Review: Spore – Child’s Play

Spore. Eight years in development. Three years of hype. It’s a shame it doesn’t live up to either. This game was created by Maxis, the same people that brought us The SIMS – and looking back further in history, SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife, SimFarm, SimHealth, … I’m still waiting for SimKitchenSink. They have a long history of simulations, and I can’t judge them on the quality of Spore in that realm. But, I played SimEarth, SimCity, and The Sims, and I remember there being a lot more to those.

I have to say, Spore’s a great little sandbox of creativity, in the right hands. But, for the majority of people out there, Spore will be nothing more than a casual game – in the same world as flash game time wasters and Xbox Live arcade games – neither of which comes with a $60 price tag. The graphics are admittedly impressive, the music is good and moody, and the creatures are downright outlandish. But the mechanics left me wondering when the game would get interesting, or more involved. Even when I reached the supposed “endgame”.

You begin Spore as a single celled organism, “collecting” (eating other cells) “money” (DNA), in order to evolve (by mating with another cell like you – apparently, Maxis never heard of binary fission). During evolution, you buy parts you’ve found, and place them on your cell, for improvements. Once you’ve collected enough money to get really big, you move on to Phase Two.

Look ma, I got legs!

Look ma, I got legs!

Now, your cellular organism miraculously becomes multicellular, by slapping on a pair of legs, and crawling out of the water. I guess you just get to be one REALLY BIG cell. With a mouth. Thus begins the second phase of the game, where you “collect” (eating other creatures) “money” (DNA), in order to evolve (mating with another creature like you – either you’re female, or everybody’s a hermaphrodite in this game). During evolution, you buy parts you’ve found, and place them on your creature, for improvements. Sound familiar? Yeah, me neither.

There are a couple of new mechanics during the creature phase – they just aren’t enough to change the feel of the game. If you want, you can sing, dance, and pose your way into other creature’s good graces, instead of eating them. I guess they give you DNA in a nice, gift-wrapped package, or something. But don’t expect a vastly different experience – it’s basically combat, without the blood, and no penalties for failure (a.k.a. kiddy mode).

Also, now you can add arms, legs, wings, and decorative things like nipples & bellybuttons during evolution. But, don’t bother wasting the DNA on a quadroped, or giving your creature more than one pair of arms. Bonuses aren’t cumulative, even across different types of body parts. So bipeds are just as fast as quadropeds, and that eight armed Ganesha avatar you made can still only pick up one stick off the ground at a time. And he can still do nothing with said stick but throw it at other creatures – friend OR foe.

This only continues through the tribal & civilization phases, with some slight variations, and additions to the system. Tribes, you collect food to build your tribe’s village, but your goal is still to kill or befriend the other tribes, in order to collect enough totem pieces to move on to the civilizations. During the civilization phase, you collect spice to control the univer– I mean, build up your city, and build vehicles to move about… but your goal is still to kill, befriend – or now, buy – the other cities in the world, to move on to the galactic phase. This game is really just about increasing the scale of the same gather, spend, rinse, repeat mechanic over the course of a playthrough. I have not had a chance to play the galactic phase enough to know if it’s a break from the pattern – but after 8 hours of game play, does it really matter?

On the other hand, there is the fantastic realm for creativity this game offers. The sheer control you have over your cell, creature, tribe, civilization, and spaceship’s appearance and abilities is impressive. I haven’t seen many other games achieve such a fertile ground for creative minds. And who is more creative than little kids? A four year old’s imagination is nothing to scoff at, and if you put one in front of Spore, there’s no telling what kinds of things he’ll dream up. So, I don’t really think this game is for adult or hardcore gamers (for all of you, I’d suggest good old Civilization). But, as a good friend of mine said, “My four year old loves it.”

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