Create. Evolve. Explore. Share. Doesn’t spell the word ‘Spore’ but instead sums up this videogame from Maxis in a nutshell. Featuring a simple yet diverse drag ‘n’ drop creation tool, Spore tasks you with creating your own species. You’ll be taking them through five stages, from a straightforward cell floating in the primordial soup and onto land to evolve, form tribes, dominate the landscape and then take to space, to infinity and beyond. Design creatures, tribal uniforms, vehicles and spaceships that can be shared with the world, or take someone else’s creation for a spin. It’s your personal universe in a box – so why isn’t Spore the greatest thing ever?
For a game that lets you shape a species from the very beginning, it seems a shame that Spore glosses over such opinions as religion, politics and legal standings to prevent you from truly defining your race. It seems strange that you’re allowed to customise the colour of your talons when emerging from the sea several million years from civilisation but can’t enslave your population under a Communist regime or decide which god to worship. Spore appears to lose its creativity once your creature becomes civilised and doesn’t regain it until allowed to lark about in a hilarious, fictional spacecraft. It appears that other tribes and kingdoms would rather wage war against you for daring to extinct a rather clumsy and ill-defined species back in the creation era instead of taking note of your nuclear ambitions.
Spore knew how it was going to start and where it would finish up, but the problem was joining the dots together and fleshing out the middle part of the story. The cause of the problem is that Spore just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, switching from a Black and White roaming adventure to a real time strategy title and then back to traipsing around on your lonesome once more. The Tribal and Civilisation eras feel more a chore than the delight the other three stages are, like an obstacle to slow the game down form its frantic pace. In the early stages your instructions are simply to eat or be eaten, whereas in the civilised world our lives revolve around economic disputes. Spore just simply doesn’t know when to calm down and leave the player to their own devices, especially since the civilised era is where humans developed more sophisticated devices to make activities even easier. If anything, Maxis should have employed Sid Meier to at least deliver a watered down version of his franchise.
My major beef with arguably the most important era in the game is that you can’t unlock items for your vehicles, buildings or research towards your spacecraft. During the creation segment each species you defeat or befriend can uncover extra parts to add to your creature as well as rummaging through skeletons for spare items such as arms, feet and weapons. It would have been nice to see a more fleshed out version in which you need to explore or research or even produce parts that advance your nation and give your impending spacecraft design a fighting chance early in the next era. Instead, all the parts are unlocked for you, so the stage is simply a question of how quickly you can make peace with or destroy your neighbours.
“Some creatures will run and hide as you move towards them whilst others will investigate in packs”The stages before and after the mid section are a joy to play. Starting as a mere cell with eyes, a mouth, a wiggly fin and a taste for vegetation or red meat, it’s a case of eating as much as you can to avoid being eaten yourself. The fact that you’re a small fish in a big pond is portrayed very well indeed, with much larger species swimming out of focus in the background to give the illusion that you’re too small to be seen. Soon enough you’ll notice other creatures running to escape from your attention whilst others will dart in your direction to take you. Combat is determined by your evolution options; choosing to put spikes on your rear means you’ll have to swing round to fend off attacks, whilst the electricity pods gained later in the level create a force field around your tiny morsel. To make a change you have to find a mate by singing a love song. Sound waves will point the way to a suitable candidate and, after a bit of a dance, you’ll have access to the Spore Creator application in which you can spend DNA points gained by eating and completing challenges to add unlocked parts to your creature. There’s plenty on offer with mouths, eyes, arms, legs, weapons and decoration as well as a paint mode. Sadly, no matter how threatening you make your creature look it doesn’t affect the passage of play. It would have been nice to have the passive colours offering a bonus to peace whilst strong and fierce stripes help fend off predators but lower your chances of securing peace with other species.
