the lookout. You can also now build your cities in the city editor. Here, you can design your own buildings much like you have with your land vehicle, except there are no stats to worry about. Each building type though brings you certain bonuses, like more money or more happiness in the population, and you have to balance them to remain strong. Location of buildings within the cities also matters and will create various bonuses.
As you get more money and start taking over cities/starting trade routes, you will have enough to build a port in one of your cities near water – the editor for creating your sea vehicle is similar to the land one, except with new parts and a different theme. These will primarily be useful for taking over resources that are out at sea, and attacking opponents with cities near the coast. Once you gain even more cities you will be able to build your airplane unit, again within a similarly themed vehicle editor. At this point you should have very few cities left to buy/capture, so keep going until you dominate the planet. Now the world is truly yours, and there is one direction left to go – up.
Once you choose to advance to the next and final stage, the Space stage, you will be prompted to create your intergalactic starship. It functions similar to the other vehicle editors you’ve had in the previous stage. As you complete your ship, it will take off and you are in control. Here you are back to controlling a single unit, and will do so pretty much for the rest of the game. Your first few tasks will be given to you by your home planet. You’ll have to fly to a planet nearby and complete a couple of tasks before you’re given the engine upgrade you need to zoom out to the Universe level. But once you do… be amazed. You are looking at one of the biggest and deepest gameplay worlds ever imagined. There is a universe in front of you, complete with various star clusters, milky ways, asteroid belts, unborn stars, and of course – located in a correct place – planet Earth.
At this point, you are finally truly free. While the previous stages pretty much had you working through objectives as chores and a way to advance yourself, it has all been leading up to this moment. From here you are free – free to explore, to create trades, to conquer planets and setup new colonies, to wage intergalactic wars. The trade/war aspects are fairly unchanged from the previous stage – as you fly around the galaxy, other nations will come into contact with you, and initially they will be in a neutral state towards you. So you have to win their trust by either trade or doing missions that they request. The missions are fairly straightforward and may get repetitive for some. Go to this planet, do this, return for reward. To keep things fresh, at least in Maxis’ eyes, your home planet and colonies will often (too often in my opinion) get attacked by pirates, so your you need to fly back and defend your cities. After you complete the tutorial space missions, your home planet will very rarely have anything for you to do (other than free fuel refills and ship repair) so having to fly all the way back to defend can be frustrating. You can ignore the alarms a few times, but if you want to keep the planet you will eventually have to fly back and repair/rebuild all your cities.
As you gain allies, you will be able to add their ships to your fleet so that fighting will become easier. If they get killed off, simply go to the nearest planet of your friendly civilization and ask for a replacement. Your ship also gets a very cool planet editor – a tool useful and necessary for creating new planets and making them habitable – and also customizing them from colors down to the physical layout. The tools that are used to customize planets will have to be purchased as either upgrades or on a per-use basis, and your home planet will only have a small selection so you’ll have to hunt around for the tools you wish to have. A special sub-spoiler note has to be made: once you upgrade your ship enough and think you are ready, try to make your way to the center of the Universe. There is a very useful tool that can be found there, as well it is considered to be the only thing resembling an “endgame” in Spore. However to get there, you will have to get past a hostile nation called the Grox – this is the only non-randomized event in the space stage. They will have many planets around the center and will always attack your ships, no matter your relationship level (they cannot be befriended). But if you do make it, congrats! If you do not, you get re-spawned on your home planet, so no penalty there.
There is really an endless amount of things to do in the space stage, more than I can bother to write about here. It is not possible, as far as I can tell, for a normal human being to completely finish this stage – explore all planets (of which there are millions) and meet all other nations. So know that once you get here, this is pretty well the end and if you’re bored by the tasks offered… well perhaps it’s time to start another game and be opposite in character – or wait for the next Spore expansion that adds to the gameplay.
