After years of development and nearly as many years of hype, Spore has arrived—an event made so big by the association of Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims) and EA’s impressive marketing efforts, even the non-gaming press was reporting it, happily parroting bits and pieces of press releases that—for any other game—would sound like drunken boasts. (For example, Katie Couric introducing Spore as “an evolution in video games”.)
For the record: Spore isn’t a “life-simulator”, and certainly doesn’t simulate evolution. Despite whatever Wright initially intended or EA’s marketing might have you believe, there’s little to Spore that’s any more “evolutionary” than creating a Mii with Nintendo’s Wii, modifying the paint and tires of a car in Forza 2, or making an exact replica of Kentucky Fried Chicken in The Sims; Spore is, in essence, a customization program, bundled with the software that lets you share your work. It’s an interesting product and impressive in its own rite, but not nearly as ambitious as touted – and most damningly, it doesn’t meet the high standard set by Wright’s previous efforts in terms of gameplay design, since so much of Spore feels borrowed from other games.
Spore has five stages, each representing a different period in your creature’s evolutionary history: Cell, the adventures of a microbe swimming around in primordial soup; Creature, the misadventures in eating and breeding on land for the first time; Tribe, Spore’s most elementary level of society; Civilization, where upon achieving planetary dominance your species now competes against itself for a unified culture; and finally Space, in which your creations launch themselves into the galaxy.
You might imagine there’s some consistent, central gameplay conceit that binds the experience together; in fact there isn’t. Each stage confronts the player with new rules, new objectives, and new concerns. The gameplay, though, is old—really old, as in cribbed. The Cell stage is virtually identical to flOw or Feeding Frenzy; the Tribe stage is a rudimentary real-time strategy game a’la Command & Conquer. Most mind-boggling is the “Civilization” stage, so similar to the Civilization series of games you’d think it was automatic grounds for a lawsuit (assuming you had the cojones to sue Electronic Arts). With this in mind, Spore looks less like a revolution than a compilation of five relatively shallow games linked by the ability to customize your character’s appearance in each. Which it is.
After the strangely hurried pace of the first four stages, the Space stage (see 1990’s Star Control) brings Spore to a screeching halt, forcing the completion of endless fetch-quests while harassed by near-constant nuisance attacks from unfriendly extraterrestrials – something that severely dampens the wonder of being able to pull back, Powers of Ten-style, from a lone citizen on your home planet to a view of the entire Milky Way galaxy. Moments like that give you glimpses of what Wright had in mind when playing Spore… and then you go back to delivering cargo from planet A to planet B.
Really, Spore is about its creator modes. That’s not really a game, though; it’s Mad Libs played with eyestalks and webbed feet. For many this distinction is irrelevant: fun is fun, and if you’re the type who can be entertained for hours customizing every organism, structure, vehicle and planet in your galaxy, that’s all that really matters, and Spore is a homerun. If.
It’s possible that for the very first time, Will Wright’s reach has exceeded his grasp. But to his credit: it took as immense and complicated a topic as the origin and evolution of life to finally thwart him.