People Of a certain age will often hark back to a time of invention - a time when the spirit of creativity was hampered only by the fact you were essentially programming a big diode. Gamemakers in those days worked alone, and the madness that solitude brings often spat out a decent game. (Though not nearly as often as they say.)
These people, of that same age, will go on to say that modern gaming studios are so large, time spent in development is so costly, and perfectionism and originality are such undervalued commodities, that we're doomed to retread the same old ground until the graphics are so good that no-one cares about the gameplay.
If Spore doesn't shut these people up, nothing will. When people say "they don't make games like that any more", Spore is five games "like that", which combine to make a game that's never been seen before. Spore defies cynicism - it's such a one-off leftfield classic that playing it feels essential. If all those Sims 2 content packs made EA more inclined to support the development of Spore, then suddenly I'm fine with them. The $12 notes of a billion idiot schoolgirls has finally been put to good use.
The Cell Stage
Before the meteor carrying your microorganisms collides with the fertile planet that's to become your long-term home, you're given a choice: eat meat or plants. To be honest, this stage is more a creature showcase. As you squirm your way around this new environment, littered with specks of plant life and scraps of meat left behind by a shortsighted predator, the possibilities seem slim. You swim around, dolefully scoffing whatever goes into your gob, until you get big enough to rise closer to the surface. After about a minute, a large creature effortlessly snaps a smaller one in two, and out pops a body part - and in the first sign that this isn't exactly a scholarly simulation of evolution, you move over it to collect it There are just six body parts to collect in this stage. If you choose to be a herbivore, you learn to run away, using jets for propulsion and cilia for manoeuvrability. Or you can have aggressive defence, using an electric charge or poison. Meat eaters will probably opt for attack spikes, whereas aspiring omnivores can install the proboscis, which is a piercing weapon that enables you to devour plant cells.
So, you've eaten a bunch of DNA, discovered a few new parts and adapted your creature in the 2D creator. So far, it's all basic stuff. Indie games like Flow have done strikingly similarly stuff, and with more repeat playability than Spore's half-hour Cell stage. Return if you I ike, to redesign your character, chase achievements, admire the scenery. But there's no real need to go back.
The only thing that isn't brilliant about the Cell Stage, is the game itself. It's a scene setter. A tutorial into the game's spirit of discovery and design, and an introduction to death. Shit happens. Plenty more cells sharing your DNA, mate, don't reckon you're special.
Collect enough DNA and dry land is just a click away. All your most notable acts are plotted onto a horizontally scrolling permanent record, and evolution rewards you with a special power that will make it easier to behave in a similar way on land. So, if you're a cellular sausage-gobbler, you'll be rewarded with an aggressive ability, the panic-inducing Raging Roar. Herbivores will win the Siren Song, which instantly prevents aggression in surrounding creatures. Mapped to F1, it's basically a Help button to get you out of any trouble you might get into in the Creature Stage.
On land, you no longer gather DNA points by eating - eating's just what you do to stay alive. The focus is now on finding new body parts and interacting with other species. You find new body parts by investigating the skeletons that litter nesting areas, or by impressing (or killing) alpha members of other tribes. That's what "interacting with other species" is. As you grow, you'll be able, and be compelled, to form a pack. Everyone else is teaming up, and no-one's impressed or made extinct by a loner. This is the stage that contains the Creature Creator - the versatile construction kit that EA released a few months early, so everyone could get the cocks and Humpasaurs out of their system. EA's timing was immaculate - it takes exactly three months for this puerile phase to wear off. So, imagine my surprise to see a gigantic Epic Blinky - a massive up-ended ball bag with a mouth-ended dick snuffling at my face. Its creator? Maxis. Hypocritical swine put teeth in a urethra and ate me.
Every body part you find benefits your creature's survival to different extents - each boosts certain of your creature's dozen or so attributes, which enhance your ability to befriend (sing, charm), destroy (bite, strike) or survive (jump, sprint). Out of interest, you'd be surprised how many of the body parts look like tits when you put them on your creature's chest.