Spore is a rather good looking game. It’s a PC exclusive, always a good thing, so it runs well and is optimized for mouse controls. The graphic engine is not extremely powerful, but it doesn’t have to be. The art style is what makes Spore look great, not it’s rendering engine, and that is perfectly fine. Background music in the game is fitting, light, and provides good vibes without being neither too memorable nor too annoying. Once you get to the Civ stage, each city actually comes with its own music editor – you could actually spend some time just customizing the sound played within your city - and forget that you’re playing a game and not messing with a sound file.
Spore was developed by Maxis, famed for the Sims series, so there are actually a lot of little hints to the Sims series, from “thought bubbles” over the character’s heads, to the languages the Universe creatures speak (a dialect of the Sim language). Fans of the series (who are probably in the same target consumer category Spore is aiming for) will certainly appreciate the references.
Sporepedia is quite a brilliant creation – on par with the rest of the game. It’s a virtual encyclopedia in which users can choose to participate. It all starts off as a big depository of all creatures, buildings, vehicles and spaceships created in other user’s games that you may import into your world. It will seamlessly upload everything you create to the database, and attach it to your Spore account. From here, Sporepedia begins to function like a social network: you can make friends, subscribe to other user’s creations, and ban users from even posting content to your game. Each time you start a new Spore campaign or a new game stage, random creatures are pulled from Sporepedia and populate your world, so the creatures you meet will never ever be the same. There are already over 6 million creatures uploaded. As well there are over a million buildings, land units, sea units, air units, spaceships, etc all ready to be integrated into your game, either manually or randomly. This brings endless interaction with the rest of the Spore owners, as the users provide the content easily and seamlessly between each other’s game worlds.
Sporepedia isn’t just for you to create and share creatures. If you consider yourself to be a poor building or vehicle designer, you can always skip the manual labour and simply pull up the building catalog when you acquire your first Civ stage city, and pull some buildings from the wide variety of choices. Same can be done for spaceships, land vehicles, sea vehicles, etc. It really is a groundbreaking mechanic for exchanging user content, and hopefully more games will soon follow.
Of course the game is not perfect, and it may not even be what the hype made it out to be. But does that make it bad? Not in the slightest. Spore is a brilliant game on its own, forgetting the extreme hype, years of development and disappointed fanboys. It is easily the best in the genre - heck, it can be considered as genre-defining! There are some negative points of course, but none great enough to distract from the overall quality. The first is the issue of DRM, but that’s something that many EA published games suffer from, so we should not be harsh on Spore for this reason. It was the first, however, to introduce the 5 machines installation limit – which hurt the hype and the sales. Too bad for Maxis, because they made a brilliant game and had no choice over the DRM that accompanied it. At this point however, EA has released a de-authorization tool which allows you to regain 1 install limit if you uninstalled the game from your machine. Perhaps now more folks will give this a try.
Another hype-driven consequence is the lack of complexity. Yes, Spore indeed lacks any kind of special features (up until the Space stage) that would separate it from being just a collection of 4 mini-games, all sub par to the full titles they are based on. And it needs to be said – Spore is best taken as a sum of its parts, rather than expecting each stage to be something to brag about. The target audience here are the casual players, and those who wish to get their hands on the amazing creation tools – and if that’s you, you also likely play the Sims a lot – then you shall not be disappointed. But if you’re an above-average gamer who was expecting a challenge or something amazing out of this, you may not be that thrilled to find yourself beating each stage fairly quickly. Is that so disappointing though? You are still playing a very fun, imaginative and engaging game which you will find hard to put down. And once at the Space stage… I think even the worst critics will find themselves amazed.
Spore is an amazing achievement, and I do not say this lightly. If you enjoyed something like The Sims (and we all have, at some stage, been addicts of that classical game), then you should defiantly check out Spore. No, it will not blow you away with its complex levels or challenging missions – but it’s not meant to! Like many have said, Spore is more of an interactive tool, an outlet for your imagination to create things easily and make them endlessly unique. It lets you seamlessly interact with other players and exchange content on the fly. Sure it has its share of issues, mostly development choices, but it is still a game to be discovered, and an amazing achievement in the Video Game history.