After fattening out, your creature has the ability to sprout legs and make its way onto land. From here you control your species’ destiny, although it’s worth noting that you never seem to be in danger of extinction. Being eaten or killed simply reverts you back to being born from an egg and you’re free to roam about again none the wiser. A mini map shows where undiscovered species are located, defeating the purpose of exploration and discovery, whereas coming into contact allows you to engage in warfare and eventually wipe them out, pass them by or offer your hand in exchange for peace and an alliance. Because speech hasn’t yet developed you must mimic the actions of the other party by either singing, dancing, posing or charming to get yourself accepted. Whilst this makes the game easier, there’s little diversity in peaceful actions and more fun is to be had by waging war. Other creatures react differently to situations; some will run and hide as you move towards them whilst others will investigate in packs. The latter are usually predators too and most will instigate a conflict.
“Spore is a very interesting experience”It’s a shame then that the combat system leaves little to be desired. Creatures can have up to four moves, each of which need recharging (your more powerful attacks take longer to become available again) after each use, and are dispatched at a click of the button. This degenerates scuffles into a click-fest as it’s not possible to block attacks – you can try moving your character away quickly but they’ll still get hurt. After a short while the true gameplay mechanics reveal themselves, with the most important combat attributes being health and a plethora of attacks. It doesn’t matter how strong or weak your attacks are; as long as they’re spaced out so there’s always one available whilst the others are re-charging you can rarely lose, unless you pick on a level 50 opponent the minute you’ve hatched from the egg. Eating your fallen foe (or fruit for herbivore and omnivores) recharges your health and also satisfies your hunger meter, a ticking time-bomb reminding you to kill and maim once in a while to progress the game along.
That’s another problem. Spore is always pushing you along, sometimes forcefully, to complete the level. There’s always a feeling of being rushed and abruptly reminded to hurry the hell up, like an exhausted till assistant transmitting the Jedi mind trick in your direction as you wander in 30 seconds before closing. The creature stage is a bastard for this because to gain DNA points you have to eat, and to avoid dying you have to devour another species, considering the creature is a carnivore and not a whiney vegetarian. Each DNA point gained furthers your evolutionary progress and once the bar is full there’s little else to do to put off advancing. This constant harassing is annoying since beyond the early cell stage, the world isn’t as dangerous as first led to believe. Your nest never seems to get raided and you can’t actually die or become extinct, instead being reborn. Tribal and Civilisation stages require you to make peace or war quickly before the opposition becomes too strong and wipes you out, and all too often they’ll be the ones invading first. The whole game needs slowing down somewhat, or at least in the harder difficulty because progress to the extremely satisfying space age can be sharpish.
All of the above said, Spore is still a very interesting experience. I don’t know of another title that has such a large time span with this level of creativity on offer. Better still is how the computer brings your bizarre creation to life. Odd-legged beasts have a slight limp or hop and you can see your own take on Frankenstein’s monster shift weight around with each step. To make a fast critter it’s best to go for a low centre of gravity and work the spine into shape. This is easily done with a few flicks of the mouse and some scrolling with the wheel, the beauty of the creating tool as each drag and drop can produce something exotic or complex within seconds.
There are some instances of texture clipping but given how much you can screw around with the system it’s amazing how each body part clips on and starts working independently. Traversing the landscape isn’t visually stunning but does exactly what you’d expect. There are no seams to find in the environment and everything looks and feels as it should, with lush vegetation forming as your creature evolves through each stage. A nice feature is seeing where the sun is currently shining on your planet on the mini-map when playing Civilisation, giving you the impression that the entire world is rotating as you play. The space age is really something and well worth the effort to progress towards, because you fight to gain control of entire solar systems and can terra-form and colonise other planets as you bid to move your species towards the centre of the galaxy.
Spore is the perfect example of a very interesting idea that takes a step back every time it advances forward. The chronic lack of depth in the middle stages is an injustice to a brilliant start and finish which should have been the crowning moments but instead serve only to hold the game up above water. It would be easy to dissect Spore as a series of mini-games worthy of individual release on Xbox Live, but you’re taken on a journey that only you can tamper with, and that’s where Spore’s credit lies. The customisation element is a feature that the developers are considering selling as a platform for making future videogames, and with the ease seen here it’s no wonder why. More time spent fleshing out what should have been the real meat of this title would have seen its praises sung from every rooftop, but alas, it’s as if the developers simply ran out of DNA points. Nature is a fickle bitch.