There are few games more ambitious than or as eagerly-anticipated as Spore. Created by Wil Wright, the man who brought us The Sims, Spore promises to make you see games in a whole new way, and to find a deeper meaning in the experience than simply making it through the last level. What he and his team have prepared easily qualifies as a “God simulator,” taking you through every step of evolutionary life from the beginning of time to the discovery of the universe’s most closely-guarded secrets. Make no mistake, Spore isn’t just a game: it’s an experience.
Your adventure begins on the cellular stage, using your flagellum and wits to propel you around the primordial soup, eating pretty much anything smaller than you. Chomping on enough microscopic organisms allows you to evolve, and you repeat the process until your creature is ready to make its first steps out of the ooze and onto land. This segment of the game can most closely be related to flOw, the PSN game that captured many gamers’ imaginations with simple mechanics and a laid back environment. But don’t think this is the whole game, as the second you set foot on land everything changes.
Once you’re on terra firma, you now must hunt for food and continue evolving so as to raise up a race of creatures just like you. This section plays very much like a third-person action/adventure game, as you explore the environment looking for things to eat and try to avoid critters that could eat you. At this point, things are different, yet still simple, and the game is pretty straightforward. However, Wright and company aren’t content with simple, so as you move on, the game really opens up and you come to see just what all the fuss is about.
After making it through the “Cell” and “Tribal” stages, you move onto “Civilization,” and this part of the game plays very much the same way as the series it shares its name with. At this point in the game, the world you inhabit is separated into various provinces, and it is your job to convert other cities to your particular brand of leadership while continuing to grow and expand your empire. You start things off with one city and one vehicle, each of which can be customized to your liking if you so choose. In fact, if you’re one of the millions who have been uploading new critters into the Sporepedia via the Creature Creator, then the ability to customize will likely be right up your alley. If you’d rather jump straight into the action, you can select from any number of pre-made options and set right out.
When it comes to winning over cities, you can take the traditional military route, or you can experiment with religious and economic options as well. For those taking the religious option, you can basically send out missionaries to bombard enemy cities with propaganda until they rise up and overthrow their own leaders and swear allegiance to you. On the economic front, controlling enough resources will give you the power to leverage your might over cities that may lack access to such things. Also, if you prefer the more direct approach, you can just attack your enemies outright, slashing and stabbing until they buckle under the power of your armies.
Of course, you never have to be worried about being locked into just one method of conquering; you can mix and match as you see fit. For example, if you know there is another group out there with an extremely strong military but very little religious affinity, you can attempt to take that city through peaceful propaganda and never lose a soldier. Now that you have that city, though, you may want to use its soldiers to attack the weaker civilizations that may be more resistant to religious or economic approaches. It’s a delicate chess game, and being able to carefully utilize your resources in order to bring an entire planet under your rule is a weighty task indeed.
All the while, you have to make sure things stay alright back home, as an unhappy populace will do little to help you with your plans of global domination. Your cities need basics like factories to produce new units and buildings, as well as places for your citizens to live and go enjoy themselves. Hence, while the Soviet worker’s paradise may have called for factories as far as the eye can see, in Spore, as in real life, you need to provide apartments, theaters, and parks as well. Again, you can craft the image of these buildings in whatever way you like, or if you’d prefer, you can simply choose an already existing template. Honestly, the world can look as generic or unique as you wish.
Once you’ve finally conquered the world, it’s time to take your conquest into space. The creators describe this aspect of the game as a “single-player MMO,” if that makes any sense. What they mean is that you have a singular character (in this case, a spaceship) which can go forth and interact with any number of planets, primitive native species, or even other space faring races. You’ll get orders from your home planet to do things like colonize the nearby worlds or explore the source of a strange beacon, and you can also receive quests from other races you meet along the way as well. Obviously, if the alien creatures won’t play nice, you can choose to wage war on them, and for the purposes of the demo, we got to see a nice planet buster bomb that can make all your problems go away in a hurry. In a way, it’s a bit sad struggling to survive all those eons to get your people to this point, seeing another planet doing the same, and then simply blowing the hell out of it. But at the same time, they were insolent, and you can’t very be forced to deal with such things; you have a universe to explore.
There is an ultimate objective to the space section, and thus an end to the game, but you won’t reach it anytime soon. Your ultimate quest is to make it to the very center of the universe in order to understand all time’s great secrets, but you can’t just launch your ship, point at the middle and then go. Instead the game limits your spacecraft by forcing you to return to your home planet every so often for repairs and recharging. However, as you complete missions and earn power-ups the leash gets longer and longer, letting you venture out further into the cosmos. Just how long, you ask? The team is planning in the neighborhood of 500,000 explorable worlds, so you should have something to do pretty much at all times. While you obviously don’t have to visit every planet to beat the game, with all the content crammed into Spore, you may just want to.
As I said at the beginning, it’s impossible to classify Spore as a single game or genre. Each of the five stages of life are their own unique and different game, and each of them is long enough that they could constitute full-blown titles by themselves. Also, Spore offers unparalleled freedom in nearly every asset, letting you craft your creatures, vehicles, buildings, furniture, spaceships, and more just the way you like them. Wright may have proclaimed Spore users to be “38% God” in a recent speech, but come this fall you’ll have the chance to be 100% God for a whole race of digital creatures. And you know what? It’s a pretty sweet gig.