Written by  :  Kit Simmons (267)
Written on  :  Dec 30, 2008
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars

9 out of 10 people found this review helpful

write a review of this game
read more reviews by Kit Simmons
read more reviews for this game


The Power of 5

The Good

When asked about his inspirations for Spore by German game review magazine GameStar, Will Wright listed the short film "Power of 10", an impressive zoom out of a picnic scene to a distance of ten million light years and back to a magnification of 0.00001 ångström. Current evolution theories and their alleged imprint on the game concept aside, the scale concept behind "Power of 10" perhaps describes Spore's core game idea best.

Stretching over five game phases, players of Spore influence an entire species' development from single cell organism to a galactic civilization. Not only does Spore roughly chronicle the mechanisms which modern science assumes cause the evolution of life, it also plays like a light-hearted ramble through the history and evolution of computer games.

Starting in single cell phase, Spore reduces the game to the simplest of conflicts: eat or be eaten. An arcade experience à la Pac-Man, another core game element that is introduced in this early stage is the customization of the organism using the game's amazingly flexible and easy to use 3D anatomy editor. Customization grants the organism advantages like enhanced speed, strength or manoeuvrability but must be paid for by spending DNA points which in turn are amassed by ingesting the life form's chosen diet. As soon as the life form grows to a certain size and has to leave its original habitat, the primordial soup, the palette of available body parts with which the organism can be outfitted is enhanced. While the newly-born land organisms goal of survival remains the same, means to this end become a little more complex as social interaction and more sophisticated defence and hunting mechanisms become available. Although players still control an individual organism, the game's Creature Phase plays like an action-RPG. The game's third phase, Tribal, finally sacrifices control over an individual organism, turning into a real-time strategy game. Spore now makes players mobilise an entire community to gather resources and defeat or assimilate competing life forms' tribes. As Spore enters Civilization phase and treats players to a severely simplified version of the eponymous series of strategy games, the conflict becomes cultural rather than interracial - having conquered their habitat, creatures now fight among themselves for living space and resources. Space Stage, the game's final phase, opens up the whole galaxy to players and broadens their view of all preceding phases. From a life form's humble beginnings as a cell to their physical development during Creature Stage, social achievements during Tribal Stage and cultural evolution during Civilization Stage, Space Stage allows the life form to finally realise the larger scope of the universe it lives in and use its knowledge to shape the destiny of creatures less advanced. It is also during Space Stage that Spore as a game makes the possibilities of its in-built online community fully available, automatically loading other players' creations into the game.

The heart and soul of Spore is its editor, granting players an unprecedented level of customisation in a game. The technical achievement is truly remarkable because design elements and animation work together as flexibly as in no other game before it. Spore still manages to maintain its own style of presentation, a strangely perfect balance of customisability and character.

The Bad

Spore is a casual game in all respects as neither its complexity nor its purported "scientific-ness" are as deep as its creators like to believe. Although basic scientific theories and mechanisms are illustrated, those aspects remain, while not shallow, crude: DNA, the basic building blocks of life, gets reduced to a currency and a life form's failure doesn't set its evolution back or jeopardise its survival in a way illustrating natural selection. The game glosses over the more complex aspects of evolution like heredity, mutation and the concept of survival of the fittest as the environment doesn't seriously endanger the players' achievements. Failure is just a minor setback and doesn't cause players to rethink their creature concepts.

Like with most Will Wright games a certain educational value can't be denied, yet beyond the fascination of laying hands on processes which in real life take billions of years to develop, Spore doesn't offer anything enlightening to those who know their basic biology. Although the game's all-text, built-in Sporepedia goes to great lengths to explain game mechanics it fails to establish a factual relationship to real-life scientific discoveries, something that made the Civilization games and their Civilopedias worthy additions to their immersive strategic experience.

While fun is to be had during all game phases, some offer more possibilities than others. Cell Stage plays like an amusing little gimmick, a Pac-Man clone which draws ironic parallels between the simplicity of early life and early computer games. Creature stage offers players a wealth of tools to customise their creatures and the look of their game, but it is here that Spore sacrifices too much potential for scientific education in favour of playability. Tribal Stage is perhaps the least creative stage as customising the creature tribe's look doesn't significantly change strategies. Space Stage, while seeming immense in scope and possibilities, suffers from repetition and slight balance issues. It is literally a single player against a strangely unresponsive universe as Spore, true to its casual game philosophy, shies from competitive online-play. The most other players can do is offer copies of their own creations to populate other people's custom universes, forfeiting their control over them to the CPU.

The Bottom Line

Less of a scientific toy, Spore is an experience in sheer scope. Crude as its game mechanics may be, all stages build upon each other and the game's strong creative component achieves a sense of individuality few other games have. Its simple and repetitive themes stand in stark contrast, yet for all its ambition Spore wants to be a game that can be casually played. Thanks to its accessibility it has more long-time replay value than more specific and complex games but pays for it with the strong appeal more complex themes and concepts often create.