It's a sign of the anticipation surrounding a game when you're a developer visiting a foreign country and passport control asks you about its release date. That's exactly what the developers of Spore were met with when they entered the UK for the London demonstration of their game. Thankfully for both immigration officers and the gaming public at large, Spore is now "pretty much finished" according to EA, and a worldwide release date of September 7 was recently announced.
The game itself is looking much more complete now, although it has been six months since its last showing at Leipzig in August 2007. With the game now in fully playable form, we got to see the life sim as its gameplay progresses from single-cell organisms to intergalactic warfare and everything in between. It was also a good opportunity for us to put our questions to the development team about Spore's many community features, and to take a look at the Nintendo DS version of the game.
Jumping straight onto one of EA's demo PCs, we wasted no time in getting a hands-on with the game. Spore will offer five evolutionary stages in its duration, and given that we've covered the early parts of the game in other previews, we decided to jump forward and check out space exploration. As with the creature-creation tools, you can customise your spaceship to a highly advanced degree. We chose to use a flying-saucer-shaped vessel as a template, and from there we altered the proportions, applied different colours and patterns, and adorned our creation with various cannons and lasers. Although there was no way that an advanced civilisation would be caught dead in such a monstrosity, it's clear that the tools will let players create pretty much anything they can imagine.
When it came down to playing the game, our hastily designed creation was no match for the toilet-shaped vessel that had already been designed by the Spore team. The game holds your hand with a tutorial on the basic controls and abilities of your ship, both those needed for flying low over planets and abducting creatures, and for interplanetary travel. Controlling the ship in the air was simple. You use either the WASD keys or a right-click of the mouse to move around, and the mouse wheel to ascend or descend. You select weapons and tools by clicking icons at the bottom of the screen. Equipped with a tractor beam, you can click on unsuspecting creatures and pull them into your ship with the left mouse button.
Spore has a very dry sense of humour, and it calls on you to collect creatures for your own nefarious ends. However, there's a downside to your scientific experimentation, and in our demo we managed to introduce a rogue infection to our city by collecting bug-ridden creatures. The result: You have to eradicate the surrounding colonies with your onboard laser, using the left mouse button to fire. Before you can start exploring and colonising other worlds, your final task on your home planet is to colour it purple, although we couldn't quite understand why.
The first planet that we visited was completely barren and needed development before life could inhabit it. We equipped our ship with a variety of plants and used the tractor beam to drop them on the ground. With vegetation available, the next step was to introduce herbivores, with the setup complete once carnivores were dropped on the planet.
Aside from actual gameplay, the big theme of EA's presentation was user-generated content. It's clear that Spore has learnt much from Facebook and MySpace, and instead of being a separate component, the online community features are very much woven into the fabric of the game. In fact, much of Spore's terminology borrows directly from Web 2.0 vernacular; sporecasts let you subscribe to other users' creations, whereas sporepedia is the in-game directory for all of your content. Sporecasts will let you transmit and receive user-generated content, and you'll be able to search the entire Web based on ratings or specific tags (for example, "Doctor Who" or "purple"). We were shown how one of the designers had created a series of animals based on letters from the alphabet, and then put them in a set that can be downloaded by any Spore player online.
Don't expect the online aspect of Spore to be limited to the gameworld, either, because the creators want it to spread to your browser as well. Although no specific announcements have been made, it's clear that the team wants to develop a variety of badges and links that can be embedded into blogs and social networks to show your activity in Spore. Of course, with so much encouragement for user-generated content, it presents an interesting proposition for the creators of The Sims. With so many add-on packs helping to make their previous game one of the best-selling of all time, can we still expect the same sort of support for Spore? The answer that's being hinted at by Maxis is that rather than directly making stuff for the game, the company will release more tools to help users produce it instead. But whatever happens, Spore is clearly a franchise title for EA, and the game is bound to be heavily supported once it finally makes its way to store shelves.
Speaking of franchising, Spore is also being released on the Nintendo DS. Though you can still build creatures and explore new worlds, the handheld version is much more task-oriented than its PC counterpart. The character-building aspect of the game is used to solve problems. The game boasts Phantom Hourglass-style cel-shaded visuals, and the characters have some of the colourfulness of the animals from Viva Piñata. You control your creature by touching the screen, and you use the stylus to shake trees for fruit or attack other creatures.
Spore is shaping up very nicely, and from what we saw in London, it's well on its way to completion. EA has now announced a worldwide release date of September 7--in the meantime, should it drip-feed any more information, we'll be sure to keep you updated.