It remains to be seen as to whether or not Maxis’ Will Wright is brilliant or insane. Or both. That being said, Spore for the Mac lives up to the standard set by Maxis via the SimCity and Sims titles. Unlike the company’s previous titles, the game acts not as a personality or populace simulator, but a life simulator wherein the player must guide assorted life forms through five stages (Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization and Space) on their way to sentience and intergalactic exploration or conquest.
Like other Maxis titles, Spore falls into the category of a real-time strategy. Unlike the other Maxis titles, its focus is far wider, covering just about everything while beginning with the player logging in, creating a profile and beginning as nothing more than a barely-customizable single cell fighting to stay alive. Once your cell has eaten enough food to grow and evolve, the player can then advance to the Creature stage where things become truly interesting.
It’s customization that makes Spore interesting and upon entering the Creature stage, the player begins to see just how many directions they can take their creature in. From skin color to an amazingly flexible skeletal structure, players can add arms, legs, horns, talons, flippers, eyes, claws and almost anything they can imagine, each addition changing the overall balance of their creature. Add another pair of legs and your speed may increase. Throw on another pair of arms and the creature may be able to wield objects better or find their attack rating boosted. Insert a random horn and the player may find their creature’s attack ability has slightly decreased but its ability to charm other creatures as having improved.
Graphically, Spore holds its own, the engine conveying a nice amount of detail while holding a respectable frame rate given the heady amount of action occurring at any point in time. Even if the game’s look seems simple at first, the design is elegant, each world possessing a unique, detailed look while nice touches such as water reflections and accurate lighting round out the visual elements.
It’s the sound that gets you and Spore pulls the player in with an extensive soundtrack by composer Brian Eno. Do something right or get ahead and the soundtrack takes on a lighter feel. Find yourself in danger and the music switches almost immediately, keeping the player involved with what’s going on. Oddly enough, the music can be controlled by the way a player’s creature is designed; add something dangerous like a battle spike and the music will take on a darker feel. Add something peaceful like a herbivore's mouth and the music has a more relaxed feel. The vocal work, as expected, is outstanding and albeit my creatures sounded as if they were communicating via a dialect that sounded like a mix between the adult characters in a “Peanuts” cartoon and a faux snooty/French dialect, the audio work is impressive with its own style and humor that players will find themselves enjoying.
A Maxis game is nothing without its strategic elements and this is where the game becomes both extensive and immersive. There’s no single way to win a level or advance to the next stage and even in the initial Cell stage, players can choose whether their creatures are herbivores, carnivores or omnivorous, these choices altering future gameplay. Once a player reaches the Creature or Tribal stages, they find they can charm nearby creatures and form convenient alliances or go it alone and battle their way across the map until the level’s goals are met.
Enter the Tribal and Civilization stages and the possibilities become truly interesting with players being able to use Economic, Religious or Military tactics to conquer opposing factions, the game allowing for possibilities such as alliances and trade routes.
Even Spore’s "grind stages" where a player works steadily towards a given goal tend to be interesting, the game intermittently offering cut scenes, rewards, unlocks, points and achievements while continuously allowing the player to upgrade and redesign their character. Although it’s a “carrot and the stick” philosophy, this keeps things fun and it’s cool to pick up an item, find you can now add a pair of claws to your creature that’ll improve their battle rating, then head over to the editor to stylishly add this to your creature.
An easy learning curve and helpful tutorials add to the game’s appeal and to this end Maxis has outdone itself, creating a game that can practically be played with a multi-button mouse alone.
Artificial intelligence engines in video games are the greatest things ever or the worst friend a player could hope to have, thereby becoming an anchor around a player’s neck as they slog through the title. Fortunately, Spore’s A.I. holds its own, doing what it’s supposed to and almost flawlessly guiding background tasks or functions (such as handling alliances, trade routes or automated procedures where you’ve assigned a portion of your tribe to gather food while you control a hunting or raiding party that’s attacking a nearby village).
Multiplayer gameplay allows things to get imaginative as well as challenging and players are allowed what’s known as “asynchronous” sharing. Although simultaneous multiplayer gaming isn’t included in Spore, players can create and upload content to a central database, this content later being rated by other players and redistributed to other players to use as levels. After reaching the game’s Space phase, players can visit other players’ planets and interact with assorted species, tribes and civilizations.
Unfortunately, there are some wrinkles to iron out. After its initial installation, Spore needed to run through its updates to become truly reliable under Mac OS X 10.5.5. Even with the updates, Spore crashed on occasion, the application going down on its own and never requiring a reboot of the computer itself.
It’s the gameplay of the final Space stage that can throw the player under the bus, the final stage requiring players to complete missions to steadily advance. This is where things become problematic and the player finds themselves assigned with completing tasks on worlds they’ve yet to explore. Where the game clearly pointed the way to achieve a goal in previous stages, players must now pretty much explore everything they can in order to map out their star system and have a chance of completing various missions within a given time limit lest they weaken tentative alliances with other races. When they say “explore the universe,” the player has to remember that the universe is an incredibly large thing and if you don’t know where a specific planet to go complete a mission objective is located, things are going to get tedious pretty quickly.
The Bottom Line
Shortcomings aside, Maxis has created something fun and completely immersive where the player can play for a dozen hours and feel as if they’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the game. Spore is a customization fan’s dream come true wherein a creature, vehicle or building’s characteristics can be completely built from the ground up while new items and accessories can be gradually unlocked to make a cool thing that much better.
Spore isn’t perfect and a patch or two couldn’t hurt, but it takes on a massive thing and makes it as accessible and fun as anything the company has ever put out. That being said, there’s a universe that needs to be explored, a spaceship that needs to be upgraded, trade routes that need to be formed and alliances that need to be made (and perhaps broken) on the route to galactic conquest.