Spore: Darwinism Rocks!

September 12, 2008

Will Wright’s evolutionary opus, Spore, has spent a long time in incubation. It started out as a grandiose project that was eventually pared down, but the day has finally come for it to pollinate the masses. Spore’s quirky take on Darwinism seems like a sure fit for anyone with a mind for creativity, but is that enough to make it a natural selection?

It may have descended from the same family tree, but The Sims Spore ain’t. Spore seeds you with the task of raising your own species across five evolutionary phases with the eventual goal of blasting off into space. The path to the cosmos doesn’t run in a straight line; every step you take bears consequences that ripple down the ages, so expect some twists and turns down in the road to enlightenment.

Spore makes you ponder the effects of your actions early on by charging you with a loaded question: herbivore or carnivore. More than just a simple diet choice, what you pick inevitably shapes the outcome of your species later down the line. Nibbling on leafy greens will steer you down the path of pacifists while snacking on your neighbor will set you down the road of the aggressor. Once you embark on a certain lifestyle you’ll most likely stay the course, though you can always tempt fate by switching things up or even playing moderately between both extremes.

The moral spectrum could use a few more shades of gray, but the amount of thought leading to each of these behaviors carries a surprising amount of depth. The decisions that you make from phase to phase have a perceptible gravity to them that’ll make you wonder what could have been if you hadn’t devoured that tribe of potato-like critters.

When it comes to actually building these creatures, you’ll find a zoology textbook’s worth of animal snouts, eyes, ears, appendages, and hides to build with. For the most part, creativity is king, but strategic limb selection and placement also plays its part earlier in the game where things having big claws and big wings help out in a pinch.

Once your species learns the joys of nuclear fusion, however, appearance has more to do with looks than anything else, which is perfectly fine. Lest we forget, Spore is all about creating wacky life forms from the ground-up, and the in-game creature editor is fantastic at what it does. A simple-to-use interface and a wide stock of creature parts give it the child-like accessibility of Play-Doh while the smartly-designed animation algorithms bring some life and sophistication to your Frankenstein.

If you grow tired of your own personal menagerie, the Sporepedia links you to the internet’s vast petting zoo of user-created content, as well as acting as a personal hub for you to track your own creatures’ growth and achievements throughout the eons. As the only true online component of the game, the Sporepedia uploads your completed creatures to random player worlds online where it can either run amok or make friends depending on the behavior it was assigned.

While the idea of sharing is a good one, Spore’s online features serve more as a one-way mirror. How incredible would it have been to raise and army of creatures and then battle another player in a real-time strategy environment? While it doesn’t necessarily tarnish Spore’s goals of being a massively single-player offline game, it’s still a little disappointing.

Another thing that will undoubtedly disappoint is the game’s length. Despite having five different phases and gameplay styles to work through, the game can be completely conquered in well under 10 hours.

Playing god is no easy task, but thankfully Spore breaks it up into five easy steps.

You start off in the cell phase, a preliminary Flow-like jaunt in your planet’s primordial soup. Once you’ve grown big and bad enough to wash up on dry land, the game enters the MMO-like creature phase, which has you racking up parts and DNA points through simplified quests like befriending neighboring creatures.

Once you’ve discovered the gift of Promethean fire, the game enters the tribal phase, which sets you off on an RTS-flavored journey to understand the newly discovered instruments at your side. From there your tribe burgeons into a full-on civilization, which plays a lot like the franchise of the same name.

Constructing buildings, leveraging treaties, and waging war are now all tools at your disposal, and with all the advances made in technology it’s only a matter of time before the galactic reaches of the cosmos open up to you in the space phase—the final sandbox element of the game. It’ll be up to you to visit other planets to document new life, terraform continents, or give it the Alderan treatment with a swift blast from your death ray.

The various phases in Spore do a good job at aping the genres they’re meant to follow, but the experience is largely uneven and shallow. The cell phase is quaint, but all too brief, while the immensely involving creature phase almost completely eclipses the cumbersome pace of the tribal phase. The civilization phase brings things up back to snuff, while the space phase takes things slow into an endgame crawl.

The overall pacing of the game is pretty brisk compared to most, and exploring other creature behaviors and achievements can be interesting. But ultimately, the longevity of Spore hinges on the user’s disposition for creating, sharing, and trading.

While hardcore players will find it shallow, Spore is an excellent gateway game. It has a number of play styles, but most of them only scratch the surface of their particular genres. Though it may seem complex, it’s incredibly user friendly--falling in line with Will Wright’s prior games.

Small presentation details shine in Spore, and it’s chock full of them. Subtle cel-shaded accents to Brian Eno’s procedurally-generated creature themes—are keen additions. We can’t think of anyone better to handle the music.

And creation, as it turns out, doesn’t just end with creature crafting. You can play tunesmith and compose your creature’s national anthem, or post videos of your monsters straight to YouTube. How smoothly each creature locomotes and animates based upon where its parts are placed is probably its most impressive visual achievement, and it’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into how Spore looks and sounds.

Spore will leave you in a state of wide-eyed wonderment one minute, and disappointed the next. The limited online interaction and surprisingly short campaign make it easy to think about what could have been. The fact is, there’s no other game like it, and a lot of things that will be hated by some, will be just as liked by others. No matter which camp you fall into, Spore’s adventure into the unknown is a voyage worth taking.