Maxis, 2008
Video game review
Incredible potential for creativity. Clean, easy to use UI. Accessible to all ages and players. Appealing visuals. "Pick up and play" sensibility
Underwhelming scope. Uneven difficulty. This is not evolution, goddamnit. Tedious endgame.
No autosave. Content packs. Where the hell was the game we were promised?


Something new is truly being brought to the table here. Although others may have had aspects of it before, this game is raising the bar by presenting an experience that is fundamentally novel in some way. In playing it, you should find yourself exposed to something you've never done before.

This game will be responsible for the "lost time" abductees are always going on about. It's the kind of thing where you start playing, and the next thing you know it's 5 in the morning and you have an important meeting in two hours. And yet... another few minutes couldn't hurt, could it?
Astronomical scopeAstronomical scope:

Nobody was thinking small when they designed this game. The attention to detail or the vast range of possibilities afforded when you're playing it will cause you at least once to step back and utter a Keanu-inspired "whoa". Somebody shot for the moon here, and more importantly they hit it.

Some parts of this game are ridiculously awesome, while others are just ridiculous. This note is for games that lack consistency--typically for games that are otherwise extremely good, but have weak points that mar the overall presentation. It might still be worth playing, but the range between the high points and the low ones is vast.

This game knows the way to get to Carnegie Hall, and it's not about to let you forget it. You'll find yourself doing the same thing time after time after time. Many games have some element of repetition, but here's it's so bad it's hard to tell the ending of the game from the start. You're just always doing the same damned thing.

There are a number of games (Crysis, Supreme Commander, Brothers in Arms...) that I buy on release day and then either wait forever to review or never get around to it at all. In general, this is because when I am not working or doing something that strongly impassions me, I am extremely lazy and, alas, writing game reviews is not something that I'm pumped up about. Not to say I mind, I'm just not going insane over it.

Anyway, Spore is different. I deliberately wanted to put some time in between the release and the review--as I think most reviewers should have--to see how the game evolved since. I do not really see any other way to handle a game so heavily dependent on the actions of its user base, and so explicitly defined by evolution.

Spore is a deeply conflicted game, and the object of vastly polarised ends. On the one hand, it was incredibly hyped beforehand; I preordered the game well in advance. Afterwards, there has been a sort of collective sigh of disappointment and in some corners little ability to sift through the chaff and find the game beneath. On the one hand, it is a game that offers a massive scope; on the other, it fails to deliver on this. On the one hand, its crowdsourcing offers room for tremendous creativity; on the other, walking dicks.

I'm not wholly sure how to approach this, so let's start with what Spore gets right. It's a non-trivially impressive list. Firstly, the game is stable, or at least what passes for "stable" in modern game terms. I've had it crash three times in maybe 20 or 30 hours of play, and I think one of those was my fault (driver issue on a new computer). It's highly polished, which one would like to think we have come to expect from Maxis.

And, being a Maxis game, it shares their sensibilities and aesthetic. It's quirky, funny, and extremely easy to play. Maxis has a gift for user interfaces that makes Apple look like an Amstrad, and it's clearly in play here: the UI is clean and lets you do what you want without burdening you. The game is incredibly easy to just pick up and play without the need for complicated tutorials or hefty manuals. Virtually everything is completely intuitive and the game can be played exclusively with the mouse (I think, actually, you could probably do it with a gamepad. I should try that out).

(There is one exception to this, I should note. You control spaceships by holding down a mouse button and scrolling the mouse wheel to change altitude. This is not a gamebreaker, and you do get used to it, but whoever thought this was a good idea should be shot.)

You rarely need to use twitch reflexes, and the game can be played by all age and ability levels. The game is inviting, and feels from the start like something you would want to play--like a game that somebody has put a lot of time into and is proud to see you enjoying it.

The visuals are bright, warm, and compelling. Although your earliest creature, a single-celled organism, looks kind of cute, other things swimming about in the primordial soup manage to look suitably threatening, so the potential is there to go either way. The graphics are modern but not overwhelming; the game does not appear dated in any way--indeed it is contemporary and stylish--but Maxis has clearly been spending more time on the game mechanics than on trying to wow people with bloom and HDR and whatever the fuck who cares.

