There's a strong case to be made that Maxis excels at making software toys rather than games. And there's a not so insignificant difference there, because a toy is something that you tinker with, whereas a game is something with a narrative, goals, or a way to win. That may be why Maxis titles have so much appeal. SimCity lets you indulge your inner mayor. Meanwhile, The Sims is the ultimate virtual dollhouse, letting you create your dream house and, by extension, your dream family. But now we come to Spore, the most ambitious Maxis product to date, and one that's as much as a game as it is a toy. Sure, you can tinker with Spore, but there's also a game here, one that involves the long struggle of life as it evolves and advances from a tiny cellular organism to intergalactic space travel. In fact, Spore is essentially five distinct games woven together. And here, Maxis demonstrates a weakness, as a number of these games come off as lightweight or limited. However, Spore is a prime example of something that is much more than the sum of its many parts.
I like to think of Spore as astrobiology in a box. Astrobiology is the field of science dedicated to thinking about what life on other planets might look like. To do that, it has to draw upon a wide range of scientific fields. Astronomy helps ascertain what sort of galactic conditions are needed to find a planet that will support life. Chemistry helps figure out where that life might have come from, while biology helps explain how it might evolve. Even societal studies, such as civics, might explain how advanced life might organize. Like classic Maxis games such as SimCity and SimEarth, Spore tackles complex subjects and makes them relatable to the player in an engaging way. Basically, Will Wright is the science teacher you wish you had in school.
The easiest way to look at Spore is take it apart stage by stage. So we kick off with the Cell Stage. Spore begins with a comet crashing to a planet's surface, seeding it with bacteria that evolve to become tiny cellular organisms, and you are one of them. This is an old fashioned, top-down arcade game, but one with bright, eye-catching graphics. You swim about the primordial oceans, eating as a carnivore, herbivore, or ominvore. Eating gives you DNA points that you can use to evolve your creature in the cell editor. There are also six different "parts" that you can discover, and these parts can give you different abilities. Water jets let you squirt faster through the water, fins let you maneuver better, spikes give you armor against predators, and so on.
There's something to be said about life in the ooze; it's easy, you swim around trying to eat but not be eaten. It's saying something of the game's design that even these tiny creatures are capable of conveying so much expression, particularly in their eyes. You see them panic and flee when chased, or a slight gleam when they see something they want to eat. Even the little chirps and noises they utter are grin inducing. Alas, all good things must come to an end, because as you eat and evolve, your creature becomes larger and larger until you finally fill up the evolution meter at the bottom of the screen, meaning that you're ready to sprout legs and move on to the next stage of Spore. Unfortunately, I found myself wanting to stay a bit longer in the ooze to evolve even further. There are bigger, meaner creatures to be found, and it'd be great if you could evolve to take them down.
Let's detour to Spore's user-created content for a moment. When you encounter another creature, vehicle, or building in spore, click on it and it's added to the built-in Sporepedia catalog. The Sporepedia is an incredible resource, since it keeps track of not only the content that you encounter in your current game, but it lets you access an entire universe of content created by Maxis and Spore players from around the world. Just witness the wild success of the Spore Creature Creator, one of the editors in the game that was released separately earlier this year. By molding and flexing the many different parts, users from around the world created more than three million creatures with an astonishing amount of variety. And it's very impressive how well it works. No matter how bizarre the creature, you still get a sense of emotions from them, from sad, to happy, to scared, to angry. They animate properly, and they move like you imagine they should. It's just an incredible technical accomplishment.
Consider that Spore features more than a dozen editors that let you create buildings, land vehicles, naval vessels, aircraft, and spacecraft. If you love creating things, then Spore is going to provide an incredible amount of joy. I, on the other hand, suck at making things. While I had fun creating my mosquito-like humanoid creatures, I lack the patience and the skill to really go wild. Some users can take the creature editor and make Viking longboats with oars. I'm nowhere near that good, so I accessed the built-in Sporepedia to select buildings and vehicles others made that I liked. Since you can access the Sporepedia at any moment in the game, it's easy to do. I could then tweak their color patterns and import them into my game. And, for the most part, I had the pick of mainly Maxis-made content since we'll need weeks and months for Spore users create millions of pieces of content.
