Monday, 22 September 2008

Review: Spore

Spore has seen a lot of media attention in the last few weeks, mostly due to the apparent "controversy" over its "Darwinian" contents. However, I feel that there really hasn't been a lot of focus on the game itself and so I decided that a through review was needed.

Both the girlfriend and I very eagerly awaited this game for months and we both bought it the day it was released (well, the day after for me, since Future Shop is so slow at putting their stock up on the shelves). The hype around the game was immense, and having played with the Creature Creator, we had high hopes for a spectacular game. It was purported to contain elements of great games like Civilization, and all tied around a central theme of evolution - so how could it not be a great game?

Well, frankly, it isn't.

Spore is an innovative creation - there is no doubt about that. But as a game, it simply leaves you feeling unfulfilled and wishing you had your $50 back.

The game is broken up into five stages. It begins with the cellular stage, then progresses into the creature stage, the tribal stage, the civilization stage and ends off with the space stage. All of these stages put together are supposed to feel like one large, epic game of galactic conquest, starting from the humble beginnings of a single celled organism and culminating with the foundation of a vast galactic empire. Instead, Spore feels more like five mediocre mini-games loosely strung together.

The cellular stage plays sort of like an oldschool arcade game. You guide your cell around in a top-down perspective, eating resources which give you DNA points, with which you can add new "parts" to your cell. You can chose to be either a herbivore or a carnivore at the very beginning, but the two options are hardly balanced. As a herbivorous cell, you must eat plant matter, while avoiding the carnivorous cells trying to eat you. As a carnivorous cell, you focus on killing and eating other cells. The very nature of this set up makes it much harder to play as a herbivore than a carnivore, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Players choosing the herbivorous lifestyle have to be prepared to die a lot, while the more meat-minded player can breeze through the stage in a matter of minutes, eating everything in sight.

Another gripe I had with the cellular stage was the lack of variety in parts you can chose from to "evolve" your cell. By killing other organisms, you can find new parts, but the cellular stage only has six parts to unlock. All herbivores become variations on the same thing- lots of fins and jets to move fast - while all carnivores become the variations on another - lots of mouths with which to eat and lots of (the same few) weapons with which to kill.

Eventually, once you've eaten enough and your cell has grown large enough, the game informs you that you can attach a pair of legs and leave the primordial ooze behind. This begins the creature stage.

Those of you familiar with the Creature Creator will be somewhat familiar with how the creature stage plays out. Once you move onto dry land, a small population of your creatures set up a nest which will be your homebase for the stage. From there you can explore your world and come into contact with other species. The objective of the stage depends on whether or not you chose to be a carnivore or a herbivore; herbivores have to befriend the other species and carnivores have to kill the other species. And that's pretty much all there is to the creature stage. The game's GUI lets you keep track of "missions" that you can do, but the missions are always the same: "Impress X number of Species A" or "Kill Y number of Species B". Once in a while, your species will migrate to a new nest and you have a mission to find it, but that is the only break you get from the kill/impress routine. Each time you complete a mission, you gain DNA points, which you can use to evolve your creature after you click the "Mating Call" button and seek out a mate. You can then equip your creature with new parts that you've unlocked, either as rewards for killing/impressing other creatures or from digging up piles of bones scattered about the landscape. Unlocked parts, besides adding visual flair, make it easier to impress/kill things. The cycle then repeats itself.

The creature stage gets bonus points for having so many different parts to unlock, allowing you to come up with some really creative and neat looking creatures. However, the absolute repetitiveness of the "missions" really detracts from what little fun there is at this stage. This is compounded by the fact that all other creatures on your planet are either indifferent to you or seriously want to make you extinct. The aggressive creatures seem to have a vendetta against you and only you; countless times I have been standing in the middle of a neighbouring nest, trying to impress a whole heard of creatures, when out of nowhere, I get attacked by a savage beast, who kills me and then completely ignores all the other creatures around. Even if you get slaughtered in front of a group of creatures you have befriended, don't think that they will come to your aid; they'll just stand by while your hit points drop. Thankfully, if you get killed, you can hatch from an egg at your home nest and start where you left off, but this is of little solace on a planet driven by the binary choice of Apathist or Asshole.

Having collected enough DNA points, your species obtains sentience and you can continue to the tribal stage. The tribal stage plays in a very similar manner to Populous. You control a tribe of your creatures and have them interact with other tribes of different creatures. Again, the missions here are of two kinds - either destroy the other tribes or befriend them. You can equip your tribe members with one of three different kinds of weapons (stone axes, torches, or spears) or one of three kinds of musical instruments, and these can be used to take over another tribe or befriend them, respectively. Your tribe only starts off with the ability to produce one kind of weapon and one kind of instrument, however, and you must take over/befriend other tribes in order to receive the others. On top of this, you have to harvest food, which is used to upgrade your main hut (allowing you to produce more tribe members) and build buildings. You can also use food as gifts for other tribes to help befriend them. Moreover, you can outfit your members with new clothes, masks, and decorations, which increases their social, warfare and resource gathering skills.

There is a major difference between the tribal stage and Populous, though. Populous was actually really fun. The tribal stage is more tedious than it is enjoying. Other tribes will attack you without having ever come into contact with you (something that also happens in the civilization and space stages). Not only this, but each of your tribe members also has a "hunger" bar below their health bar. If they get hungry, they need to run back to the village and eat or else they'll die. This is especially annoying when you're attacking an enemy village on the other side of the continent; you'll move your tribe members over to the enemy village only to find that they're on the verge of starving to death after the journey and have to run back home before you can do any real damage.

Once you've befriended/destroyed the enemy tribes, you can continue to the civilization stage. This stage plays much like a modern RTS game. You get to produce units which you can use to other civilizations on your planet, or you can chose the diplomatic route and befriend them (are you seeing a trend here?). There is an obvious Civilization influence in this stage (and should be, since one of the devs was a former Civ. dev), but what it basically comes down to is the same destroy/befriend theme. Anyone expecting the RTS influence to run deep, however, will be disappointed. The number of units you can produce depends on how many cities you can control, and you can only produce two types of units: military units (to destroy cities) and religious units (to convert cities), and each type can be broken down into three unit classes - land, sea and air. This comes out to a mere total of six unit types you can build, hardly competition for even the most simple of RTS games. And, much like the tribal stage before it, before long you'll find yourself besieged by civilizations you've yet to have contact with.

The one area that the civilization stage does well in, however, is customizing your civilization. You can design exactly how all six units look and how all the city buildings look, allowing your civilization to become distinct from any other civilization in the game. These can be changed at any time during the stage. I had more fun designing how my civilization was going to look than I did taking over the planet. Unfortunately, I think that says a lot about the flaws of this stage of the game.

Once the planet is yours, you can proceed to the final stage of the game - the space stage. This is by far my favourite part of the game. After designing your space ship, you fly into the interstellar void and begin visiting new worlds. This portion of the game is quite complex and you'll find the learning curve take a sharp rise. You can find new planets to colonize and terraform - a complex activity in itself, involving collecting species from other planets to create a stable food chain, introducing plants to create a stable ecosystem, and tweaking the atmosphere. You can contact other space-faring species and set up trade routes, forge alliances, or wage war. To make money you can take on missions that - unlike the other stages - have a variety of objectives, such as exterminating a pest species from a planet, retrieving a lost artifact, or defending a besieged colony. You can find powerups for your ship or terraforming tools scattered on worlds across the galaxy, making exploration rewarding as well as entertaining. Throw in fighting off space pirates to the mix and you have a deep, complex, entertaining game.

This stage is not without its flaws, though. On hard difficulty, defending your colonies become an almost impossible task - pirates and enemies will attack a planet, you'll defend it (after dying a dozen times) and before you've even left the planet's solar system, the same planet will be under attack again. Try dealing with this on multiple planets at once - it's a futile endeavor. It feels like all other space-faring civilizations in the galaxy are out to get you since they are never friendly and often attack unprovoked. Also, once in the space stage, you no longer have control over unit production of your colonies; it becomes automated by the computer. This makes it really difficult to defend your colonies when the computer decides that only a single tank is sufficient instead of churning out a battalion.

There are several general issues that keep Spore from becoming a fulfilling game. The choices you make during the evolutionary progression of your species really have little impact on the game since you can decide to change your creature in any and all aspects at any time during the creature stage. The anticipated and overhyped "evolution" portion of the game lasts only for one stage, which can be completed in about half an hour. And even if you decide to have six arms and a trunk like an elephant, that has no bearing whatsoever on how the later stages of the game are played. The game does give you different abilities/powers in the later stages depending on whether or not you were a carnivore or a herbivore, whether or not you were peaceful or warmongering, but the actual evolutionary choices you make really don't matter one bit. You can spend the whole creature stage as an eyeless blob with a snout and then "evolve" into the spawn of Cthulhu immediately before progressing to the tribal stage. You'll get the same benefits either way.

That isn't to say the game doesn't do anything right. The game is possibly one of the most innovative games I've ever played. The amount of customization in the game is impressive, and you'll never see two creatures or civilizations that look the same. The game also introduces a new form of peer-to-peer sharing of user content; all creatures, buildings and units are stored online in a database called the Sporepedia, and each game world is populated randomly with automatically downloaded user content (this option can be turned off, of course, if you tire of encountering large penis monsters).

Spore was supposed to be more than just a game, but rather a simulation of life from humble beginnings to immorality amongst the stars, but unfortunately it falls short of this goal. As I stated before, it feels more like five loosely connected mini-games than it does one grand game. It's sort of like a marshmallow and soda cracker sandwich - at first it seems unique and innovative, but after only a little while you realize how bland it really is. Only the space stage saves this game from being a total letdown.

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