Spore is a hard game to review, there are people who sit on the one side of the fence and claim it's the greatest game ever to grace the PC and there are people on the other side of the fence armed with pitchforks, shotguns, barbed wire covered baseball bats and knives who declare that it's probably the worst let-down that they've experienced since they discovered that the game wouldn't be a cross between Populous and Sim City.
Spore is Will Wright's seminal god game that promises sandbox fun in an endless ever-changing player-content driven universe. Which it does, it actually lives up to that part of the hype. You take control of a creature from the cell stage all the way through to the space exploration stage, passing from one stage to the other in quick succession punctuated by a history screen that tells you via the use of a chart, how well, or how badly you did in the previous stage of your evolution.
The problem with Spore is that it feels like several separate games tacked on with a flimsy genetic path, and some additional superpowers to make your life interesting as you evolve your creature through the various stages. You begin life as a cell, a cell that can eat red (meat) or green (vegetable matter) blobs (you can go down an omnivorous path). You must fill your DNA bar to grow and progress, whilst competing with more aggressive cells and ruthlessly (if you want) devouring anything that gets in your way. The more DNA you fill the more you can modify your cell, pick up parts found in broken meteor shards or by killing other organisms and you can add new bits to your creation.
Enter the creature creator (by mating with another cell of your creature type) and you can spend your points to upgrade, make yourself faster, give yourself a poison attack, electrical attack and so on. The more you upgrade the easier life becomes and your creature will eventually evolve enough to make it to land. This is where you enter the creature stage, just slap on a pair of legs and you're away onto terra firma...where you can do several things.
You can hunt around for creature parts to add to your creation, which means that if you want to survive you'll probably add the most aggressive parts that you can scavenge. You can wipe out the other creatures by hunting them, you can make friends with little mini-games depending on the creature parts you have equipped that allow you to sing or dance and so on. You can pursue an aggressive warlike path or a serene peaceful path, knowing that there will be creatures out there that just want to hurt you and other creatures on the planet.
As you beat down or make friends with the other creatures, you'll gain more DNA and intelligence. Eventually you'll be able to win new parts, find new parts and generally add new parts to your creature to give it a unique appearance. Except that doesn't quite work if you want to survive the creature stage with your own unique little monster. Bear with me a moment as I explain this rationale.
Why bother making changes to your little monster in the editor, when you need to add a specific mouth to get the best level of sing, or a specific set of feet to give you the best level of running/sprinting. Upgrades shouldn't be tied to a set of parts; they should be set apart from those things. So you could have a carnivore's mouth that looks cool and add to that the ability to sing. Rather than having to add some part that doesn't look as good and ties your creature down to a specific kind of look to get the ability that you need to survive.
That is my overall biggest gripe with the game as it stands, it's not about player choice, it's about min-maxing your monster so that it can actually stand a chance against the other creations that populate the game. Either designed by Maxis or designed by another player and populated into your world.
Regardless of your evolutionary path, the parts that you add, you're going to end up hitting the tribal stage next and it's here where the game becomes a cut-down RTS for a while. You can gather food for your tribe, add tribe members and buy new buildings at your town hut. There are other tribes who will come to steal your food or bring you offerings depending on their attitude in the world. I found the easiest way to win this particular segment of the game was to send out a few of my members on food scavenges, whilst I went around and either smashed the other tribes into oblivion or befriended them by playing instruments in a band.
It required a little bit of fiddling but in the end I was able to create a tribe that was the equivalent of Adolf Hitler crossed with John Williams.
For all my peaceful (mostly) tendencies, the game decided at the end of this stage that I would be a religious zealot and that I preferred to convert my enemies with music, dance and song rather than by putting a gun to their head and demanding they hand over their muskelberry crops (note: these berries are fictitious).
Then it was time for the Civilization stage, where the game became even more like an RTS. The aim is to conquer all of the other cities across the globe, by fair means or foul. Trade, war, conversion, and those kinds of things you know. As religious zealots, the empire I had designed wasted no time amassing enough money (through spice mining) to build huge armadas of air, land and sea vehicles, stack them with religious propaganda and convert numerous cities to the cause. You can design your own buildings and vehicles using the game's incredibly versatile editor, which I only touch upon here since the review would be massive otherwise. Paint them, procedurally - which is impressive enough. It's not a terribly complex mode and it's easy enough to figure out how to play. If you want to wage war, then you can attack other cities and the game will decide that you're a warmonger and give you special abilities based on your style.
Finally when the planet bowed down to me as supreme overlord power, I was able to build/design and paint a starship. This was the mythical final stage, the stage that I had been waiting for!
You have a fully functional space ship; it's capable of abducting flora and fauna. It can pick up new tools that allow you to terraform the worlds that you visit, either artistically or to stabilize the terra-score of that world, making it so you can foster new life and seed the planet. You can trade with alien civilizations and rescue them from biological disasters against the background of thousands upon thousands of stars. You're able to explore at your leisure, or are you? No, because the universe is a whiny child that needs constant babysitting. After a while you'll have no peace because the pirates are constantly attacking your home colonies, there's an evil alien race bent on destruction and a virus is sweeping across another planet you couldn't care two hoots about. No sooner than you've gone a star or two away, you're back home again defending against some disaster or another. So the explorative nature of the space game turns to one of frustration.
Spore is a gorgeous game with a cartoon life like no other; it has a fantastic set of editors that allow you to make some supremely inspired creations. The sound effects are superb and the music (which is procedural as well) has an ethereal and out of this world nature to it. Yet it is let down by several design oversights, the very nature of the player driven content should provide your universe with some truly awesome creatures, yet for them to stand any kind of chance they have to support numerous stock parts that make a lot of them appear generic. The stage transitions between the cell, creature, tribal, civilization and space segments of the game are pretty jarring. Though the creature->tribal stage is amusing the first time you see it.
It is more a universal sandbox than a game, and if you look at Spore as one big executive toy then you're on the right track. As a game it's a collection of mini games bound into one package, as a simulation of life, it's getting there...as a toy, it's right up there with having your own lego set and making vignettes about life on Mars. If you can accept the game like this, then you should be able to find hours of amusement and enjoyment in the title.
If you're looking for the next Sim City meets the Sims, then you're going to be waiting for a long, long time.
Oh and don't get me started about the DRM for Spore, that's a whole different article however and I promised myself that I wouldn't rant about it in the review. If you want to find out more, just google Spore and DRM to see the hot water EA and Maxis are in with the game community over that one.