More than the sum of its parts.
Let us come to an accommodation, hardcore gamers. I understand that you like things to be highly stylistic. I understand that you like your games ‘complex’ in the respect that you like there to be large numbers of moves to memorize and facts to master. But please listen long enough to see my perspective on these things: complication does not make for better gameplay. There are certainly examples where it does, but a game does not need to have eleventy billion special inputs to be fun. Are we agreed? Okay then, let’s discuss Spore.
Spore is an incredibly complex game and idea presented in an extremely simple format. Almost everything is managed through a few simple button presses, and if you’ve long since mastered WASD controls and clicking a dashboard in the midst of tense situations, then you have all of the skill needed to blast through Spore. Please don’t. Slow down. Take in the sights, because you will entirely miss the point if you play to min/max the game.
Spore is the first evolution simulation game since… well, since ever, as far as I know. There was the curious sidescroller on the SNES back in the day called EVO that played with the notion, but honestly, Spore is the first game to put the focus of gameplay upon evolution. [Tell that to my race of intelligent molluscs in SimEarth. ~Ed]
Spore is separated into five phases for your bio-creation; cellular, creature, tribal, civilization, and space. The first three are where the real meat of the game are, and where I want you to pay attention. Civilization and space – while cute distractions – are not the point.
Picture, if you will, an idyllic forest beside rolling plains of verdant foliage. From the edge of the treeline a four-armed bipedal insect, gigantic pincers arcing over from behind the shoulders, emerges. As he steps out and surveys his surroundings, two more emerge, taking up position on either flank. A small pack of the insectoids stalk forward, chattering to each other, and climb the hill to find a nest of fat two-legged creatures and spherical bodies. The insects chatter to each other with a more menacing bent, and they charge in, beginning the slaughter. Their work is easy, but there are over a dozen of the fat things, so the insects lose track of time as they claw and bite their way through the herd. And then the ground shudders.
A giant foot descends upon the left flank insect, crushing him dead. As if surprised, a giant head looms down out of the clouds, peering at the mess it has made, and cocks its beak aside to focus with one of its enormous eyes. Backing away, the lead insect stares in terror at the Thundercougarfalconbird as it examines the tiny creatures below it. It gives a shriek of amusement, the beak peeling back to display nightmarish teeth clenched in an enormous grin, and it stomps the lead insect into goo.
This happened to me, and it was hilarious. It was a moment of unadulterated joy in the game. These moments occur with fair regularity, too, which really impressed me. Starting from the cell stage, where you’ll see the world expand bit by bit until the behemoths floating ominously in the background will soon be rushing to feast upon your tender flesh, up through the tribal stage where your rivals in the creature stage will return to assault your tribe with mayhem.
Rearing a creature from iteration to iteration is the core of the game, and the greatest fun to be had in Spore. From the first adjustments during the cellular phase, to the radical changes you’ll make as a creature, to assembling the first outfits for your creatures in the tribal phase, the game gives you plenty to play with, plenty of pieces to construct your own world. And it’s delightful – I almost want to say darling, but as you should well know, I am far too manly to use such terms.
Unfortunately, once you enter the civilization phase, most of that goes out the window. You will still see the effort of past stages present, but the game begins to fall apart as it pulls farther back. The civilization game, despite the presence of editors for buildings and vehicles, ultimately feels like a chore; a severe lack of strategic choices leaves combat feeling like a dick-waving contest (whose is bigger, kiddies?) while the diplomatic options aren’t even available until your opponents become large enough. Religious conversion is entirely equivalent to the combat – there is almost no difference.
When you press up to the space game, you are pulled in every possible direction at once, with no real option to just shut off your comms system and do what you want. Spore’s space phase exists somewhere between the individual pursuits of games like Escape Velocity and the empire management of games like Sins of a Solar Empire. Unfortunately, you don’t have the freedom of Escape Velocity or the tools of Sins to work with, leaving you constantly spinning from annoying assaults from your enemies to painful requests of your moronic allies. Since the space travel format makes choke points pretty viable throughout Spore, it’s disappointing that you can’t establish defensive outposts, or position fleets, or do ANYTHING to reduce the vast headache of the process.
Graphically, Spore looks cartoonish. One might say kid-friendly. It manages to be quite incredible in a number of ways, and performs pretty well, but you will definitely notice early on that there are other, better looking games out there. It doesn’t have the polish and flare of Team Fortress 2, for example, but the comparison is moot, as Team Fortress 2 doesn’t support on-the-fly creation of an infinite variety of player characters.
The music and sound is surprisingly ignorable. When you bother to pay close attention, it sounds subtle but well-built. With my vast musical knowledge (Note: Geoff actually has negative knowledge about music, as he tends to spread his misconceptions as facts) I was able to determine that it was intended to be ignorable; it’s pleasant, but rhythmic, and completely random, and manages to fill the background so you aren’t noticing a silent world without providing any specific swelling themes. Oh yeah, and you can customize it in the civilization phase.
Spore was an ambitious project from its inception, and belittling the many accomplishments contained in the game is actually very hard for me; Spore is incredible, and every gamer should play with it for a little while to at least understand what potential there is in that space. Spore does not, ultimately, hit the high mark it set for itself back at its inception; I am uncertain how it could have, realistically speaking. But the end product is a very potent proof that games can be about far more than making other people bleed or cliché ‘save the world from an ancient evil’ stories.
Spore is the most fantastic game you’ll ever avoid playing. I can easily guarantee that you will find something upsetting about the end product. The game is riddled with flaws small and large, and though there is a lot of impressive tech backing the whole product, it does not have the kind of polish we so arrogantly expect from our entertainment. But please do not dismiss Spore just because it doesn’t look as good as Shooting You In The Goddamn Face 17. You will be selling yourself, Maxis, and games as a whole, short.