Will Wright is a name many will recognise... many gamers anyway. WW is synonymous with all things ‘sim’. SimCity, SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt and of course, The Sims are all children of his brain. Also, the copious amounts of The Sims add ons can be attributed to this guy too. Lately, for all intents and purposes, he is the hero for the casual gamer who probably doesn’t even know his name and I’m sure that’s fine for him considering how much money he’ll be raking in. Anyway, I’m not here to review Will Wright. I’m here to review his latest creation which deviates from his immensely popular games in name only. Spore is, once again, a sim game, this time focusing on a rather wonky interpretation of evolution
. I won’t explain evolution to you but I will tell you not to use Spore as educational material for any children you’re thinking of having, not unless you believe in an X-Men inspired, leapfrog version of Darwin’s favourite theory.
Spore starts you off by signing up for an EA Spore account and activating your game online. This form of DRM has been the subject of so much internet coverage I feel that if I don’t mention it here it would be as bad as neglecting to mention you shoot aliens in a Halo review. You get three activations per copy of Spore so try not to reformat too many times after installing. Oh, and the online activation on the first start up is compulsory so make sure you’re on the interweb before buying. Once the irritating process of verifying you’re not a dirty, good for nothin’ pirate is over you’ll find yourself at the Spore ‘home page’. Home to Spore is the god damn galaxy and your first task is to pick one of the seven or so planets to make your own. The game itself is divided into five stages; Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilisation and Space; following the broad periods of time we ourselves have and will follow. During the Cell and Creature stages you get to design the creature you’ll be using through the rest of the game. By taking control of your little guy you’ll need to pick up body parts conveniently scattered around the primordial ooze/planet and each time you get jiggy you’ll be able to change and evolve him as much as parts and points will allow until you’ve created something which looks like a unicorn, the Predator or even... well I don’t know what the f*** this is meant to be. During the first two stages your main focus will be on building your personality. You can be an aggressive prick picking fights with anything that happens to cross your path, you can be the guy who has to be friends with everyone (and some species will f***ing hate you for that), you could even befriend the big bastard of a killer roaming the planet and send him in to do your killing for you like the outsider kid in school who learned that the bully of the playground enjoyed singing along to Britney Spears songs and decided to exercise his right to blackmail his way to the top. Imagine John Connor in Terminator 2 and you won’t be far off. Kind of like in real life, the reputation you forge in the early days can be hard to shake off and if you bite the face off everything you encounter here it’ll be harder for you to be friendly in the later stages but considering how much of an effort it is to stay friends with alien races I’m not sure that you’d want to anyway.
The third and fourth stages all follow a more RTS style of gameplay with the gamer controlling a tribe or nation instead of a single creature but the aim is still to make enemies or alliances (or conquer or buy out in the Civilisation stage). The much touted customisation continues through these stages with the buildings, vehicles and uniform of your nation so if you want to make your city resemble something out of Futurama you can. The game up to this point is somewhat self limiting with the main objectives to conquer the other factions but truth be told, at the time it doesn’t feel that way. Killing off or befriending tribes and then taking over or buying out factions is great fun and can descend into chaos if guys start attacking your base. Micromanagement isn’t part of Spore, your resources are reduced to spice which is converted to money and the only things you need to worry about during the tribal and civilisation stages are the health of your inhabitants and their relations with other factions. For hardcore gamers this is a real bad point and it makes it obvious to anyone that Maxis has really dumbed the game down to appeal to the casual market. Where the game really displays its enormous scope is during the Space stage. It is here where you’ll be able to travel the length and breadth of the entire galaxy... so long as your damn colonies and home planet are able to go twenty seconds without calling for your help. Apparently the one guy you are controlling is vastly superior to the hundred or so guys on each and every settlement and every time an enemy alien race or band of space pirates tries to invade them they’ll be crying for your aid. The same goes for any allies you may make on your travels. Annoyances aside it is rewarding to travel around, completing missions for your own race and other races, making alliances and trade routes, making war and terraforming planets. Any astronomer could tell you this but it takes a gamer to make you believe in this context: the galaxy is big. It’s so big that the only realistic way to get to the centre is to buy a Wormhole key which allows you to fly through black holes. This means there’s a lot to explore if you don’t get tired of your inept computer controlled creation.
I have a laptop. It’s not a gaming laptop. It has a 1.7GHz dual core processor (rated at 2.99GHz according to a (supposedly) reliable website), 2GB of RAM (recently updated from 1GB) and 830MB of shared graphics memory (128MB dedicated) and even I can run Spore quite nicely, albeit on low settings except for the resolution. This game is easy to run, if you have a gaming rig that allows you to play games from a year or so ago you should have absolutely no problems with Spore on high settings. The graphics are adequate. Speaking as someone who can only play the game on low settings I can’t tell you much more but it looks passable on low settings so I presume it looks very nice if pumped up. The aesthetics are cartoony and fit very much in the niche Spore sets out for itself with bulbous, child friendly creatures and animated, soft edged buildings and vehicles. The sound does its job; it gets louder and more dramatic when an attack is coming, quiet when in the depth of space and upbeat when a baby is born. What it does very well is the alien sounds themselves. They roar when they’ve just sprouted legs, they squeal when attacked, they develop their own language and sound bloody funny when they’re annoyed at you. I told my last girlfriend the same thing, maybe it’s why she broke up with me? Controls are about as clunky as you’d expect for a game trying to be so many things at once with individual character controls involving mouse directions or WASD controls (a b**** when you're left handed and there's no way to customise the controls... ironic really) and dashboard interactions while the RTS portions are controlled pretty much as an RTS would be. Travelling around a planet in your spaceship can be frustrated by enemy ships attacking you while you’re trying to manoeuvre and click on the “shoot the f***ers down” button at the same time but in all it’s acceptable and works once you get used to it.
Spore is a very enjoyable game marred by some very irritating design flaws (seriously, colonies don’t need one hero to save their asses every few minutes and I want to explore god damn it!) and a couple of glitches. If you’re looking for a game that will redefine the way you look at the sim genre then this isn’t it and it’s no good for anyone who wants depth. Spore is unapologetically simple and despite, or perhaps because of this it is fun. Ironically though, the most long lived fun will almost certainly be found in the creator suites. The ability to create your own creatures, buildings and vehicles is accessible from the main screen and the appeal of doing this will no doubt outlive the game itself which is perhaps a shame because I know how much I was looking forward to dominating the galaxy with each of my creations before I actually got the chance to.