Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Spore is the best 4X space game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) since the original Master of Orion. It revives that flagging genre by making it easily accessible, real-time, with intuitive controls, removing the micromanagement, and making it very, very personal. Instead of your various fleets battling the AI's various fleets, your only control one space ship, followed by a few allies. You still beat the AI's various fleets, because your ship is more powerful, and just like a MMO avatar simply resurrects when destroyed. In Spore your space ship is *you*, whatever you do, wherever you want to do it, you first need to fly your space ship there. Oh, and Spore also comes with 4 mini-games for children before that space phase, covering the cell, creature, tribe, and civilization stages. But those stages are simplistic, easy, and short, and ultimately without consequences.
The game starts with the cell stage, where you steer an amoeba through an seemingly endless ocean, eating food and trying not to get eaten. You start out having a mouth to eat, eyes to see, and flagella to move. Pretty soon you'll find a "piece of DNA" for a sting as weapon, and with the points you acquired from eating food you can go to the creature generator and modify your creature. You can modify shape, color, and the position of your various parts. But if you remove any parts, you'll quickly learn that you cannot function. You *need* a mouth, eyes, and some means of propelling yourself. If you want to kill other amoeba to gain their DNA, you need some weapon, although you can finish this stage without doing that.
Once you've eaten enough food, you can evolve to the creature stage, which at first only involves adding some legs to your creature. You'll see a nice animation of your creature reaching the shore, and a summary history of your previous stage, something you'll get between any two stages in Spore. You'll quickly realize the biggest disappointment of moving from one stage to the next: Your actions and evolution of the previous stage have very little consequences on the next stage. For example when you reach the creature phase, you lose all DNA and parts you collected in the cell phase. The only consequence of the cell stage to the creature stage is a bonus ability based on whether your cell was herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore.
The creature stage is cute, and simple. Like in the cell stage you create a creature, but now in 3D, shaping a body, attaching arms, legs, eyes, mouth, and various decorations to it. The body parts give you various abilities, peaceful ones like singing, dancing, or striking a pose, or attack abilities like charge or strike. In the peaceful, herbivore version you walk over a huge landmass meeting other creatures and try to impress 3 creature of the same type for a reward. The creatures you meet are either premade from Maxis, or are creatures you created in the past, or creatures other players created and which the game downloaded via the internet. Endless possibilities, so endless that Maxis included a ban button if you encounter a walking penis. You impress them by starting communication, after which the other creature will perform one of 4 possible peaceful activities, like song or dance, and you must mimic it, doing the same activity. With advancement comes the ability to add allies, making your performances more impressive. When you impress some alpha creature, you get a piece of DNA, and other pieces can be found on animal skeletons. The DNA pieces allow you to improve your various abilities, or just decorate your creature in strange ways. In the carnivore version you attack the other creatures instead, for the same rewards. In both cases you fill up an advancement bar at the bottom of the screen, and when it is full you get to proceed to the tribal phase.
Attention! At the creature to tribal stage advancement you get a final chance to modify your creature, after that its look remains the same for the rest of the game. This is important because you might have added some features to the creature that are ugly, and you just needed them for a higher rank in something. Also, as the game expressly warns you, you should add arms to your creature at this point if you haven't done so before (they aren't strictly necessary for the creature stage). This is a completely cosmetic exercise: The abilities you collected in the creature phase are absolutely irrelevant for the following phases, you just get another bonus depending on how you played that phase. So instead of using the mouth that gives you the best singing score, you might want to use one that makes your creature look nicer, as you'll be stuck with that look. But then again that only really matters for the tribal phase, while you technically still have the same creatures in the civilization and space stage, you'll rarely ever see them.
The tribal stage is very similar to the creature stage, in that you need to either impress or suppress the other tribes. You impress them by arming your tribe with various musical instruments and play those that the other tribe requests. You suppress them by attacking them. Instead of DNA pieces you collect new buildings for your tribe, and new equipment, which again gives various stats. Besides interacting with the other tribes, you also collect food from plants or animals. Once you've done all tribes, you advance to the civilization stage.
The civilization stage is again divided into a peaceful and a military option, only now the two play the same way. Either you bombard other cities with religious messages, or you bombard them with artillery. You can construct land, air, and water vehicles, of military or religious type. The religious ones you can equip with huge organs, gongs, and megaphones to get your message across, very funny. Whatever you build in the vehicle editor comes out with health + speed + attack power = 100, you just have to decide where to put how many points in by adding the various components. Again, once you conquered by military or religion every city on the planet, you advance to the space age. At this point you get to design your space ship. It doesn't matter what you add, this is just for looks. But as you are going to fly that space ship for a very long time, you might want to make it pretty.
Finally you are in the real game, the space stage. While the previous stages can be rushed through pretty quickly, the space stage can be played near endless. In this stage Spore has a very impressive zoom function. If you zoom in to the max, your space ship hovers close to the ground on some planet, and you can see the wild creatures and plants. There are many different plants, and all the endless creations from the creature phase. You can then zoom out to the orbit, to the solar system, to the galaxy, and so far out that you see the whole galaxy before you. Which you will have to do at some point, as one of you're goals is to find the center of the galaxy, which is a lot easier with zooming out than with using the distance and angle indicator. You can zoom in and out from grass level to galaxy level, and you'll be zooming to various distances constantly throughout the game. I finally got tired using the mouse button for that, and used the CTRL+ and CTRL- keyboard shortcuts instead.
In the space stage you start with the planet you conquered in the civilization stage, which is producing one color of spice. You have a building editor to create houses, factories, and entertainment buildings, but the editor is purely cosmetic, every factory works the same. In the colony editor you place factories, houses, and entertainment buildings in every city. The more factories you place, the higher is your space production, but they also cause unhappiness. Entertainment buildings produce happiness to counter that. Houses are neutral, and produce what the buildings next to them produce. In your starting system the buildings are extremely cheap, but your spice production is rather low. You load the spice on your space ship, leave your solar system, and start exploring neighboring planets. In other solar systems you can find other civilizations, with which you can trade, form alliances, or do war. Or you can find empty systems, which you can colonize, and gather other colors of spice.
You can also do missions, at first for your own civilization, then for others, to gain their favor. The missions range from the typical Fedex "bring me something from planet X" to more complicated eradications of infected creatures somewhere, or even warfare against some other civilization. The missions for your own civilization are especially well done, because they act like some sort of tutorial, explaining you all the possible activities in the game.
Spore has a very nice achievement system, with rewards linked to your activities. You don't research new technology, you get it as reward for doing things, and what you get is connected to what you are doing. For example there are achievements related to how many solar systems you explored, and in consequence you'll get a "Frequent Flyer" badge which unlocks better drives for your space ship. Apart from achievements there are collections, so you can go hunting for sets of artifacts all over the galaxy if you want. Spore is pretty much the dream game for explorers.
In summary, I'm enjoying Spore very much, but mostly the last part, the space stage. I don't mind playing through the previous stages, because they are short enough, but in the end most of the effort you put into creating your creature is lost. Fortunately you can even skip the first 4 parts once you unlocked the space stage. The first two stages are probably suited as game even for young children. As the space stage is a very good game in its own right, I'd consider the first 4 stages just as some sort of bonus. Seen as a space 4X game, Spore is very good, and provides many hours of fun. Maybe not the revolution some people have been hoping for, but a thorough modernization of the genre. Recommended!