Spore is an enjoyable game that pulls off an interesting balancing act. On one hand, it lets you create a creature and guide its maturation from a single cell to a galactic civilization through an unusual process of evolutionary development. Because the tools used to create and revise this creature are so robust and amusing, and each creation's charms are so irresistible, it's hard not to get attached to your digital alter ego. On the other hand, this intimacy is abandoned in the long, later portions of the game, when you lead your full-grown civilization in its quest for universal domination. The idea sounds ambitious, though Spore isn't as much a deep game as it is a broad one, culling elements from multiple genres and stripping them down to their simplest forms. By themselves, these elements aren't very remarkable; but within the context of a single, sprawling journey, they complement each other nicely and deliver a myriad of delights.
Spore's greatest asset, by far, is its intuitive set of creation tools. If you've played the separate Creature Creator, released earlier this year, you're only seeing a small piece of the puzzle. At various stages, you'll construct, for example, town halls, land vehicles sporting cannons, and aircraft that spout religious propaganda. The creatures are the true stars though, and you can mix and match legs, arms, mouths, wings, and lots of other parts into a beautiful work of art--or a hideous monstrosity. Each part of your creation can be turned, resized, and twisted, so whether you wish to re-create a favorite cartoon character or develop an original concept, you'll probably find what you need in here. You don't need to be a budding Pablo Picasso to make an interesting creature, however; just slapping a bunch of random parts together can result in a truly hysterical beast. Yet even if your onscreen buddy is a three-armed ogre with scales running up his belly, you'll be spending some time getting to know him in the first few hours of gameplay, and you'll probably develop some affection for him in spite of his hideousness.
You will need to put some creative energy into Spore, but if you aren't the artistic type or don't find the building- and vehicle-creation tools as interesting as those for your creature, you can use premade designs that ship with the game. Even better, you can utilize Spore's extensive community tools, inserting other players' innovations into your own game in progress. It's actually a lot of fun to sift through others' creations, if only to marvel at the remarkable amount of imagination on display. And you can do this from within the game proper using an online database called the Sporepedia. In Spore, community and gameplay come together in a fresh and user-friendly manner. In fact, to get the most out of the game, you should be online whenever you play. Not only will doing so give you access to the Sporepedia, but most of the other creatures, vehicles, and even entire planets you encounter will have been created by other players. The early release of the Creature Creator has already proven that community involvement is a core aspect of the Spore experience, and the sharing factor is poised to give the game remarkable longevity.
In a game of Spore proper, however, you won't start off by molding the creature of your dreams. The game is split into five stages, starting with the cell stage. (However, once you unlock a stage, you can start a new game there and bypass any stage that comes before it). The creation tools at this stage are simple, limited to a 2D cell and a few odds and ends, like flagella and spikes. The accompanying gameplay is similarly minimal, and if you've played Flow for the PlayStation 3 or PSP, you will have a good idea of how it works. You choose the path of a carnivore or an herbivore at the outset, which determines what sort of food bits you can munch on. From here, you maneuver your cell about the screen using the keyboard or mouse, avoiding creatures that are looking to you for their next meal while grabbing a bite or two yourself. If you're an herbivore, you seek out the green algae; if you're a carnivore, you need meat, which means waiting for a fish fight to break out and gobbling up the remains, or starting the fight yourself.
You'll also uncover new parts as you swim about, and can then attach them to your organism. To enter the cell creator, you send out a mating call, which lets you get romantic with another member of your species. Then, you add a few bits that make you swim faster or jab harder, and jump back into the gene pool. However, it is all ultrasimple: You swim around eating so you can get bigger, and avoid being eaten. If you do fall victim to a sharp-toothed protozoan, you'll rehatch with no real punishment. All in all, the cell stage may last you 20 or 25 minutes, which is just as well, since it's not very interesting and wears out its welcome quickly.
Soon enough, you'll leave the environs of the sea, add some legs, and lumber into the creature stage. You'll still find new parts scattered about, this time hidden within the skeletal remains of other beasts. Again, the gameplay itself is pretty simple: You wander around exploring for other creatures and advance through the stage by either befriending other nests or conquering them. If you want to go the aggressive route, you should equip sharp claws, tusks, and spitters; if you want to make friends with the local duck-billed orangutans, you'll go with parts that let you charm, sing, dance, and pose. Should you decide on violence, the encounter plays out much like a very plain online RPG, in which you click on your target and use one of your four special abilities to do damage. If you want to make friends by singing and dancing, you'll play a little game of Simon Says, mimicking the actions of your hopeful buddies. As you progress through the stage, you build up a little pack of followers, and they will join you in your battles--and your posing routines.
The gameplay in the creature stage may be simple, but it's here that you start to see what can make playing Spore such a special and rewarding experience. Seeing your creature slowly evolve from a flat cell to an awkward, gangly land dweller is fun, particularly if he doesn't look as though such a beast in real life would be able to walk, much less bounce around the forest. This is where your relationship with the creature is most prominent, and that connection is what makes the exploration of the creature stage so interesting. When you encounter a towering six-legged atrocity charging at the locals, you'll hightail it out of there--yet still be in awe, just as if you were the little guy himself. It's more about the gawking than the playing, but whether you're joining a pack of polka-dotted parakeets in chorus or catching a glimpse of an overhead UFO, there are some legitimately appealing moments to be had.
Once you reach the tribal stage, you will lose some of that connection with your creation. You will no longer be playing as an individual, but rather controlling a tribe, and the stage plays like a slimmed down real-time strategy game. It's disappointing that you can no longer make adjustments to your tribe's main features past this point; you can, however, adorn the creatures with different clothing items for the duration. Fortunately, the charm and personality of the creature stage is still very much evident, and you'll still have the same thrills as you encounter excellent and unusual creatures as you order about your small group of wacky travelers. Conceptually, the tribal stage is similar to the creature stage, only now you focus the violence on an entire village, including structures. If you like that sort of thing, you can go so far as to equip tribe members with torches and set the enemy village ablaze. If you'd rather woo your neighbors with the sweet, soothing sounds of song, there are a few instruments at your disposal.
