If you are not already playing Spore (Hi, Morgan!) than you probably don't give a damn, but whatevs. Spore is a long-hyped and fairly innovative computer game that allows you to take a critter from its humble beginnings as a bacterium to, potentially, master of a vast space empire. Or really, it's a series of five interrelated games, each of which offers a relaxed mix of game goals and opportunities for free-form "sandbox" play.
The first two stages are all about developing your critter. In the Cell stage (poorly named -- from the get-go, the critter is a complex multicellular organism), you swim about in the primordial ooze, chomping on either plant bits or other critters, or both, all while avoiding being eaten by your neighbors. It is not much different than a very elaborate Asteroids, for example, but for all that it is surprisingly engaging. In the much more elaborate Creature stage, you struggle up on dry land and trot about a beautifully realized 3-D world, socializing with, fighting with, or devouring your beautifully realized 3-D neighbors.
Throughout both of these stages, there is a ton of mating. It's very G-rated mating, to be sure, which is probably just as well because there is an awful lot of it. Each mating is an opportunity to modify and improve your organism. There are almost infinite cosmetic choices. You can have a six-legged blue beast with wings, or a one-legged spotted orange beast with seven eyes. Unfortunately, not many of those choices really matter in terms of gameplay.
Guest Spore-Related Vignette
I was working at my desk when my eight year old son came in to get a Kleenex.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Fine. I've already got Glide 2. I pride myself on my glide."
"Hey. Are you going to be hungry for lunch soon? I was thinking chicken noodle soup."
"Ooh! Chicken noodle soup!"
"Are you ready now?"
He started heading back to the other room to his computer. "I'm almost ready. I just want to mate first."
All that really matters by the time you get to the third and fourth stages is whether you reared an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore. Both of these stages are short, simple real-time strategy games. In the Tribal phase, which is cute and cartoonish, your own aboriginal critters make war or peace with other aboriginal critters; by the much darker Civilization stage you lead a city to planetary victory over other cities populated by critters of your own kind. The latter stage is redered annoying by the requirement to create elaborate designs for different kinds of vehicles and buildings which not only have no impact on gameplay, but also aren't even really visible after you've made them.
The final Space Stage is the one I have played the least so far. (I've played four critters through the Creature Stage and three through the Civilization Stage; only one is a spacefaring race so far.) Until last night, I was prepared to dismiss the final frontier as a crashing bore. Then something unfortunate happened. I started ignoring the tutorial, and it got sorta fun. In fact, I was up until two. Damn. I was hoping to get back to The Reading List.
- Spore is one of few games I've seen in the last ten years that runs well out of the box. Despite this, there has already been a patch released to address the few bugs, as well as early gameplay complaints. The developers are doing a better-than-usual job of taking care of the customer.
- It's very pretty.
- The customization options can be kind of fun.
- The gameplay is easy to learn and entertaining, kid-friendly but capable of engaging adults too.
- The first four levels are really hard to lose. The patch apparently raises the challenge level somewhat, which might make things a little more interesting.
The penalties for "dying," at any level, are so very, very mild that there's not a lot of motivation to protect yourself, or to weigh the odds before taking an action.
- Gameplay is very simple. Even in the relatively complex Space Stage, there are only really a handful of actions to take. It's only going to stay interesting for a while.
- Not enough matters. You can customize a vast array of truly amazing creatures... but it doesn't really matter, they're pretty much all the same. The terrain, vegetation, and ecosystem is beautiful and complex... but it doesn't really matter; it barely affects the game. You can, and in fact must, customize your every city in detail, but none of it really matters; you'll barely even see it, and it's unlikely to change the outcome. Spore is supposed to be all about building and customization, say the developers, but since building and customizing doesn't lead to success or advantage it is an empty and somewhat melancholy aspect of the game.
Spore might have come along at just the right time. I'm still having fun with it, and wouldn't be surprised if it still has about two weeks worth of interest left to it. That's just enough time to console me while my ankle heals. About the time when I can start running around exploring the real world again, I suspect I'll be ready to shelve the Spore world for the time being.
...and the next day, the eight year old boy asked his mother:
"You know what I love about mating?"