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Project Spark Preview

Vince_Ingenito By:
GENRE Action 
PUBLISHER Microsoft 
DEVELOPER Team Dakota 
E10+ Contains Fantasy Violence

What do these ratings mean?

Little Big Xbox.

Sony and Media Molecule definitively demonstrated the power of creation and community with Little Big Planet. As a concept, it's proven too successful and too rife with potential to avoid being aped, and in Project Spark, we're seeing the first time since Sackboy's arrival that a major publisher with deep pockets has taken a crack at the formula. But Project Spark is so much more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of another franchise, it's an ambitious attempt to give players on a variety of platforms the tools required to build, play, and share any kind of game or interactive experience they can dream up.

Perhaps that sounds more like the opening of a marketing pitch than a video game preview, but after spending some time with Project Spark, I couldn't help but be hopeful. It's a largely different set of tools than LBP presents, and while it doesn't offer quite the same level of auteurship at the micro level of object creation, it boasts far more robust and user-friendly controls for building a game world and defining how the objects within it behave.

It starts with the ability to sculpt and texture 3D terrain in real-time with a wide variety of options. You can file your tool down to a finer point for some articulated landscaping or blow it up large enough to cover entire mountain ranges with snow in seconds. Even more powerful are texturing tools called biome brushes, which collect matched sets of textures, props, and environmental features together so you can quickly populate large areas with objects that look organically placed. It only took minutes for my demo proctor and me to build a tree-dotted grassy plain with moat surrounding an island in the middle. You'd be lucky to have an object or two built in the same amount of time in LBP.

That said, in LBP you can create custom objects from scratch with what amounts to a virtual erector set. Though Project Spark allows you to create what are called “assemblies” by essentially gluing together pre-made objects, it's no substitute for the true ability to hand-craft every element in your game. But where you lose some creative fidelity here, you gain so much more in the brain editor, a wildly impressive tool that essentially allows people who've never written a line of code in their lives to assign complex behaviors to every element of their creation.

With a spreadsheet-esque list of “if, then” statements, you can design incredibly specific behavioral routines. It didn't take much effort at all to turn an inanimate boulder into a loyal pet rock that follows you about and attacks anyone who assails you. The same tools can be used to define camera perspectives, controls methods, and other global settings as well. And any brain can be saved to be applied to anything you build in the future, making it a breeze to transform your isometric action RPG into a first-person shooter.

But I didn't realize the full potential of Project Spark until I started loading up the many games and interactive experiences the devs had cooked up with it. Entirely functional versions of Angry Birds, Limbo, and Geometry Wars were all presented to me, proving the toolset's versatility. So long as you use some combination of the building blocks they provide, there aren't really any limits on what kind of game you can craft.

But that's going to be the rub for some folks. As Project Spark is free-to-play, Microsoft will need to monetize somehow, and while no one was willing to comment on pricing, they did confirm that users would be able to download new sets of items to toy with. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that selling new objects to make up for the relatively limited item-building is going to become the primary way this game makes money. There are also still no details on what the single-player campaign will comprise, either. One can imagine a collection of different worlds featuring different styles of gameplay given what some of the devs have come up with already, but no one's really saying.

If MS can manage to execute their free-to-play model without making prospective creators feel nickel and dimed, they might have a real hit here. Nearly anyone who's played games for a few years feels the hunger to create and direct an experience of their own. And though we don't know anything about the true price of admission just yet or even an actual release date, the promise Project Spark makes is nearly impossible to resist. With the tools being so simple to grasp and the barrier to entry being so low, we can probably expect to see an army of armchair game developers taking the plunge, and I can't wait to see what they all come up with.

There's no release date yet for the title, but it will be in open beta this Fall and will be for Xbox One.
More GR previews for this game:
Project Spark preview posted on 03/04/14.

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