Tuesday, September 9, 2008

EA's life simulator is a universal success


Ambitious and adorable, EA's life simulator is a universal success.
By Ben Silverman
4 Sep 2008

Contrary to popular opinion, life does not begin at forty. It is not a bowl of cherries, nor is it anything like a box of chocolates.

Life is a game. And a damn fine one at that.

The brainchild of Sims honcho Will Wright, Maxis' long-awaited Spore lets gamers create a new species and guide it from the dregs of the primordial soup to the apex of the intergalactic food chain. And that's just the half of it. From its amazing Creature Creator to its downright groundbreaking integration of user-created content, Spore aims to please gamers of all kinds -- and for the most part, it will. This isn't the game of evolution, it's the evolution of games.

Several games, actually. Spore breaks life down into five stages -- Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization and Space -- that increase in both difficulty and complexity, each crammed to the gills (or paws, or thumbs, maybe) with customized goals, features and mechanics. The fear was that this would result in a disjointed mess, but somehow the designers keep the five stages nicely tethered together with a streamlined design aesthetic. Whether you're nibbling on an opposing cell's flagella, serenading a potential ally, gathering baskets of fruit for your tribe, storming an enemy civilization's stronghold or terraforming planets from the comfort of your spaceship, you'll know just what to do. Spore never feels overwhelming.

It also never gets stale. You can play aggressively or passively (the former is, unsurprisingly, far easier), and the way you behave in each stage has direct ramifications on later levels. You're constantly presented with achievable goals, each pushing you closer to triggering the ability to move to the next evolutionary rank (you can even skip straight to any of the five levels provided you've played them at least once). It's a not-so-subtle design shift that saves the game from the common sim pitfall of plodding repetition and increases the game's instant-play appeal tremendously.

"Spore aims to please gamers of all kinds -- and for the most part, it will. This isn't the game of evolution, it's the evolution of games."

That is, until you get sucked into the black hole of the game's lengthy final stage. You'll spend far more time in Space than anywhere else, and it starts out great. Astonishing, even, especially when you realize the ball of rock you call home is but one of millions, all accessible with your trusty spaceship, and many of which contain hidden treasures or alien life.

But as you expand your empire and interact with other sentient beings, the game starts acting up a bit, inundating you with repetitive tasks in an odd, manic attempt to keep you from wandering off. Wars turn into constant homeworld invasions, prompting you to just start making friends with everyone so you can get cracking on solving the game's final riddle. Exploring is still fun, but you'll soon miss the simple joy of evolutionary experimentation.

Or more specifically, you'll miss tinkering around in the amazing Creature Creator, the infinitely flexible, 3D Mr. Potato Head that lies at the heart of Spore. Much of the early game is spent acquiring all manner of claw, foot and maw as you continually evolve your creature from a floating ball of tissue to a sentient, multi-limbed monstrosity; eventually, you'll use the Creator to build vehicles, buildings, and UFOs in the Civilization and Space stages. Best of all, you don't need a degree from Pixar U. to feel like a master craftsman. The robust yet easy-to-use tool might be the star of Spore's show, as it routinely steals the spotlight from the core game. You can (and will) lose hours plucking, pulling, nipping and tucking your creations, and by and large, what comes out of your handiwork will actually look and sound pretty cool.

And you don't have to do a thing to show it off. Every one of your creations is silently uploaded to the massive Sporepedia, then used to populate everyone else's game world. Not only has that scale of user-sharing never graced a game before, but it works like a charm. Obviously it's a bit hit-or-miss -- not every Spore player is a Rembrandt, leading to some ghastly evolutionary misfires. Regardless, the endless pool of content makes each world feel truly unique, and unless all Spore players suddenly stop creating, the well won't dry up any time soon.

Occasionally -- and perhaps unavoidably -- Spore buckles under its own weight. Hardcore strategy buffs accustomed to waypoints and build queues will be put off by the total lack of such features, while the oversimplified AI can suck some of the fun out of diplomacy. But to stare at the fine points is to miss the beauty of the view -- and make no mistake, it's a bee-yooot. Spore takes so many risks and introduces so many new concepts, it's far more than the sum of its parts; it's video game history in the making. Join in.

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