Leipzig GC 2007: Hands-on with Spore

Sometimes things just turn out of the best. Earlier this week I had a ninety-minute appointment over in Electronic Arts’ press area, where they had a whole load of their upcoming games available for play-test or presentation. With the words “Burnout Paradise” scorched into the front of my brain, I headed in and went to check out when the next session was.

Horror! I was told that the Burnout guys had already gone home! I was justifiably gutted, but remained philosophical about the whole thing. After all, there was more to play, and while none of it was going to require me to bring a bucket within which to catch my melted face, there were some pretty damn exciting titles to be had.

I went over to the Spore presentation room, already feeling better at the thought of the goodness that must lie within. But double horror! I’d missed the start of the current showing by minutes and had to wait for the next one. With my two favorites now out of the window, I skulked off to the free-play room for a bit of Crysis and waited. Unfortunately Crysis warped my sense of time, and completing a triple horror combo, I ended up missing the next Spore presentation as well. Sulk sulk sulk sulk sulk!

But then, when I eventually got through that hallowed door half an hour later, something awesome happened. Firstly, I was the only one who turned up. Secondly, after repeating the same presentation all morning, EA decided to go straight into the gameplay demo, a demo which lasted nearly an hour and a half, covered four of the five sections of the game, and which I got to play through the entirety of myself under guidance. I love it when a plan comes together.

Hit the jump for an epic stage by stage breakdown.

Section 1 – Cell

To be fair, the introductory phase of Spore could be a game in itself. In fact the cynical could argue that it already is, being highly reminiscent, in terms of basic mechanics at least, of Flow. Spore however, executes things with a lot more character on the  outside, and a lot more depth on the inside.

You’ll start your race’s millions of years of existence as we all did, as a small, vaguely useless blob floating in the ocean, just begging to have its whole potential future history wiped out at the whim of the food chain. Your blob will be pretty ill-equipped at the start, having little more than a fairly useless mouth and a tail. It will be too small to attack anything, will barely be able to get away fast enough to defend itself, and will have to eat nothing more challenging than floating sea plants while avoiding the hell out of everything else.

After a few minutes though, the journey will start, as the gauge recording your blob’s consumption will deem that it has done enough to evolve and bring the game to the much-fabled design screen for the first time. Let me tell you right now, the creature building controls were every bit as fun and versatile as you’d hope, and things were still pretty simple at this stage compared to later on in the game.

The things I could do when playing around with my little squishy offspring laughed at any other character creation tool I’ve ever seen, making Spore‘s design section closer to a “My first 3D modeling package” than anything I’ve used before. A quick mouse roll over the little guy’s body revealed an x-ray of his spine, which when stretched or contracted with a simple click and drag could radically change his physical properties. In seconds I could make him longer, shorter, fatter or thinner, allowing me stacks of new options in terms of the body parts I could attach to him, how I would make them work, what kind of maneuverability he would have.

The list of available body parts is increased by attacking and killing other creatures, many of them leaving behind an icon for one of their physical properties when defeated. These are added to the list immediately and available straight away the next time you get to the design menu. They’re grouped together into part-types — eating, propulsion, attack etc. — and all have their own properties. A beaked mouth for instance will allow your blob to become omnivorous and help in attacking other creatures, whereas a probiscus will let him attack from a safe distance, skewering other creatures to a standstill and not letting them go until you’ve sucked some food from them.

It’s really easy to work out and get hold of what you want. Getting whooped in the ocean? Just spot a creature with a body part you think would help, steal it and use it. It really is a case of evolving to adapt and survive in truest sense, only you’re making it happen over a few minutes by conscious choice rather than waiting a few million years for nature to take its course.

Body parts don’t just give one-note abilities either. A long, sharp horn will offer a great ramming spike for attacking with, but what if you use two and drag them round to the sides of your blob’s body instead? Instant automatic defenses! Drag and stretch them to maximum length — every body part is tweakable — and none but the biggest creatures are going to come near you. Anyway, after a fun and relaxing time growing my blob into a twin pronged, probiscus-toting, poison-splurging, jet-propelled demon of the deep, it was time to hit the cheat codes and move onto the land.

Section 2 – Creature

Here’s where the decision-making starts to get more complex, and the social mechanics which will be key to the game really start to come to the fore. Your blob will flop out of the sea, simply a bigger than before version of himself, but you’ll notice a couple more control icons this time. These come into play when interacting with the other sea survivors you’ll find around the island, as for the first time now, you can actually choose how to interact with them. Violence is still an option of course, but making friends can work too, and both are incredibly easy to implement. All I had to do to start making my creature’s mark on the world was to find a target, designate it and my approach by clicking on it and either of the red or yellow icons for an aggressive or social tack respectively, and sit back and watch my guy get on with it.

