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Review: Spore

Keane Ng | 18 Sep 2008 20:52
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Contrary to its creator's claims, Spore isn't "Sim-Everything." If we're taking this game as The Gospel According to Will Wright, then the history of life as we know it is no more than a handful of stages that play like Cliff's Notes of classic genres in gaming history. But if Spore fails as the ubergame, it might be something else even more exceptional - a game that ignites your imaginative fires, that will have you reconsidering your own creative power and that of your fellow gamer. Spore's a brave new world: flawed, to be sure, but unique enough to be worth any gamer's time and cash.

Rewinding the clock by a few billion years, we arrive at Spore's Cell Stage, where the path from amorphous amoeba to space-faring civilization begins. For all its click-n-drag minimalism, Cell surprisingly has some of Spore's most compelling gameplay. You're just chomping and swimming through primordial ooze, trying to eat while avoiding being eaten, but from the Pac Man-esque triumph as you beef up and your predators become your prey to the relevatory moment of your first evolution, Cell's basic but addictive, and each second's a memorable step up the food chain.

The goal of Cell - to eat, grow, and thrive - remains at the heart of Spore through the bulk of its lifespan. The subsequent phase, the Creature Stage, plays like the first ten experience levels of World of Warcraft with lots of mashing hotkeys and right-clicking as you eat or befriend rival species to gain biological dominance. Tribal Stage follows and plays like a rudimentary RTS. Then comes Civilization Stage which is like, well, a dumbed-down, real-time version of a Civilization title. Through each stage your objectives change in scope and context but remain the same: conquer your rivals through diplomacy or warmongering.

Whatever foreign policy you choose, the time-tested strategy of power-in-numbers is really all that's necessary. Build more units, breed more tribe members, call out for some backup and overcome your foes with military or economic or religious force until they throw up the white flag. It's all very simplistic and doesn't require much thought or skill. If you're attentive enough and good enough at clicking, evolution's a piece of cake. Which not only does a fair degree of disservice to Charles Darwin, but also leaves Spore's simulation elements and core gameplay disappointingly slim.

Space Stage is supposed to be the meat of the game, and there's a lot to do in the final frontier: hunt for UFO upgrades, form alliances with other space empires, colonize the cosmos, or just star trek around, planet-hopping from solar system to solar system, only stopping for fuel every couple light-years. To be cliché: it's epic. But it's also not any "deeper" than any of the stages before it. The gameplay's just as simplistic, there just happens to be more to do. And there's also the constant babysitting needed to keep your colonies stable and your enemies in check, which makes playing Space sometimes a galactic-sized pain in the ass.

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