This stage can be completed in around an hour - and this time is punctuated by meteor showers, encounters with gigantic, often adorable, but always lethal, epic creatures, and interactions with a nest getting interrupted by alien abductions. The simplicity at the heart of the game so far is completely muffled by the sense of constant reward, implicit storytelling, and progress. And of course, that incredible Creature Creator.
You might suspect that the Creature Creator is the star of Spore. It's certainly a brilliant, standalone kit, with many more hours to be spent in it than the Creature Stage game. But the game is still in the early stages of its own evolution, and the world you're playing in is so beautifully realised, your sense of attachment to your creature takes root so quickly, and the personality of the other species roaming the world is so powerful, that even without a plot, you feel like you're in an important story.
The Tribal Stage
Befriend and destroy enough of the people in your small corner of the world and you develop into a tribe. Your community gets bigger, the world gets smaller, and the camera gets pulled back once again. Having become a dominant species, who can invent themselves out of sticky situations more quickly than evolution can respond, the Creature Creator is discarded. Instead, you're given status-boosting clothes to decorate yourself with.
You're given one last chance to get your creature as you want it - and remember, the performance boosts they provided won't be any use to you from now on, so just design something you like. Status and abilities in the Tribal stage is provided by clothing, in which you may find yourself wearing anything up to two hats, and town planning sets the tone of your village - each of the nine huts you can build allow you to equip any of your villagers for a certain purpose.
If Spore is a child's game - and up to this point, the appeal to adults is still very much rooted in the game's outstanding charm and flawless presentation - then it's quickly becoming an introduction to strategy gaming. The simple matter (again) of befriending or destroying rival tribes as they appear, is now slightly less simple, as you've got the food supply of your tribe to maintain, a population who are prone to getting killed, and a more mobile and intelligent group of competitors. Charmingly - and a little heartbreakingly - the friends you made in the Creature stage are now reduced to egg-producing pets.
Child-like as the game may still be, there's still scope to try things out, and the hand-holding instructions know exactly when to stop and let you explore. If you're lost, the Sporepedia contains everything you could need to know, even if it is in long -and unsearchable - pages.
Using the side panel to select units can be a bit pernickety (it would have been nice to have a double click to select similar units, rather than everyone), but you just don't need quick or complicated selections, because it's still simple, beautiful and mostly sedate.
Dominate your continent and the camera drops back once again. Now we're playing on the global stage. Your creatures are reduced to a squabbling throng, and the smallest thing you can be bothered with are buildings and vehicles. These are created in two new areas, and even if cars and buildings don't have the immediate charm and the range of emotive animations that things with eyes and mouths have, the potential for creativity is still there. If you're having difficulty, just download one of the hundreds of examples made by Maxis, your buddies (just add their email address, you don't need their permission), or anyone sharing their stuff, and see how they did it - there aren't half some clever bastards out there.
An abundance of food is now a given, and the currency moves to spice - a touching nod to one of the earliest RTS games, Dune II. Even more touching is the treatment of the epic creatures from the second stage. Remember the massive, untouchable creatures who'd kill you with a single blow? They're roaming the countryside here, too, and even they've evolved into fire-breathing Godzillalikes. They'll blight your early progress - not least of all, because the land vehicle pathfinding is occasionally shit - by destroying your cars with a single fireball. But spice is valuable, and cars are cheap - they're easily replaced.
The moment you invent aeroplanes is when the acceleration towards victory becomes unstoppable (air superiority is a huge and slightly unbalanced advantage in the snowball to the final stage) but it's also when you can finally defeat that monster that stamped on you, all those millions of years (two hours) ago. There's no pleasure in it: you're using planes. It's a land creature. Here, have this Tiananmen Square Medal For Disparity In Combat. This is one of the moments that you realise how far you've come, and what level of individuality you've sacrificed for progress. Look at you, commander of a fleet of aircraft. Where's your soul, big man? Spore is the first game that's made me feel a desolate nostalgia for two hours ago.
This is a necessary stage, though. As you take over the entire planet, you invent the spaceship. The ocean that spat your cell creature onto the land is now something you'll fly over in the spaceship you made yourself. The creature you once were is now something you'll abduct and place into a new planets' ecosystem. The tribe you formed is something you'll gently encourage other creatures to do, from your position as a hovering god, and the planet that spawned your civilisation is an increasingly insignificant nubbin in a galactic empire.