At first the options are limited to either biting or singing a song, but in a system extrapolated from the Cell section, more can be learned by example from other creatures should friendships be successfully formed. The best advantage of making friends though, is that you should you make yourself endeared to a whole group, that entire species will then allege itself to you, meaning back-up if you get yourself into trouble. It works on a simple level at the Creature stage, but lays the foundation for how you can build a planet-conquering empire later in the game. Your olive branches won’t always be accepted of course, but your chances improve the more techniques you learn, which brings me onto the next phase of the Creature section… 

Most of the creatures you’ll encounter at first will the same sort of beach-bound floppers as your own, but if you want to get out and explore the rest of the island you’ll need to be a bit better adapted. After a while, one of your own species will give you an offer of some lovin’, and if you accept, a new offspring will result in no time. Here’s where I got to play around with the next stage of the creature editor, and it blew my head clean off. I was impressed with the versatility of the Cell editor, but the second level of it was obscene,

Starting out with my existing creature, I could remodel it to create virtually anything. The spine manipulation now worked in full 3D space, with a simple mouse drag allowing me to pan right around to make my creature’s body, neck and head any shape I wanted. Adding limbs was as simple as adding the body parts in the last section, and while I thought I’d manipulated my creature as much as I could already, I was then told that the limbs each had their own bone structure as well.

Straight away I was lengthening legs, adding bulk, flipping knee directions and enlarging hands via a few drags and clicks with no effort at all. Nothing in the game was done automatically for me, and the size, placement, angle, and coloring of every anatomical feature was all of my own design. Building things in Spore really is that easy. New collectible body parts add a whole new range of attack and defense options too, and after a few minutes my digital off-spring was equipped with a few different short and long-range options, all with their own stats. After that, I was off to explore the rest of the world, clawing, biting, singing, dancing and spitting my way through its inhabitants big and small, ever more boggled that something I’d build myself off the top of my head was now acting and animating as if had been in the game from the start. 

Section 3 – Tribe

After surviving as part of the ecosystem for so long, my species’ numbers were now big enough to really assert some clout on the bigger world at large. The standard view was further out now, allowing a better view of my guys and a better tactical appraisal of who and what was around them. The game shifted emphasis again now, or rather it evolved again, for want of a less obvious word given the circumstances. Each stage of Spore pushes the gameplay in a slightly different direction and adds elements from a different genre, but the changes feel less like a jump and more like a natural expansion of what you were playing before. Thus I’d gone from simple point and click action puzzler, to action RPG, and now to RTS without once feeling like I was shifting game styles.

Things started with my bigger, now more mentally evolved creatures grouping together around the tribe’s central hut. This hut provided a hub for the group’s activities, and with, yes, another simple click, brought up the drop down menu for all the building creation I needed to send them on their way to success. A quick scan around the map showed a few other species’ villages in the proximity, but before I started dealing with them I had to get my own kitted out. I put down a couple of weapon stores, one for clubs and one for hunting spears, and rounded off with a village totem, which is very important for diplomacy. 

Tooled up, I selected a few of my boys and clicked them over to the sea to get some fish, at which point they just got on with it, leaving me to send another bunch off hunting in the jungle. Although there were evolved tribes around, most of the creatures at this stage in world’s lifespan were still feral beasties ready for a whooping, so whoop them I did in exactly the same way as using an aggressive interaction during the Creature phase, only with more than character selected.

Job done, both groups brought the meat back to the hut and I was free to think about other things. With the tribe now more intelligent, they had the ability to think for themselves in regards to eating and sleeping, so things never became too heavy with the micro-management and I found the whole really clean and simple to run. Tribe provided for for now, I decided to go and meet the neighbors.

At this point I could have just gone and wandered over to the next village to see what would happen, with a few clubs loaded up just in case. I wanted to try to make friends first though, so I started setting myself up for a diplomatic mission. It was editing screen time again, but with a fully formed Bob — as was apparently the obligatory name for all creatures that day — in the window, things took on the tone of a cross between a Final Fantasy equipping screen and a dress-up doll. Rather than body parts, this time I had to choose from pieces of ceremonial clothing, each with their own stats relating to their effectiveness. Everything from kilts, to head dresses, to epilets were available, and all of them could be placed, styled and multiplied in any way I wanted, and colored with one of tens of pre-set color schemes or with the manual paint controls. 

Once I was satisfied, I selected a few Bobs to send as emissaries and clicked them over to the next village. As with hunting, inter-tribe relations were a simple extrapolation of the Creature section’s mechanics, only with a whole band of my now garishly-dressed species marching proudly up to their neighbors carrying gifts of food, to inflict some of their best singing and dancing on their bemused persons and wait for a response.

