- Title: Spore
- Developer: Maxis
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- System: Windows / OS X
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 4/5
The game has five stages: Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization, and Space. It's best to think of the first four as mini-games, or as a four-part prologue. Each has its interesting and fun parts, as well as varying degrees of replayability, but the time each of them occupies (from a gameplay perspective) is dwarfed by the amount of time you can spend in the Space age. You can also spend a great deal more time playing around with the content creation system (and you will), but the main plot itself is fairly short in those stages. If you're going in with the expectation of playing around in the Cell stage for hours and hours, you're probably going to be disappointed — but that's not to say it isn't fun. I think each of the stages are appropriately paced for what they involve.
You start out as a cell, hitching a ride on a meteorite that delivers you into a planet's primordial soup. From there you wander around finding morsels of food and other critters who will compete with you for it. The way in which you go about that is up to you. You'll gain access to attributes you can use to customize your microbe, all of which have a "DNA budget." You can make a very efficient killing machine to keep your competitors away from your food, or you can simply make a very efficient eating machine. The editor that allows you to add and remove these attributes also lets you change the size, shape, and coloring of your microbe. It's a combination of very simple components, but the interactions between microbes allow for some cute moments. You'll occasionally run into a big piece of plant life that's swarming with herbivores, and the herbivores will attract a ton of carnivores, making for a frenetic scene of feeding and fighting. You can make your species into what is essentially a tail and a mouth, and have fun zipping around and stealing food out from under fat, slow enemies. You might even see a copy of yourself beating up some bug with way too many mouths. One of the coolest parts about this stage is the background visuals. The focus is on your microbe swimming through the water, but underneath you can see that you're swimming by larger pieces of debris and more advanced life-forms. As you feed, you'll grow into these background layers, so the huge, blurry, tentacled abomination you swam by a minute ago might now be trying to kill you.
Another thing you'll notice is that referring to your species' growth as evolution isn't really accurate. "Stylized evolution" or "not evolution" would have been more precise, so don't go in expecting it to hold up to scrutiny from PZ Myers. It's a decent metaphor for modifying your species, however. The editor is versatile and completely forgiving. Did you put that spike in a useless place for stabbing rival microbes? No worries, you can move it anywhere. Or remove it for a full DNA refund. This may bug you if you want every decision to matter, but as I said earlier, the first four stages are more about setting the table for Space colonization. Also, some decisions do matter. The way in which you interact with the environment determines your initial disposition in the Creature stage. Between stages, you're given a detailed history of your character, including physical revisions and eating habits. Carnivores start the Creature stage with an intimidating roar, while herbivores get a soothing song. Between stages you'll get to see cut scenes; they're short, but they all managed to make me smile. On a related note, I've got to give credit to Maxis for making the most interesting loading screens I've ever waited through. Instead of a progress bar, a series of cards gradually appears at the bottom of the screen. On each card is a different species (or other creation), some of which were made by other players. It's fun to see what they've come up with.
Going into the Creature phase, your microbe is given a set of legs. Your attributes from the Cell stage are mostly useless, and you'll have a chance to completely change how your species looks. You get a nest and a group of compatriots, and you're soon off to seek out new life and new civilizations (and food.) Other species are nearby and easy to find. There are two stances in which you can approach them; social or combat. If you started out as a herbivore, it'll be a bit easier to remain so, but it's not too difficult to change your mind. As you find other species, you're given quests based on the stance you choose. Kill them or impress them. Should you choose to kill them, you mash the attacks available to you until one they die or you do. To impress them, you get their attention and then mimic whatever they do. You'll get some friendly abilities — dance, pose, charm, and sing, each of which has its own animation — and you simply repeat the other species' actions. If they like you enough, they'll ally with you, which progresses you through the stage and allows you to venture out with a group rather than an individual. As you ally with or destroy other species, you gain access to new and more powerful bits of biology — a bigger claw, quicker feet, wings, etc. There's a much greater selection in this phase than in Cell, and it's worth collecting as many as you can. You also get a few cosmetic options. When you exit this stage, your species' physical form does not change for the rest of the game, so make sure you've got what you want. If you go the combat route, you may be annoyed trying to hunt down species that are faster, flightier, or more nervous than you. There were times that I ran so far away to catch Lobstermonkey #4 that I got lost and couldn't find my way back to the nest to kill Lobstermonkey #5 and complete the quest. And this brings me to a gripe...
...The controls. The key-bindings for Spore are fairly simple. They increase a little bit in complexity with each stage, but even the Space controls are straightforward. The trouble is that they aren't alterable, and they aren't what I would pick. They aren't bad choices, and you can do just about everything with the mouse, but if you're the type of player who rebinds WADS to ESDF in every game, or if you like an inverted mouse, or the ability to strafe, it will bother you.
The Tribal stage turns Spore into a miniature RTS game. You won't find Starcraft-level depth or gameplay, but if you've ever played another RTS game, your goals will be intuitively obvious. Your abilities from the Creature stage don't matter anymore, so you're free to design for looks alone. Wandering bands of non-sentient creatures still exist, but they're mainly just food (or pets if you're a herbivore). In addition, though, there are other tribes that you must conquer. You gather resources, pump out peasants, and put up buildings. Rather than creating tribe members for a specific job, you use the buildings to give them a particular task, and you can switch their task at any time. Want this guy to fight? Send him to the axe shop. Need him to impress another tribe instead? Trade in that axe for a horn. Or a Shaman rod to heal others. The focus in this stage is mostly on resource gathering; unfortunately, you have to send tribesmen out each time you want them to kill something, rather than setting them to harvest and forgetting about them. The gathering gets somewhat tedious, but the Tribal stage, like the ones before it, isn't too long. It's fairly easy to win over or beat down your enemies, just keep an eye on your raiding parties around hills. They sometimes get stuck. The AI isn't too hot, but enemies will try to take out your chieftain if they can. The editor in this stage is also less complex. Your species form is set, but you get a variety of hats, clothes, and accessories to outfit your tribe. Not as much room for creativity as in the Creature editor, but there are still myriad ways to customize.
