Brace yourselves before reading this review, because "Not a bad game" is poisonous praise for a Will Wright title! Of course, when you expect the sky, finding just another space exploration game can be disappointing. We try everything to be fair when we tell you what's good about Spore, what's innovative or just plain fun. But we'll also explain the many parts that are not very well designed or become boring after just a few hours.
You might have heard many things about Spore, and most of them positive. In fact, you might have read some of those things in our own GC 2007 or hands-on previews or in our interview with Spore’s executive producer Lucy Bradshaw. But there’s a reason why the “p” is missing from the term “review”, and that reason is obvious: No preview event can give you the same knowledge about a game and its mechanics than spending sufficient time with it in its finished form. Let us tell you what Will Wrights Spore is in our opinion: It is unique in combining five different games (although they share many similarities), which are the five phases of evolution. It is unique in filling your game world with the creativity of hundreds of thousands of other players. And it has an unique editor that allows you to design nearly every living or moving object in the game, from your creature to vehicles to your spaceship. You can even modify whole planets, later in the game. Plus, the game is enormous when it comes to the size of the playing field. Have a look at the info box below…
From Spiral Arm to City
The six pictures below show a zoom from the galaxy level down to a planet. 1 The (already zoomed in) galaxy level, where we still can see the spiral arms. 2 Out of the vastness of space, our known surroundings emerge from one of the spiral arms. We can already see the spheres of our friends (green) and foes. 3 At this zoom level, we can make out our communication range (outer radius) and hyperdrive range (inner radius). Also, the different empires are clearly marked (by the colored lines connecting star systems). We are Pink! 4 Trade routes appear (two parallel lines between star systems), we can also better see the types of stars. We're close to entering our home system (house symbol). 5 We're now in our home system, where we can fly to each planet. The color of the planets' trajectories show how habitable they are. 6 Now we're zooming down onto our home planet's surface and can already make out different buildings in one of our cities. Zooming the camera now doubles as ascending or descending with our spaceship.
What Spore is not
Let us also tell you what Spore is not: It is not a great, genre-defining game. Its main phase, the space age, is just a modern (and to a large extent, mediocre) version of old classics like Starflight, Star Control 2 or Alien Legacy. There is much more micromanagement than we would like to see in a game that should have an epic scope. And the editors, as easy to use they might be, are much more about optics than they are about influencing gameplay: With every phase, they get less important, until they are reduced to pure eye candy in phase 5: There, you design your spaceship in the editor, but that design has no influence on its capabilities at all. Instead, you need to buy equipment for it which is only represented by little icons in your spaceship’s inventory.
Although Spore will begin to bore most experienced gamers after one weekend, they will spend this one weekend in front of their monitor: The game is very addictive, at first, it’s only after 12 hours or so that the repetitiveness of the fifth phase will begin to annoy you. Even then, you might start a new civilization from scratch, or just begin another space phase (you can choose the phase to begin in once you’ve played through the first four phases once). Yes, you can do things differently in the next try. There are just not so many different ways to play as you might think: Spore looks far more complex than it actually is. For example, when you first hear about a “militaristic, religious or economical” approach to the city phase, this sounds like three totally different strategies. But in fact, a “religious” leader will simply equip his vehicles with loudspeakers (for propaganda) instead of weapons. The gameplay technique of conquering cities does not differ much between the general and the preacher: The first shoots down the defences and then the city hall, the second aims his propaganda salvos at the entertainment facilities.
What your goal is
Spore wants to be a sandbox game, it wants you to be creative. It’s not really a game about goals, although reaching the center of the galaxy surely is something which most players will want to do, and there’s also a story goal involved in that. In the first four phases, you want to reach the next phase. But the longest phase, Space, does not really force you to do anything particular. Most of the time, you’ll just expand your empire, build up planets to habitable status, improve your spaceship (which is your Alter Ego). Of course, players want to feel some motivation for doing what they do. So Spore gives you a lot of medals (e.g. for solving missions, for travelling far distances), lets you search for artefacts which form collections, and has an overall ranking, which begins at “Captain” and goes up to “Legend”. Spore also has one hundred “achievements” which you can try to get, for example “Spore fanatic” (playing for 100 hours), “Quest master” (solving 150 missions) or “42” (reaching the centre of the galaxy).
“42” is not the only citation in Spore (in this case, referring to Douglas Adams’ The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). For example, when you’re trading, you’ll hear the tune of the classic Commodore 64 space trading game M.U.L.E.. Also, the whole fifth phase is one big homage to classic space exploration games like Star Control 2 or Starflight. And of course, using “Spice” as the main source of income (there are several colors, differing in value to different races) is a clear reference to Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle – although on Arrakis, spice is found in the sand, not coming out of the planet’s surface as a colored gas. Of course, Spore also takes ideas from modern classics like World of WarCraft (the interface or the dancing). Still, it's a success how the game uses the same interface for five distinct game modes.
Spore's fifth phase borrows heavily from games like Star Control 2 -- which is still better in various aspects like diplomacy, fitting out your spaceship and a good mix of story line and free exploration. We suggest you look out for the still maintained open source version, "The Ur-Quan Masters".
Speaking of the galactic core: One minor annoyance we've encountered is that when you actually come close to the innermost cluster of bright stars, there is not only a huge hostile empire to compete against (which is fine). But also a message telling you that “because of the gravity of the dense star clusters here”, your hyper jumps now have a shorter range ”for better accuracy”. What a cheesy trick to make reaching the galactic core more difficult! Apart from this, it does feel like an accomplishment, coming so far from your home world. Also, as Lucy Bradshaw told us a couple of months ago (see interview):"You’ll find that other species have had some common experience in their past. The quest is about piecing together all those elements. It’s for the achiever who really wants to see everything of the game."
When you approach the galactic core (the bright cluster in the top of this picture), the game will decrease your range.