Spore then pulls an about-face when you reach the civilization stage. Gone are your creature-controlling days; your beloved brutes, once the jewels of your eye, will now populate the cities, and you will instead create fleets of land, sea, and air vehicles. Now you don't have just a tribe--you have an entire society to handle, though you shouldn't let the name of the stage lead you to think that you'll find the complexity of Sid Meier's classic series here. The creation tools are just as easy to use--and just as comprehensive--as those of the creature creator. Designing a mass of metal may not have the same charm as molding a living being from scratch, but the tools give you more control over patterns and colors, so expect to lose more hours of your life tinkering with the possibilities. You'll also create a town hall, a house, a factory, and an entertainment venue, and placing these in your cities has an effect on the happiness of your residents. However, the happiness mechanic is so simple that most players should be able to beat the stage on even the highest difficulty setting without giving it much thought.
The stage plays out like an even broader version of the tribal stage, though you will be dealing with some light resource gathering. However, the main strategic element comes from the three different ways you can conquer your foes: economic, religious, or military. Each city is limited to one of these three brands based on how you choose to play, though the process plays out remarkably the same, regardless. For example, if you go for military victory, you send your attack units toward your enemy cities in standard RTS fashion. To convert the same city, you send religious vehicles over to broadcast a holographic image that preaches to the citizens. It's neat to watch the transparent creature spouting the word over the opposing city--it's just too bad that the gameplay is so limited. Each city can produce only one type of land vehicle, one type of air vehicle, and one type of sea vehicle. If you go for a pure military victory, for example, you will see only three units in the stage. It's breezy and enjoyable, for sure--it's just not deep or challenging.
And in its final transformation, Spore enters the space stage, where many of the previous gameplay elements coalesce. As a result, this stage feels like an actual destination, and while it's not nearly as complex as the space exploration games it cribs from, it does exhibit the great charms of the early stages that are missing from the civilization stage. This is partially because it harks back to the creature stage, putting you in control of a single spacecraft (one you build using the wonderful creation tools, of course), and sending you off to explore the great black beyond. The scope of this stage is suitably massive. You travel from star to star, exploring newly discovered planets and searching for your galactic neighbors, and you can skim the terrain of a planet--or pull the camera light-years away to see the entire galaxy at a glance.
This stage is somewhat reminiscent of 2002's terrific Space Rangers and its sequel, and even exhibits some of that game's wacky humor. You travel from system to system, grabbing missions from the local civilizations who will crack jokes about everything from cake to umbrellas. Most of these missions are quick and to the point: abduct this creature and bring it back, eliminate a bunch of sick animals on this planet, eliminate all of our enemy's turrets on a neighboring world, and so on. Just as in the creature stage, you will eventually pick up some AI companions, further allowing you to expand across the galactic map.
To expand, you can't just plop down a colony and watch it evolve. The economy moves much more slowly in this stage than in previous ones, so you need to be careful about how you spend funds based on how you wish to play. Nor can you just choose any planet. Some worlds are simply incapable of supporting life, while others need to have the environment altered to allow for expansion and population. This is where the terraforming tools come in. Not only may you need to drop items onto the terrain to increase the density of the atmosphere or make the air hotter, but you'll need to jump-start the ecology by throwing in plants and creatures abducted from other worlds. These tools don't just limit you to gameplay necessities, however. You can terraform entire swaths of land, putting craters and plateaus where you see fit, or even dyeing the water purple. In space stage there is, for the first time in Spore, a lot to do. At times, you are shooting lasers at enemy saucers, like a 3D action game; at others, you're outfitting colonies with turrets; at still others, you're negotiating trade routes with your allies. It's a pleasant and accessible mix.
Unsurprisingly, none of these elements are as deep as you would expect in a deep space strategy game, but the real joys come from swooping onto a planet and skimming its surface to see your own creations--and those of others--populating them, and in various stages of advancement. The stylized, colorful visuals keep your eyes constantly engaged, from big, bulbous trees to herds of tentacled younglings frolicking about. The animations are top-notch, so while it's hard to imagine what a bowlegged, long-necked crane with four toes on each foot would actually look like as it ambled about, Spore makes such sights look goofily authentic. It isn't a technical powerhouse; there is a good bit of geometry pop-in, and the game does not appear to support antialiasing. Its charming, exaggerated look more than makes up for it though, and on three separate machines of various specifications, Spore ran smoothly at the highest settings without a single crash.
Spore's sound design shines from beginning to end. The creatures themselves sound terrific, and are the source of much of the game's overflowing charm. The creature and tribal stages sound enchanting, from the thumping beat of the drums when you order tribal units to the squawks and squeaks of your creations. The subsequent stages are of similarly high quality. Of particular note is the customizable ambient music introduced in the civilization stage, and the hysterical incomprehensible Simlish spoken by the various galactic leaders.
Spore keeps a timeline of events, pinpointing every decision you've made and assigning you into broad categories based on your overall behavior (social, adaptable, and so on), so there's plenty of reason to try a different approach. Not that these varied approaches make for drastically different gameplay, but they do give you a reason to revisit the amusing moments that make Spore unique. Taken on their own, its pieces are nothing special. As parts of a singular ambitious vision, they work far better. Throw in the best customization tools seen in years and an enthusiastic community brimming with creativity, and you have a legitimately great game that will deliver hours of quality entertainment.