The response I got was mixed to say the least. Half of the tribe liked my guys, half didn’t, and so I had to make a quick decision. Keep trying, run away, or fight. I figured that while I was had clubs equipped I might as well stage an impromptu invasion, so I targeted the Bob massive at my newfound friends’ central hut and selected “Raze” from the drop down. The ensuing melee resulted in losses on both sides, but having succeeded in flattening the new guys’ pride and joy, I now owned the village and the survivors joined my group. I took everyone back home, set up a medic’s hut to heal the wounded, and was safe in the knowledge that having expanded my tribe I was now that bit closer to the next section of the game. 

Section 4 – Civilization  

With a tribe hitting 15 members or more, it’s time to scale up and become a city. It’s possible to wait for longer in order to amass greater numbers, but either way things are about to become a lot more high tech and the RTS overtones are really going to come to the fore. Setting up my center of operations was a logical extension of building my village, a city hall replacing the central hut as the command hub, and factories amongst other things needing to be built to provide my people with what they needed to spread out across the world, which was now depicted on a really pretty-looking zoomed-out global scale.

This time, the editor screen was all about the buildings and technology, and at this point it really stepped up a gear. It’s possible to make buildings look like anything you want in order to shape the aesthetic of your empire. Anything. Of course there are a stack of pre-set options that can be used, but some of the user-created content I was shown was insane! Just looking through the factory options I saw a NES, –I filled my city with them, naturally — a naked woman in a bath, and several large cakes. While I didn’t get chance to look at the modeling tools, I can only boggle at how versatile they must be. I can’t wait to get my hands on them, and I can honestly see myself playing around with my city’s look for days before I lay a single foundation. 

Its not all about the buildings though. Vehicles are vital both in terms of expanding your empire’s boundaries and keeping it fueled. Whereas before the main currency of the game was food, now I needed to harvest spice — in truth it looks more like gas and gets farted out of the ground — in order to fuel my economy, machines, and diplomatic relations. Getting this on the go was just a case of building a Harvester and clicking it away to the nearest supply, so that done, it was time to start taking over. 

From hereon in it was all about planetary domination, with all of the other cities after exactly the same thing. Not everyone would be invading with tanks and air-strikes though. Depending on how the rest of civilization had evolved, the other cities might try to homogenize the planet through culture, friendship or religion too. That leads me onto one of my favorite things about Spore. Your actions don’t just affect the world around you in terms of the obvious physical acts you commit. What you do and how your blobs, creatures, tribe and citizens live affects the whole social climate of the world. Evolve aggressively and the rest of the world will become more competitive to compensate. Create a more peace-loving race and the rest of the planet will kick back and relax.

Of course it’s going to be tempting to pretend to be a bunch of pacifists in order to lead your neighbors in that direction before switching on them with a full-scale invasion, but your race’s behavior is observed and labeled during each phase of the game, and advantages and disadvantages in terms of abilities handed out with each evolution based on how you play. If you want to keep your options open you’re going to have to balance your play style and treatment of others very carefully on a multi-generational level. 

I decided to start building attack vehicles and entered the editor. It started similarly to the original Cell editor, with a morphing tool allowing me to create any main body shape I wanted, before throwing all manner of spoilers, wings, wheels, caterpillar tracks and weapons at it, all with their owns stats. Finishing off with my choice of paint job, it was time to roll out. 

Attacking a city is again a case of finding a target and clicking on its city hall to wade in guns a’blazing. Battle looks fantastic, with Spore’s bold, cartoony graphics illuminated with every gunshot, and the glow of laser fire lighting up the sky. Job done, it was time to head in, rebuild in my own image, and set up stronger perimeter defenses to protect my prize.

At this point we ran out of time and I had to head to another appointment, but as I left I found out something which surprised and excited me in equal measure. I was told that completing the four stages running up to Space would only take around nine hours if the player didn’t spend any time with the customization sections — and frankly if you don’t do that, I don’t think I want to know you any more. When I asked if replay was key to the game’s lifespan, I was told that yes, it would be a factor, but that the main driving force of the game’s lastability is that it only really starts with Space, and then it goes on forever. Seriously. Everything I’d played and have just described to you is merely an introduction to the bulk of the game. Excited as me yet? I hope so. 

I also got some details on how the game’s online infrastructure is going to work.  Spore.com is going to host a catalog of user-created content ranging from creatures, to buildings to vehicles, which can be browsed and downloaded into your game world at will. There will however, also be something called the Sporecast, whereby a player can specify his of her preferences in terms of anything from civilization ideology, art style, or something as simple as creature color, and the game will search and download anything suitable it finds. It sounds like the game world — and universe when you get into the Space phase — can constantly evolve unseen and feel all the more natural for it. Cherry on the cake? I think so. Now come and join me in the mutual support group I am planning on setting up for those of us who can’t wait for the release date.

David Houghton