Spore: Evolution Without the Awe Factor

Friday, September 19, 2008

Will Wright is one of just a handful of celebrities in the world of computer-game design. Like his contemporaries Shigeru Miyamoto (the Mario series) and Sid Meier (Civilization), he has a level of prestige similar to, say, Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg in Hollywood.

His last creation, The Sims, hit the Spielbergian sweet spot, appealing to a broad range of people who don't usually spend a lot of time playing computer games. It's the best-selling computer game of all time, spawning two sequels (The Sims 3 is due in February) and countless expansion packs. So Sims publisher Electronic Arts has been eagerly awaiting the next production from Wright and his studio, Maxis. And ever since Spore was announced in 2005, EA has been steadily ratcheting up the publicity.

Could anything live up to such hype? In this case, no.

Spore is ambitious, simulating no less than the entire evolution of a species, from single-celled microorganisms to interstellar explorers. But it doesn't inspire the sense of awe you get from, say, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Don't get me wrong: Spore is a solid, entertaining game or, rather, a collection of five well-executed games, each representing a phase in your species' evolution.

You begin in the Cell phase, swimming in the ocean and eating plants or other cells. You also discover meteor fragments that contain parts you can add to your cell, such as spikes or flippers. Eating enough food earns you DNA points, which you need to move to the next phase. (No one promised that Spore would be realistic.)

Once you have grown legs and emerged onto dry land, the Creature phase begins. Again, the primary activity is eating, and if you have chosen to live as a carnivore, that means killing a lot of animals. You can also try to make friends with other species by showing off your singing and dancing, and you can mate with animals of your own species to create stronger, smarter offspring.

Eventually your team will discover fire, moving into the Tribal phase. You begin with a hut, clothing and a small assortment of tools. Instead of just controlling one creature, you can assign tasks to other tribe members: Some might go fishing and hunting, while others guard your tiny village. Soon, you will stumble across other tribes that you can try to befriend or conquer.

Once you have dominated your part of the world, the Civilization phase begins. Starting with a small city, you can add buildings and create vehicles. You will need vehicles to venture beyond city limits and search for "spice geysers," which produce the substance that drives your economy. Again, you can either conquer or form alliances with other cities, using military power, economic might or religious propaganda.

Finally, you will escape your planetary confines in the Space phase. You can "terraform" (alter the atmosphere and other features to be like Earth's) and colonize neighboring planets. Eventually you will want to stretch out into other star systems and galaxies. Naturally, there are other galactic civilizations out there in the void. Some will need your help; others will want to blast you into space dust. This phase is, by far, the most complex and satisfying part of the game.

No single element of Spore is revolutionary. For example, the Cell phase is a fairly basic, 2-D arcade game in which the goals are to eat and not be eaten, kind of like Pac-Man without the maze. The Tribal phase is an introduction to real-time strategy games such as Warcraft. The Civilization phase owes a debt to, well, Meier's Civilization (not to mention Wright's own SimCity).

To be fair, Spore isn't aimed at hard-core gamers who have spent months or years mastering more sophisticated simulations. It is designed for more laid-back players, the kind who love tinkering with The Sims but may never play other computer or video games.

I am not one of those people. Although I admire the craft that has gone into The Sims over the years, I have never felt compelled to play it for very long. I feel the same way about Spore. It's impressive, but I can't imagine I'll still be playing it a few weeks from now.

-- Lou Kesten, Associated Press

Spore Everyone 10+; Windows PC, Macintosh; $49.95 Electronic Arts

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