This may have been where it was all leading, but that journey was vital - if Maxis had just let us play this section without building up to it, the different elements of the world wouldn't have made such sense, the game wouldn't have felt so complete. You're not expected to join in some hack sci-fi writer's lore - the lore is everything you and your friends have done. It's up to you to prove to the other races - who all chose different paths along the progress tree - that your way is the best. Whatever way that is.
This section is played on three zoom levels: first, the planet surface, which you'll need for missions, combat, relic hunting, pirate raids, city planning and colonisation.
Then the solar system level, you can communicate with planets, explore for unusual signs, and spot planets that might be ripe for a few of your race to set up sticks. The final level is the galactic level, which slowly develops from your home planet into a complicated web of your empire, and those of your rivals.
Deal with them in the way you've become accustomed - just don't expect it to be easy and simple any more. You've had your training. Armed with the skills you've earned from your behaviour throughout the game, the simplified three-way progress trees are now dropped in favour of a large bank of badges. Progress in any direction will unlock badges, each of which shoves you along the final progress bar, to omnipotence. There are many areas in which you can specialise - you might want to colonise new planets, establish trade routes, harvest the different kinds of spice and trade them directly, hunt for artifacts, explore, or befriend new races by doing planetside missions for them. They're all slightly interdependent of course, but the size and depth of this stage of the game is so extraordinary -yet so coyly concealed, and slowly unfolding - that you're only briefly daunted by the new cosmic scale.
Whichever way you play through Spore - as a stripy balloon-headed warmonger, a vegetarian god-bothering octopod, or a hyper-priapic space tycoon - you'll constantly feel like your gut is dropping away from you. It's like showing your mum Google Earth, only this time you're your mum.
Spore's self-referential nature - the way that the other stages are implied to be going on in the background of the one you're playing, make Spore bewilderingly coherent. It's so intelligently structured, with such a consistently beautiful style, that to complain about what double-clicking selects and doesn't select in the Tribal Stage is just petty. This isn't a return to old-fashioned gaming. It's an incredible, never-to-be-repeated journey. The only thing greater than Spore's ambition and scope is its nearperfect execution.
Will Spore destroy your children's innocence?
With the indecent explosion that was the Creature Creator's early launch, it's interesting to see how Maxis are keeping the world clean for the kiddy-winks. The Daily Mail must already have a 100 stories pre-written and 1,000 indecent monsters they designed themselves, just for a story headlined, "Is this the most shocking thing a child has ever seen?"
First off, the filtering system is deliberately mysterious - but all of the creatures I made with big, angry cocks didn't make it to the public zone. Perhaps Creator was released to help create a vulgarity filter, which would make us all unpaid members of EA's QA department.
If filth does slip through the net, you can ban that creature from your world, which also reports people to EA. Then you can rest easy, knowing you've made the world a more sterile and sexless place.
The Blogonian Race is a bitter, angry, cynical society ever willing to thumb its nose at convention, and contradict those it encounters almost on principal. Having dragged itself from the primordial ooze a vicious, carnivorous, bipedal bundle of angriness, it set about establishing its relationship with the world by thrusting it's giant proboscis into the chest of anything it stumbled upon, and sucking its heart out.
Over time, it evolved into a humanoid race able to control its relentless anger and willingness to eviscerate all that stood in its way. Its dual proboscises withdrew as a tooth-filled mouth developed, and its intelligence emerged in such a fashion that it learned to be reasonably pleasant to those around it. A brief charm offensive endeared it to those it shared its environs with, but it soon returned to its old ways. By befriending neighbouring creatures before chewing their arms and legs off, the Blogonians found that they didn't need to work as hard.
After years of evolution, the Blogonians developed a dangling, shaftlike, venom-spitting appendage from its groin area, and they found that they could spew bile from great distances by thrusting their hips towards anything that irritated them.
When doing so in large numbers, they annihilated the objects of their disdain without having to face them directly. They would gang up on hapless neighbours, disgorging their poisonous ejaculate until all that opposed them was extinct. Then they returned to their quickly growing community and gloated about the inadequacies of their prey.