The game engine is a coup in and of itself. Although putting together a creature is incredibly easy, I can imagine that the work to make everything fluid behind the scenes must be phenomenal. Animating the skeletons properly and making everything seem decently lifelike takes an amount of effort that I don't even want to begin to consider; suffice it to say, I am overwhelmingly impressed.

Unfortunately, it does seem like the creators got so caught up in building a game engine that they never got around to making an actual game. For starters, the gameplay is incredibly uneven. The first stage of the game, where you are a single cell, is neither particularly easy nor particularly hard, but it is impossible to lose: literally, if you programmed your mouse to make random movements, you would eventually acquire enough points to beat it regardless of what you do. By contrast, the last stage of the game has no ending and may be said to go on forever.

The fourth, "civilization", stage is laughably easy; if you play as an economic civilization (garnered by being balanced in the previous stage, neither attacking too many people nor being too sociable) you simply buy out other countries through the use of trade routes--and trade routes have the second advantage of making other civs like you more, so they never go to war with you. Again in contrast, the stage prior to it is hard--you will need to wage war at least once, and with only twelve people at your disposal, the same number as your opponent, and a complete lack of strategy, this can border on the impossible.

In the first two stages, if you die you are simply reborn, losing nothing. In the third (I've not died in the fourth so I don't know) if you die, you have to start over from scratch. What the fuck? Who thought this was a good idea? I can appreciate the basic idea--in the first two stages you're representing a species; in the third, you have an actual village, and it's easier to destroy a village than a species--but from a gameplay perspective it sucks hardcore.

And so on. It's hard to know what to expect. It doesn't help matters that the transition between stages is completely nonfluid. If this game had anything to do with science at all, you'd call this punctuated equilibrium, I suppose, but the game actually has nothing to do with evolution in the scientific sense. Your creature evolves, in the sense that it changes, but it always changes for the better and, unlike in the real world, there is an objective better--you literally have statistics that you increase your levels in as you add better parts. There is no sense of responding dynamically to your environment and the other animals on the planet, no sense of finding a niche to exploit or being the best at what you're good at. You're simply objectively better than everyone else. Calling it evolution does the word a disservice.

But anyway, punk eek. There is a point at which you're simply done with each stage (save the open-ended last one). And then you click a little button, and you go on to the next one. There is no fluid transition at all, and you have no real choice in the matter. Want to stick around as a protozoan? Sucks to be you. You can continue to swim around, but you can't improve your creature any further. Similarly if you want to gallivant about as a creature, once you've acquired sufficient "brain points" there's no real reason to stick around except to get new parts to try out. It's always "onwards and upwards," and that sucks hardcore too.

The net effect of this is that the game has a markedly underwhelming scope. Yes, you change from a single-celled organism to a spacefaring race. But so what? It's a series of extremely short minigames, and none of them have the complexity that would make them compelling as an individual game. You spend twenty minutes swimming around eating amoebae, an hour running around as an animal, thirty minutes running a small tribe, thirty minutes taking over your planet, and you're done and into the final stage.

This was a stage that was promised as being unending and vast and yeah ok it's not, not really. From a gameplay perspective, it's incredibly tedious--you're constantly going and doing the same terraforming jobs, the same transplanting of animals, the same discovery of artefacts. You're given missions, and they're always the exact same. Worse, the game sees fit to have you constantly micromanaging your colonies--you develop them and they grow spice, but for some reason you have to collect this spice manually. There are pirates that attack, and no matter where you are you have to haul your ass all the way back to that planet to take care of them. In a galaxy with a million stars, this is time-consuming and stupid.

And that's it. That's the Spore story. You can get into space in less than two hours easily and, with the exception of the most compelling stage, where you're designing your creature, there's no reason to take any longer--neither the tribal nor civilisation stages are particularly interesting, and like in the cellular stage once you've beaten them there is literally no reason at all to continue playing them when you're finished. And this is sad, because when you think about it any given stage could be a whole game in and of itself and, while it would be quite different from the finished product, I'm almost inclined to say it would be more compelling.

