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.