Now onto Creature Stage, which is the "action" stage of Spore. You're now on land but you're still evolving. However, you're also learning how to interact with your own species and others. These interactions can either be friendly or hostile, and they generally consist of doing a social minigame or getting in a fight. However, you end repeating the same social interaction or attacks dozens of times, and it's a very simple system so it feels a bit like a chore after a while. And you have to do it, because allying with or exterminating other creatures gives you points that you can use toward evolving, as well as valuable parts that you can evolve your creature with.
The Tribal Stage plays out like a real-time strategy game, albeit a basic one. There's only one resource that your tribe members gather (food), and that's used to support a larger population as well as construct buildings that offer various upgrades. Like in Creature Stage, there are only two options: be nice with neighboring tribes and ally with them or crush them. To be nice, you have to serenade them; this time by playing one of four instruments when the tribal members request it. The war route means outfitting your tribe with weapons like stone axes that let you take down the opposition easier. Each tribe you eliminate adds a totem head to the totem poll; once there are five heads on the poll, you've done enough to advance to Civilization Stage. There's not a lot of challenge here for an experienced RTS gamer, and it doesn't take long to get through it at all. It doesn't help that this stage doesn't allow you to create anything in an editor, though you can outfit your creatures with accessories that can boost their social or combat abilities.
Next is Civilization Stage, which feels a bit like a scaled-up version of the Tribal Stage. This time you're struggling for domination of an entire planet, and the key is to capture cities through force, conversion, or buying them. You start with a single city and a single land unit, and you capture spice nodes to generate revenue that's used to purchase more units and upgrade cities with defenses and different building types. Housing boosts population, which supports a larger military; factories generate revenue but also cause unhappiness; and entertainment complexes boost happiness. Capture a city, and you can have it specialize in military units, religious units, or economic units. However, all you pretty much have to do is crank out units and swamp the enemy; the AI will send units your way, but not enough to mount a major push. Any real-time strategy vet won't be too hard pressed here.
And then there's Space Stage, which is by far the largest stage in the game, and the stage that is the widest open in terms of gameplay. Space is, as crazy as it sounds, a single-player massively multiplayer game. You can start flying around the galaxy, visiting a crazy number of stars and planets, some of which are barren but others supporting life in different stages. You can establish colonies on other worlds, extending the size of your empire. You can terraform planets to support life, or mold them like a giant piece of clay. You can get missions to pursue from neighboring empires. You can get into space battles, or you can crush a primitive species. You can abduct creatures from one planet and transplant them to another. In other words, you can basically play as a god, and that's always a nice rush. The space stage is the deepest part of Spore, which makes sense considering that it's also longer than all the other stages combined.
The entire campaign makes for a dizzying trip through millions of years of evolution. Thankfully, once you play through the game you can start on a new planet at any stage that you wish, so if you liked the Space Stage, just go ahead and start there. What you will miss is the timeline of your creature's evolution, as well as the ability to mold and shape your creature through the decisions that you make. Whether you choose a peaceful or a warlike path, the game rewards you with special abilities that you can use. Playing through the game does give you a sense of working your way through the ages. I got a thrill watching my little Poker creatures (named for their primitive, mosquito-like snout) crush their opposition and launch into the stars after a long struggle out of the muck.
It's worth noting just how easy it is to play Spore. Save for using the keyboard to type in the names of the things that you build in the many editors or searching for content in the Sporepedia, you can play almost the entirety of Spore just using the mouse. It's an incredibly accessible game to pick up and play, and the hefty manual that comes in the box as well as the helpful hints will get even a novice up and running quickly.
Like all Maxis games, Spore is infused with charm. The colors in the game are vibrant and warm, and even the most sinister monster ends up looking a bit cute thanks to the art design. The game ran smoothly on my admittedly high-end system, and it was rock-solid stable, never crashing. I can't even think of a single bug. Meanwhile, humor and wit are deeply embedded in Maxis' DNA, and it shows. I stumbled upon two tribe members having a Sims-style discussion, with thought bubbles over their heads and icons representing what they were talking about. They seemed intent on discussing the universe and god, and in this case, god is apparently Will Wright's head. Another hilarious and surreal moment came during the Creature Stage, when in the midst of doing the friendly dance a UFO appeared overhead and began kidnapping the panicked creatures below with its abduction beam. The sounds and music are also classic Maxis. Every chirp and warble that your creatures make seems authentic, and the dialogue sounds like alien versions of the Simlish that we've come to love. The music seems minimalist at times. When combat kicks in, the drums pound and get your blood pressure up. Yet at other times, the music takes a back seat to the sounds of your creatures' feet pounding on fresh grass and other sounds of nature.
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