Spore is AWESOME. Spore SUCKS.

spore1Never before have I had such an intense love/hate relationship with a game as I have with Spore.

Part of this could undoubtedly be attributed to the hype it received before release. But not all of it; I was personally eager for it long before it received mainstream media attention.

For those who don’t know, Spore allows you to control the evolutionary journey of a cellular creature to a land-faring animal, eventually developes enough sentience to form a tribe, then cities, conquer or unite its home planet, and then travel off into space. You can do it once, you can do it a hundred times.

You can invent practically any creature you can imagine, and many that you can’t imagine, and the game does a brilliant job of bringing animating these creatures to life in a wonderful and believable way. Along the way, you can design their tanks, boats, and planes, or if you prefer, chariots and flying machines. You can design their buildings to look like anything from gingerbread houses to gothic architecture to Dr. Seuss-ish bells and whistles to stucco california houses to … you name it.

Eventually, you even get to design your own spaceship.

Almost everyone who plays Spore for the first time falls in love with it immediately. The controls are easy, the objectives are easy, the game is easy. In seconds, people begin cheering on their little cell’s survival in the primordial ooze, already choosing between pacificism and aggression (a choice which deliciously impacts later play in a variety of ways).

Each time I play the game from start to finish, I become repeatedly enamored with whatever new race I’m evolving. They’re my creations and I’ve guided them every step of the way towards galactic dominance.

What the game lacks, and severely lacks, is replay value. No matter what kind of creature you evolve, your choices are between the same 8 buttons in the creature stage, the same 3 weapons/3 religious instruments in the tribal stage, and three unit types (air/land/sea) in the Civilization phase. No matter how excited I am about each new critter, that kind of repetition just gets old.

Space phase is the most interesting, but the missions are pre-stocked text, and there aren’t all that many of them. Even self-invented missions like getting extremely wealthy, terraforming the whole Galaxy, or defeating an enormous enemy empire, are not challenging intellectual projects. They are “rinse and repeat” projects of mind-numbing repetition.

Furthermore, MANY features evident in a demo of the game Will Wright performed fully THREE YEARS before its release are missing from the game entirely. Water phase: Gone. Creatures which explode when placed in a vacuum: Gone. Cells with MANY more parts than just 12: Gone. Drums in the tribal phase: Gone.

There were some implied features, not specifically demoed, but from Wright’s commentary “understood” to be present in the game. They are conspicuously absent. Among them, the ability to negotiate treaties, to form a galactic federation (or governing body of any time), to visit strange planets and walk upon them, to see your tribal creatures react when given a new tool, to threaten or intimidate your enemies into submission when you’re the more powerful.

Furthermore, a lot of things you’d think would have meaning really don’t. For instance, in Tribal phase, you advance to Civilization phase when you either conquer by force or religiously convert five other tribes. Why? In Age of Empires, you got to advance to another Epoch when your food supplies reached a certain level, and that was only possible after you researched such technologies as farming instead of hunter/gathering, increasing your tribe’s self-reliance. This was the way it happened in Earth’s history. Why was it changed for Spore?

This is just one example from many of an incredible “dumbing down” of Spore according to gamers everywhere. Getting another creature to socialize with you in the creature phase is the simplest version of “Simon” you can imagine: Other creature does X, you respond with X. You don’t even have to memorize the moves and repeat them all correctly. If you fail, it won’t be because of your lack of skill, memory, or intellect: It will only be because your creature lacks a certain evolved part.

In space, you can’t tax your colonies for income; you have to play “delivery boy” by selling spice to each planet via insane micromanagement. Even though you can have a “fleet” of allied ships, you’re apparently the only spaceship ANYWHERE IN THE GALAXY capable of helping your allies out of certain jams (and the more allies you gain, the more annoying this becomes). By default, you can only have 3 trade routes open a time.

What kind of galactic empire only has three trade routes?

I still love Spore, even after being so thoroughly disappointed with it, and I still pick it up and play it now and again. But it would have been so simple to do so much more with it. Even simplified dumbed-down versions of things we’ve already seen in other games would have been preferred to just not including basic gameplay or roleplaying elements.

Now my hope lies only in the knowledge that EA Games and Maxis will eventually try to squeeze more dollars from it with expansion packs which may fix some of these problems, and hopefully eventually with a Spore 2.

In the meanwhile, community modders have done all they can to make the game actually enjoyable beyond the first play-through.

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  • Broaddus

    Definitely thinking I made the right choice in NOT picking that title up. Especially since almost all the complaints are in the same vein: not enough game.

  • Jason R. Peters

    It fills such a weird niche that it’s really hard to describe. It’s like moments of pure wonder and joy followed by longer sessions of repetetive tedium.

    We’ll see if the “Galactic Adventures” expac helps any; I think it may, given the advent of user generated GAMEPLAY content. On my Spore buddy list alone, there are some people with AMAZING creativity. I write fiction and music and have painted and sung and played guitar and piano, but the creative minds behind some of that stuff put me to shame. I can only imagine what they’ll do given the proper tools to write their own quest content – content I can then play.

    And the “creation” angle is the one thing Spore got completely, undeniably, inarguably, astoundingly right the first time. If their quest creator is as powerful as their creature creator, more fun will be had by all.

    But perhaps I’m just due for another disappointment.

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