When you reach the Civilization stage, you'll encounter a host of new creation and design tools. You'll be asked to design a city hall, a house, an entertainment facility, and a factory, as well as land, air, and water vehicles. If that sounds a bit overwhelming ... it is. At the start of the stage, I spent perhaps an hour tooling around with designs for a city hall and a land vehicle. You don't need to design the others until you build them, but it doesn't take long for that need to arise. Now, don't get me wrong; designing things is one of the best parts about this game. But after a certain amount of time you'll probably just want to get back to the actual game. Fortunately, there's the Sporepedia, which includes hundreds upon hundreds of designs from Maxis and from other players. Some of them are just phenomenal, and I'm sure the selection will only get better as time passes. Expect to see things out of sci-fi and other games. Expect to see anything Maxis doesn't specifically remove, really. Pick whichever constructions you want out of the Sporepedia to fill out the things you don't want to design, and you're ready to fight for control of the planet. Don't waste your time with the anthem composer. It sucks.
Civilization stage is like another, slightly different RTS. The focus is gone from resource gathering; you point a vehicle at a "spice geyser" and forget about it — once a mine gets built, you even get the vehicle back. It's more focused on vehicle tactics and managing your cities. Other civilizations pop up throughout the world (which is an actual globe now), and you try your best to cajole, scare, or apesmash them into seeing your point of view. You can set yourself up as a religious society to convert the populace of other cities. This stage, like the tribal stage, is straightforward and easy, but entertaining. Your species' history continues to fill out, setting your early disposition for the next stage. Before you think about bumping the difficulty setting up to "high," though, you'll want to give thought to how it will affect the Space stage, since that's where you'll spend most of your time. It has a bit more to throw at you.
Getting to the Space stage is reaching the real meat of the game. You'll be given some starter quests and tutorials to teach you how everything works. Pay attention to them, or you'll regret it later. Really. This stage plays like another RTS, yet is completely different from the previous ones. It isn't about pumping out units to stomp your enemies; you're limited to just one ship to start. As you get promoted, you can add more to your fleet, but not very many. Your colonies will harvest spice for you to sell. How much depends on how well the planet is terraformed. Terraforming a planet is somewhat complicated to learn, but it lets you set up a good financial base, which makes dealing with aliens much, much easier. And believe me, you'll deal with them a lot. Regardless of the way in which you interacted with your foes in previous stages, I'd recommend playing nice at least for the first few encounters of the Space stage. You can run some simple quests for other races to increase your standing with them. You can also bribe them. Once you're in their good graces, you can establish trade routes and alliances, which are much better than the alternative. When you run into a hostile society, you'll see what I mean. They like to raid your planets. A lot. They also like to raid your friends' planets. And your friends will occasionally have crises they need you to deal with. The demands on your attention range from "keeping you busy" to "driving you to distraction." This stage could really use a Leave-Me-Alone slider in addition to the difficulty setting, although cheat codes can accomplish that now. But, if you start out surrounded by friends, it's a lot easier to find time for developing your empire. Again, terraforming is important to learn. It's also the basis for creating custom planets. You get a variety of tools to alter the atmosphere and temperature, and you can bring in flora and fauna to make it more prosperous. But you also get devices that will shape, sculpt, and color the planet to look however you want. Once again, Maxis has provided a huge sandbox to play in. You can control the look and feel of literally hundreds of thousands of star systems.
The combat system is simple, but a bit clunky. Some of your weapons require Diablo-style button clicking, which can be a problem if there are a ton of ships flying around. Battles tend to be lopsided, but the more often you fight, the better weapons you'll have access to. Enemy ships will occasionally beat a hasty retreat when low on health, then stop, heal to full, and turn on you. It doesn't usually change the tide of a battle, but it can be annoying to track them down and finish them off. Other aspects of the game give you more tools the more you participate as well, which is why Spore is so open-ended. Don't want to run around blowing up enemy ships and cities all the time? Do a bunch of terraforming, get good at it, and then cause an enemy homeworld to turn into a burning, hazardous rock incapable of supporting life. Want to explore the galaxy or collect rare artifacts? Feel free, just watch out for the mysterious and powerful Grox. Make sure your borders are secure before straying too far, though, or enemies will pick your empire apart. The Space stage will keep you occupied as long as you're still entertained by it. Building an empire is a job with no end.
Spore isn't about deep, innovative gameplay. If you're looking for a next-generation RTS, look elsewhere. None of the stages, individually, would hold up in today's game market. But all of them combined, in addition to the almost limitless capacity for creativity, make Spore into a good game that will only get better with time and participation. The low learning curve and the ease with which you can pick a point in the game and find something to play around with makes it very appealing to the casual gaming market, while still offering a ton of achievements and ways to squeeze out every last bit of efficiency for the hardcore gamers. Despite the DRM fiasco, it's definitely worth picking up.