As Blogonian society expanded, its cruelty slowly spread across the globe, and its finest minds fashioned weapons and tools for the exclusive purpose of more efficiently destroying those around it. In time, the species no longer needed its venomous appendage, and instead it beat its enemies with an escalating arsenal of more complex weapons.
I spears, hammers, axes, tanks, battleships land tactical nukes. After destroying everything it had ever come across, the Blogonians escaped the confines of their home world, and have moved to the stars, spreading their uncompromising brand of cold, dark hatred around the universe.
We Originally Made State of Play to re-review MMOs and shooters that have matured over the months and years, we can't help but return to other genres as their games mature.
Spore, in the words of its own creators, is a Massively Single-player Online game that enables players to create their own creatures, vehicles, spaceships and other evolutionary monsterpieces. The key is that these are shared through the Sporepedia, a gigantic online repository of people's horrible/remarkable creations.
The internet, grasping Spore like an easel expressly made for filth, decided to create as many possible horrific things, ranging from creatures that looked like they were buggering themselves to gigantic flying cocks. Luckily it was just an awkward, sweaty phase in their lives, and the Sporepedia itself has grown into an incredible source.
While not completely different every time, each new game of Spore takes on a new life if you involve yourself in the various Sporecasts. These, depending on the user, are either a random pack of their favourite creatures or theme sets. These vary from your average "I did a pack of spaceships from popular films" to the more impressive Animals pack, a slowly growing number of scarily life-like creatures, from skunks to deer, that can inhabit your world. It's strangely gratifying to fly around the space stage and find a planet of raccoons, only to get bombarded with bombs from an angry honking army of star-geese.
The Cute & Creepy Parts Pack was, predictably, not the most inventive thing in the world, giving players the chance to make adorable or frightening things, and EA's executives to sit on chairs made of fine furs. In fact, most of the more interesting changes to Spore have come from Maxis' attention to detail with patches, smoothing out a lot of the difficulty niggles that terrorised Spore's early users. Those of you who picked up the game early will remember the housekeeping a gigantic space empire required. If it wasn't the goose-men of Algaphrax attacking, it was the collapsing ecosystem on Galloosh, or even a virus on Taff requiring your extermination skills. This led many players to spend most of the game flying around fixing minor problems or saying "bugger it" and letting their empires fail.
Maxis have made adjustments to focus you on progressing towards either the centre of the galaxy or building your empire, rather than constantly defending it from marauding armies or disease. Playing the Spore endgame now (as opposed to last year) is a refreshing and addictive safari. On easy and normal mode, players will find much of the frustration has been taken away.
Those of you who never found their way to the central planet, cultivated their civilization to true dominance through commerce or violence, or just turned off after losing a planet four times in a row will find Spore's final stage more fun.
A Quirky Future
The Creature stages haven't had so much love dedicated to them, partially because we reckon a great deal of balance work and testing was done in the development phase. However, Maxis recently patched in health-giving armour-plated exoskeletons. While it's not Cavedog's a-unit-a-week addition to Total Annihilation, there's certainly some worth in Maxis dropping free stuff on our laps.
Spore has an interesting future ahead of it. At present the game can be over with quickly - an addicted player could find themselves lost in the game for around 30 hours at a stretch. However, later in the year, Maxis are debuting Galactic Adventures, adding a bit more depth to the Space stage immediately, but potentially creating a whole new level of user-generated content. While there're the usual bells and whistles of additional terraforming powers, planet-shapes and creature-parts, players can beam down and complete World of Warcraft-esque missions (we presume) on the surface of planets.
The big ooh-factor comes from Maxis creating a City of Heroes-style mission maker. Players will be able to build specific quests and plots and share them across the Sporepedia - though the exact implementation remains to be seen. This potentially opens Spore up a great deal more, with actual interaction between players. Ultimately, though, the logical next step would be for EA to allow players to visit and interact with each other in their own Spore universes, but the stench of MMO, and the abject failure of The Sims Online, will likely dissuade EA from this.
Regardless of never fully connecting you to another player, the future of Spore seems to be in content sharing. Unless Galactic Adventures' tools can create truly addictive missions.
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode