Maxis games have always been a little bit frothy. They’re very up front about the fact that they are games, to the point where they had this as their company ident circa SimCity 2000. “Software toys” sums up Maxis games perfectly for me; they are almost universally open-ended sandbox designs where you’re set loose in a virtual playground to do what you will with the systems Maxis have provided, and they’re presented with a thick layer of light-hearted frothiness to encourage you to have fun. What made Maxis games so successful – up until this point – was the fact that that layer of froth usually concealed a deep and comprehensive game experience lurking beneath. I’ve invested dozens of hours in the various SimCities connecting up plumbing and worrying about my education budget, and even the unapologetic virtual dollhouse of the Sims is surprisingly complex for what it is. They may be frothy, but they are not shallow.
And then we have Spore, a game which deals with possibly the most complex concept possible — the evolution of an entire species from the single-cell stage all the way up to interstellar spaceflight – and which is nothing but froth. It’s actually kind of shocking to me just how lightweight this game is, even despite all that I’d heard about it in the four years since it was released. I guess I always had trouble believing that Maxis could stuff up such a good concept so badly; surely there’d be at least some fun to be had just watching your creature evolve all the way up to a tool-using organism? Even the worst Civilization-style games offer the vicarious thrill of developing nuclear weapons while everyone else is still figuring out which end of the gun goes bang, after all, but in Spore? In Spore your choices are so insubstantial – the game is so insubstantial – as to be essentially meaningless.
The creature creator that comes packaged with the game is actually fairly comprehensive and making it so that the wide range of body parts available all fit together and animate smoothly is a genuine accomplishment, but it’s one that’s utterly undone by the in-game functioning of every creature you make being completely identical. Add one pair of legs and you get a speed of 2. Add six pairs of legs and you still have a speed of 2. That’s fine since you don’t want the secret to making a powerful creature to be cramming as much stuff onto it as possible; the problem here is that if you then add some feet with a speed of 1, the creature won’t have a speed of 3. It’ll have a speed of 2. The game picks the highest available stat in each area to determine a creatures ability rather than a sum of all stats, and since there are rather more creature part types than there are stats it becomes pathetically easy to maximise your creature’s ability in every area rather than building for speed or strength or whatever, with all further changes you make to the creature being purely cosmetic – which, as far as I’m concerned, is another word for “pointless”. It’s nice to build a sleek, efficient killing machine of an animal. It’s less nice to build a sleek, efficient killing machine of an animal that functions identically to the nest of peaceful cud-chewing herbivores over on the next hill.
So the main draw of Spore is a bit of a dud. Take that out, and what else does Spore have to offer? I was going to use the phrase “at its root” here, but Spore is basically all root and no actual plant so it would be pointless. What Spore is, at the end of the day, is a collection of five minigames that range in quality from not-very-good to absolutely dire.
The cell stage – Despite being the simplest stage this is — paradoxically — the best part of the game since the cell body parts actually do have a limited effect on the way your cell plays and there’s a visible sense of progression. You’re a cell, and you have to swim around in the primordial ooze eating food and gradually growing larger. More food consumed means more DNA points which means more body parts, and unlike the creature parts a cell with spikes will attack differently to a cell with electrocute while a cell with fins will move differently to a cell with flagella. There’s not a huge amount of flexibility in the way you can build your cell and you’d probably go through all the different combinations in three or four plays, but it’s the only stage of the game that has any variety whatsoever. As a neat touch there are bigger cells swimming around that attempt to eat you, but as you grow larger the roles reverse and they become part of your food chain. Then just as things start to get interesting you’re rudely booted out of the ocean and into…
The animal stage – The point where the game transitions from mildly diverting to dull as ditchwater. Your cell grows into a member of a nest of animals which have to either ally with or destroy other species to grow bigger brains. This is the part where the meaningless creature creator comes into play so there’s no joy there, and mechanically it plays exactly like a very poor MMO. Push buttons 1 through 4 in sequence to attack! Kill/ally with five Bearus Assius to level up! Avoid higher level creatures until you’re big enough to eat them! It is deeply, deeply tedious, and the evolution of sentience doesn’t exactly improve matters.
The tribal stage – Best summed up as “an indescribably awful Populous knockoff”, you get put in command of a tribe of the final form of your creatures and are told to go forth and kill/ally with surrounding tribes of other creatures. You can build buildings in your village but if they don’t follow the theme of your tribe (aggressive/peaceful) they’re functionally useless, and there’s only six of them in any case. What gets me here is that there’s no attempt made to give the other tribes any sort of character, no attempt made to differentiate them from one another in any way. One tribe might be bipedal ape creatures and another tribe might be six-legged arthropods, but the game doesn’t take any notice of this and simply refers to them as the Pink Tribe or the Blue Tribe. I went with the genocide option and was rather displeased to discover this involved the classic RTS trope of building as many people as possible and then blobbing each of the enemy villages in turn, with no actual conscious thought required on my part. Once you have repeated this task five times your tribe decides to build a city, and things move on once more.
The civilization stage – As soon as you start this stage you get more design screens thrown at you. Design a town hall! And a land vehicle! And a house, and an entertainment building, and a factory! It’s the tribal stage redux, except this time the AI is a bit more aggressive in attacking you. Your time spent in the design screen is just as pointless as before, with everything functioning identically no matter what you do. Stick seventeen different guns on a tank and it’ll still fire the same characterless blue energy blasts at the same rate as your opponents’ tanks. Stick walker legs on it and it’ll still slide across the landscape at the same speed as your opponents’ tanks. As for what you do, there’s a collection of other cities strewn across the map and you have to conquer or ally with them by shooting them a whole bunch or… actually I’m not sure what you have to do to ally with them. Perhaps the reason I found it so dull was because I was so aggressive? Who cares, I’m not going back to find out and the end result was the same anyway. There’s some rudimentary city management which could have been interesting had they included more than three building types as well as spice mines that can be captured for extra cash, but these are superficial details only because the civilization stage ends up being the epitome of the tank rush. You buy as many tanks as you’re allowed, you rush a city, you rebuild your tanks, you rush another city, you develop aircraft, you rush all the remaining cities in one go. Just like the tribal stage, then, the civilization stage is completely braindead.
The space stage – Having achieved complete dominion over the other nations of your planet by drowning them in tanks, your creatures then decide to launch a spaceship to seek out new life and new civilizations so that you can drown them in tanks as well. Now, the space stage could be awesome. It could be the premier achievement in gaming for the next decade — an unholy fusion of Freespace, Elite and Master of Orion. I have no idea, though, because upon being asked to do yet another boring trivial task that wouldn’t be out of place in a terrible MMO (abduct aliens) I promptly decided I couldn’t take any more and stopped playing the game. My rigorous reviewing standards (snigger) would demand that I play all the way through to the end but
- From what I understand Spore doesn’t have an end, just a sandboxy sort of universe thing you fly around in.
- I think I did well just to get this far in the first place.
- Any game that makes me wade through five hours of unutterable tedium before letting me at the good stuff has some significant design flaws.
- Spore is still at least four-fifths awful.
Spore is a complete failure of a game. It is an incredibly unambitious take on an ambitious concept, a stunning indictment of the gaming industry’s tendency to dumb things down, down, down until the concept is lying on the floor in a pool of its own bodily fluids because it’s too stupid to fend for itself. It’s as if somebody looked at the face/character generators RPGs have these days and said “Yes! Let’s try to make a game out of that!” only after dozens of design meetings and years of development time and hundreds of thousands of pounds of wasted money they still didn’t have any good ideas beyond Stick Legs On Creature -> ??? -> Profit, and so what they ended up putting into the Spore box was a pretty neat creature designer immersed in a primordial ooze of pure froth. Expecting a game to spontaneously form out of such primitive building blocks was just a little bit optimistic; as it is I’ve played Flash games with more depth and complexity than what eventually crawled out of Maxis’s abiogenetic development process, and Spore is something that’s making me very, very nervous about the upcoming SimCity revival. Hopefully a more down-to-earth concept won’t tax the clearly-overworked creative brains at Maxis too much and they’ll actually include a game in there somewhere this time around, but I’m not optimistic.