You know the deal: for the past two years we’ve all been eagerly awaiting a game poised to change everything we knew about videogames and technology. A game that, through use of procedural generation and multilayered, cross-genre gameplay, would keep us coming back for years and years after the initial purchase.
That game, of course, was Spore.
I don’t really need to say anything more than that to introduce the review, so just click the damn “read more” button and find out what I thought of the game.
Just as a warning: it’s going to be longer than most individual Destructoid reviews. Given the fact that I’m basically going to be reviewing each of the five individual game stages, and then the experience as a cohesive whole, it will take up a little more space than usual.
[Picture and Crocobird creatures by Ashley Davis.]
Developed by Maxis
Published by EA
Released on Sept 7, 2008(US)
There are echoes of the Spore we all expected and wanted strewn throughout the game I am now reviewing. You can see the scope and epic majesty of what we assumed it would be, you can catch fleeting glimpses of it spread throughout the game’s five stages. Yet at the end of the day, Spore is nowhere near as deep or interesting as it could have been.
Let’s take each of the five game stages individually.
The cell phase is basically flOw, if flOw had RPG elements. As you swim around in the primordial ooze, your adorable amoeba character can either eat plants or meat in order to buy DNA points and upgrade certain abilities. Though it’s the most intentionally simplistic stage of the game, it’s actually quite satisfying: it introduces the player to the creature editing mechanics, and is of a perfect length. By the time I was just about getting tired of adding more spikes and flagella onto my creature, the cell stage thankfully ended. Generally, things were off to a good start.
The next phase, Creature, initially appears to be wonderfully deep: with numerous character upgrades to be had, new species to meet, and a whole planet to explore, I initially felt like I could happily spend several hours just running around, befriending new species and exploring the world with my little herbivore creature (I named him “Burfday,” for reasons I don’t care to go into).
The depth proved to be rather deceptive, however. Though the player is given nearly infinite freedom in designing their creature, that’s really the only significant freedom afforded throughout the section. You can either kill or befriend creatures in order to get their DNA, but that’s about it.
The actual combat and friendship mechanics are also very simplistic; as I chose to make Burfday a pacifist, I was disappointed to find that the process of making friends simply comes down to quickly repeating the actions of another species until they like you. If a bird-thingy sings, you sing. If they dance, you dance, and eventually they are won over. It’s satisfying for a little while, driven mainly by the sheer fun of modifying my creature but I was happy to move onto the next phase, Tribe.
Upon first entering Tribe, I was somewhat surprised to find that I would never be able to evolve my creature again. Burfday was stuck with his existing skills and appearance (though I did get to add a top hat later on) for the rest of the game, but I did not worry. No matter, I thought; if they’re taking away my ability to evolve, it must be because the rest of the Tribe and Civ gameplay is so incredibly deep.
Quite disappointingly, the Tribe and Civilization phases actually end up being the most dull and simplistic. It’s almost not worth differentiating the two, simply because both phases only require one strategy for victory: overwhelm the enemy. Whether you’re out to conquer other tribes in Tribe or other nations in Civilization, the gameplay never gets more complicated than, “get a lot of units, and go rush the other guys.” In Tribe, peaceful negotiation is accomplished through an absurd (and by this point, redundant) instrument-centric version of the Creature friendmaking mechanic; rather than dancing in place when the opposing creature tells you to, now you’re blowing horns and shaking maracas. Why bother?
Still, the dull repetitiveness of the peacemaking mechanics in Tribe are completely overshadowed by the sheer ridiculousness of how Spore defines “peace” in the Civilization phase. If you want to conquer other cities through force, you simply send military vehicles to bomb the areas into oblivion. If you want to buy them out, you establish trade routes and then wait three hours for them to offer a deal.
If you want to peacefully overtake them, you send goddamn religion units to their cities and bombard them with musical notes, slowly but surely wearing them down until they eventually convert. Even ignoring the ludicrousness of suggesting that religion is somehow the opposite of war, the actual differences in peaceful and warlike gameplay are purely aesthetic — there’s no inherent difference between firing a bomb at someone and firing a literal beam of religious music at a machine gun turret.
The middle two phases are boring, repetitive, and almost entirely devoid of any freedom. The goals are easy to achieve through simply brute force, and the mechanics are almost completely devoid of nuance. I must admit to feeling something akin to maternal love as I saw my humble Burfdays evolve from little amoeba into proud diplomats and warriors, but this was borne more out of my attachment to my own creation than the actual game mechanics being offered me.
This makes it all the more shocking that the final phase, Space, is so brilliantly nonlinear in almost every conceivable way. Not since Sid Meier’s Pirates! have I played an exploration game which so cleverly balances accessibility, freedom, and strategy as the Space section. Compared with the breathtakingly simple Tribe and Civ stages, the Space phase almost feels like it’s from an entirely different game.
Not only does the player get to choose his or her own goals, but each individual goal has at least three distinctly separate and satisfying methods of reaching it. In order to level up your spaceship and unlock new tools, the player must earn badges. You can get badges for damn near everything, from terraforming to waging war to completing missions to plain ol’ exploration — there’s a dozen different things to do in the Space phase at any given time, and the game wisely rewards any and every path the player could conceivably take. The player will spend at least 500% more time with the Space age than all the others put together: that’s how deep it is by comparison.
Though the spaceship controls are stiff and imprecise and combat is a chore, each of the different methods of conquest are uniquely satisfying. If you’re really into taking over civilizations by brute force, then you can basically turn the galaxy into one big Star Wars prequel; if you’re more interested in taking things slowly and methodically, as I did, then the process of terraforming will provide a wholly unusual sense of satisfaction. It’s truly something to borrow plants and animals from different life-sustaining planets and beam them down to your new ecosystem after spending dozens of minutes to make sure the atmosphere is juuuuust right: it’s a lot of hard work just to make a planet suitable for mining colonies, but it’s a very zenlike sort of endeavor. Even when I wasn’t terraforming, though, I was having a hell ot a lot of fun exploring and weighing my options and trying new things.
That said, the Space interface isn’t as friendly as it should be. For some reason, merchants only carry one of any given item you could want to buy en masse, so you’ll find yourself careening around the galaxy just to find another few colonization packs. Additionally, it’s much more tedious to collect and sell spice (the sole trade good, and the main reason you’ll be conquering and terraforming other planets) than it oughtta be: you’ve gotta fly to every individual planet with a spice mine on it, collect the spice, then fly around randomly until finding a merchant who will buy it at a reasonable price. You then have to fly around aimlessly for a few minutes as your colonies mine more spice, then fly back, land on each individual planet, and repeat the whole process again. It got very, very tedious near the end of my time in the Space phase, and I couldn’t help but wonder why the spice wasn’t being sent to me automatically.
Though we were all looking forward to combing the galaxy for new user-created species and buildings, there’s so much other crap to do in the Space phase that finding your friends’ poorly-rendered sex organ monsters probably won’t be a high priority. None of the AI-controlled, user-designed species operate in terribly interesting ways (with the exception of the Maxis-designed, generically evil Grox creatures, species are either defensively militaristic or totally peaceful), and it’s just too much damn trouble to fly around looking for neat user-created content when you could just as easily look up the coolest stuff online. It was kind of nice to have the Sporepedia constantly remind me when I saw something new, but I never found any legitimate gameplay-related reason to ever look at it. The Space phase never really ends, so I just stopped playing after meeting a sufficient amount of user-created species and finding the Great Big Not-That-Important Secret in the middle of the galaxy.
So what was I left with, having completed the Space age? What was the sum total of creating an entirely new species from scratch and taking them all the way from the primordial ooze into the vast reaches of the universe?
Oddly enough, I felt good. I felt satisfied. Though I had to begrudgingly slog my way through the last few promotion levels in the Space age, and though the Tribal and Civilization stages were laughably dull, it just felt cool to have been with my little Burfday species from inception to completion. Looking back on my time with each individual stage I have almost nothing but memories of frustration, yet the overall goal of continually evolving my characters — that high concept that drew us all in in the first place — is just barely present through all the uninspired, linear gameplay that plagues so much of the title.
I can’t comment on the DRM issues as I only installed it on one computer and had no immediately recognizable hassles, but I will say that my game crashed at least twice during the Space phase. The second time, I only lost a few hours of work. The first time, it actually kicked me back to the goddamn Tribal phase. This is a game that’s smart enough to procedurally understand how any creature you could ever possibly conceive of would walk, run, and hold weapons, but it can’t even autosave when I complete a phase? Play it safe — save early and often when you get to the Space phase.
In the end, Spore is an incredibly robust Space stage preceded by three underwhelmingly linear levels and one mildly diverting one, all tied together emotionally (if not mechanically) by the awesome sense of godlike power and motherhood gained from creating your own species and seeing it evolve through a billion-year timeframe. It’s not what we expected, and it’s not what the game could have been: it’s not perfect, or even particularly great. Yet what it offers is wholly unique, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in small amounts throughout its running time. I’m in no hurry to play through it again anytime this week, but heck…maybe in a month or so I’ll create a whole new species and send them out to the stars.
Score: 6.0 (Slightly above average, maybe a little niche. But you wouldn’t recommend it to everybody.)