Spore's greatest problem, really, is one of overpromising and underdelivering. The game was pitched as one of tremendous scope and vision, and what we get is four minigames and the most ridiculously repetitive and tedious space game since "Lunar Lander". Instead of evolution, you get overly simplified intelligent design. The overall effect is of going to a four-star restaurant and having them hand you your chicken with the McDonald's wrapper still on it. It's something of a paradox: as a technological demo, Spore does everything right and yet still manages to fail as a game. They've managed to make complexity simplistic, and it's quite strange.

Before I move into the final section, there are two other issues which deserve special ire, because there is no real way they can be justified to gamers. Firstly, remember when I said the game is stable? It is--about as stable as Civilization, GalCiv2, or Total War. It crashes once every six or eight hours of play time, perhaps. You'll note something about the previous games, though: they all have a goddamned autosave. For reasons known only to the responsible programmer and possibly to the pus-ridden hell-spawn that compelled them not to include it, Spore does not have an autosave. There is no way at all that this is justifiable, since the saving process doesn't take very long. And yes, you can save manually--but it takes you completely out of the flow of the game and, of course, you forget. And lose your entire progress. It's horrible.

Secondly, Maxis and EA have made it increasingly clear that Spore is going to head down the path of The Sims, where you buy a game for $50 and then spend $20 per expansion pack, and there will be dozens of expansion packs. For bilking people out of their money, it's hard to imagine better. And so there are the issues with the game, and they are legion (I would be remiss as a geek if I did not mention Securom here, but since I do not actually give a flying fuck, ok, game has Securom. Done now).

And yet.

And yet.

And yet.

There is something perversely compelling about Spore, and I have finally recognised what it is. Spore is not really a game, which explains why the first four stages are so simple. They're just things you do. And they don't have to be tedious or boring, if you make the choice to enjoy them. Like in Galactic Civilizations 2, which is objectively a better game, you get worlds more out of it if you stop and smell the roses. Yes, you can randomly generate everything, but you need to take the time to do it. Take the time to create a national anthem for your people. Take the time to make your creature just right. Take the time to design your buildings in the fanciful style that you want. It's not a game you need to speedrun. It's not a game you grind. It's just something you sit back and enjoy for a half hour or an hour when you get the itch.

And there is something else, too. Remember how I said Spore is a vehicle for tremendous creative potential? Well, there are 55 million items in the Sporepedia, all created by Spore users. Even though it's the holiday's and I'm writing this at 2 in the morning, in the time it's taken to craft this review nearly fifteen thousand more were added. Some of them are boring, some of them are bland, some of them (though I have seen none) are obscene. But some of them are fascinating, incredible feats of design and ingenuity. Unlike some other games, making things for Spore doesn't require a $4000 3d design programme, or a $1500 version of Photoshop, or anything like that. Just your imagination.

Basically, then, Spore is a game about exploration. It's about exploring the world around you, yes, but about exploring yourself, as well--your creative potential, your desires, your personal aesthetic. And that space stage I was saying is so tedious? Well it is--if you treat it like a game, like Civilization. But try exploring, instead. Try being the starship Enterprise, going out and discovering new life and new civilisations. And you'll find something. With 55 million creations--at least 56 by the time you read this--every time you land on an alien world, you are guaranteed to see something you have never seen before.

Yes, sometimes they are things you'd imagine--for instance I mostly create Border collies. But sometimes they are not--sometimes they are truly fantastic. It's not like "Star Trek," where every alien is just a C-list actor with some silly-putty on their nose. Every time you go somewhere, it's novel. Every planet you discover you will never have seen before--or expected. There is always something new to find, a new friend to make, a new enemy to conquer, a new unsuspecting animal to abduct. Novelty is hard to come by in the gaming world, even in the procedurally-generated one; we tend to get it by playing with other people, but let's face it, no matter how many different people you capture the flag with, you're still capturing the same flag.

Until we actually build faster-than-light spaceships, and actually go out into the cosmos, Spore is the next best thing. Yes, it has its faults, and if you try to play it like the strategy game it sometimes looks like you're in for a bit of a shock. But in offering us a window into so many people's brains, and by showing us a computer world where every day is vastly different than the one before it, Maxis has accomplished something I would previously have thought impossible. It's as near to magic as you'll get on the PC, and for that I have to buck the trend of teeth-gnashing disappointment and give this a perfect score.

24.12.2008 - 9h19
Comrade Alex
26.12.2008 - 12h05

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