In the beginning Wil Wright created the idea, but not the name. Now the game was formless and empty, darkness was over the deep concepts, and Wright was hovering over his small group of developers. And Wright said, "Let there be five stages in the game," and there were. And Wright said "Let the waters teem with living creatures, let birds fly above the planets, and let gamers produce them all." Wright saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was real-time strategy, and there was procedural animation and perhaps even firmament, though I'm not quite sure what that word means. It was the sixth year.
Without a doubt Spore is a genre-busting, piece of innovative work, but is it a good game? Did Maxis create something sublime, or does Spore still need to evolve?
Evolutionary Creationism: Spore's creature creator is almost worth the price of entry. Access to all of the game's creators definitely is. In Spore, Maxis delivers the gameplay but you create the backdrop. This mutual process of creation forms a living diorama. Something as fun to marvel at as it is to tinker with.
A Gaming Buffet: While Space is certainly the strongest of the game's five stages, the others shouldn't be written off. The first time through, one might have the urge to rush things in their race to get to space. But once you've played through the entire game, Spore allows you to go back and play whichever stage you want as a standalone.
I Kill Because I Care: Spore's plentiful creators got a lot of face time in the long lead up to the game's launch. And they're fun, but you don't realise their full impact until you play the game. The creature you lead across galaxies, across a universe, is the same one that started as a blob in a tidal pool. The species that calls for your help from Planet Kotaku is the same one you fought to evolve from animal to tribe to, finally, ruler of their planet. Those moments of play, stacked up on you way to space travel and full on strategy gaming form a strong emotional bond, a sense of duty rarely felt in a computer game. These are your creatures, your responsibility and defending them isn't just fun, it's personal.
I Am The Master of My Own Destiny: Other games talk about creating your own gameplay, but rarely do any deliver on this level. You can make everything for your creatures to their clothes, their cities, their vehicles, their planets, even their national anthem. And once you're done creating you can decide on how you want to play: Aggressively, subvert through trade, give peace a chance. Spore is an amazingly open game that still manages to work within enough framework to keep things challenging.
Deep Space: When you finally arrive there, space isn't just another phase in the game, it is the game. That's not saying that those first four stages of gameplay were an elaborate tutorial, not at all. Each offers a unique take on a well-known genre. And each is fun in its own right. But they're very streamlined takes on gaming, very straight forward. Space, on the other hand, offers endless play and deep possibilities. Alien abduction, inter-galactic warfare, spice trade, city building, planet molding: Space is where it's at.
Shallow Waters: While the lead up to space can be good fun, many of the early stages are so stripped of nuance they can be annoying. I found the tribal and civilization stages to be particularly irritating. Why can't I group by hot key in the tribal phase? Why is the path-finding so horrendous? Why do I only get to choose from a few weapons? Those stages could have used a bit more care, the guiding hand, of a hardcore strategy gamer.
Lets Not Be Too Creative: Creating in Spore is a blast. Making your own creatures, your own buildings, your own vehicles, tons of fun. But I don't always want to do it. The game knows this and it allows me to choose from other people's creations. Great. But I have to choose every time? Every planet I take, every city I capture I have to choose? Are you kidding me? Would it hurt to include an option to automatically randomize my cities so I don't spend a bulk of my space-conquering time as a glorified interior decorator?
Hello Ground Control It's Major Tom: Games crash, that's a fact. But Spore seems to have a nasty habit of crashing when things get hairy in battle. I suffered at least four crashes in Spore all but one of them in the middle of space combat. To make matters worse, Spore doesn't seem to have an auto save feature. Slightly unstable game and no auto-save is a really bad combination.
I'm Walking Sideways Because I've Used Up All My Up And Down: It is a spectacular sight the first time you break free of your planet's gravitational pull and slide into space. Even more awe-inspiring is your first zoom out from planet to galaxy to universe. Imagine, you likely think, I can go to every one of those tiny dots of lights and raze cities and exterminate entire species. But after a handful of hours of travelling between galaxies, zooming in to planets, zooming down to the surface, it starts to get tedious. My species can now travel through black holes, it has planet busting bombs, but they still haven't figured out how to trade spice without dipping down to the planet's atmosphere. Tragic.
Simple Complexity: Will Wright is, as I've said before, the master of taking complex systems and breaking them down to their basic components and then reassembling them into something we can all understand and play with. Spore is final proof of that ability. In it gamers play with evolution, tinker with planet structure and atmospheres, mess around with economics and strategy. And the game is incredibly easy to understand. But throughout Spore there are needless interactions, simple design flaws that tend to clutter up the experience. The end result is a fun and simple game that feels at times needlessly clumsy.
Spore is a spectacular game, one that everyone should experience. What it does with genre blending is amazing. What it does with user-created content will, I think, deeply impact the industry and how games are made in the future. But Spore is not without its flaws. It feels at times not totally baked. For every thing I love about Spore there seems to be another that bugs the hell out of me about the game. In fact this love/hate relationship I have with Spore seems almost purposeful, as if Wright wanted to create a game of such balance that even its attributes have to be a sort of yin-yang of praise and problems.
Does Spore live up to its lofty expectations? Was it worth the wait? Most definitely yes. Is it the game of the year, perhaps the best title Maxis and Wright have ever produced? No, not yet.
Spore, developed by Maxis, published by Electronic Arts and released on Sept. 7 for the PC and Mac. Retails for $48 to $50. Reviewed on PC. Used all creators, played through space to space level and Omnipotent rank. Earned Spore Fan Achievement.
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