Spore has a sprawling narrative that spans billions of years, and you’re creating every single detail of this epic. You start off as a cell, which hitched a ride on a meteor that happened to crash-land onto a planet that luckily fulfilled all the requirements to support life. You’re now in the primordial soup, attempting to grow and evolve enough to live on the surface. Your objective is simple: eat to grow.
The gameplay in the cell phase is simple but fun. Using your mouse to guide your cell, he’ll automatically eat whatever he is able to munch on. Eating not only increases the size of your cell, but it also grants you DNA points, which is the main currency and means of phase advancement for the first two phases. DNA is spent to evolve your cell by dabbling into the creature editor to outfit it with new parts. The editor, as you might expect, is easy to get into and accessible, but it’s limited in the cell phase, mostly because of how the phase is played from a top-down view.
Limited as it is, the cell phase makes the most use out of the editor in terms of gameplay. It’s truly a kill-or-be-killed aquatic landscape, so if you haven’t properly outfitted your cell with offensive/defensive tools, it’s going to get tough. Your cell will also eventually grow to the point that a pair of flagella won’t be enough to evade predators or catch prey, forcing you to evolve to add more locomotive parts. Placement of your parts also matters. Fitting on a defensive spike anywhere won’t automatically protect your cell; leaving your sides defenseless opens a door for your predators to chow on. Even though dying doesn’t have much of a consequence (you’re reborn from another egg), the editor is key to getting through this phase with ease.
Overall, the cell phase is a great start to Spore; the phase oozes with charm and cuteness and how it blurs out bigger micro-critters in the background gives this microscopic phase a grand sense of scale. Little details, like how your prey shiver and dart their eyes back at your cell’s predatory jaws, are appreciated rather than overlooked. It’s also full of life; herbivore cells chomp on greens, predators chase smaller cells, and it all looks very natural. The phase’s relative simplicity means it won’t hold your interest for long, so the phase ends before it overstays its welcome. A couple hundred billion years worth of evolution and growth is achieved in 15-20 minutes, and now your cell is a multi-celled organism, on its way to becoming fully sentient, ready to explore surface world.
Upon entering the creature phase, the game’s scope opens up a bit. Various other creatures have placed their stake on the planet, and now your main goal is to once again get enough DNA. Most of your DNA will come from befriending another creature or driving them to extinction. Doing so is quite simple; taking the social path has you performing simple social gestures, while the violent path has you rushing to another creature’s nest and killing a set amount of them until they’re extinct. Exploring for new creature parts is also a focus in this phase. Digging through fossilized remains is how you’ll get most of your parts, and it’s pretty addicting trying to find every single one.
Once you start editing your creature again, though, the placements of the parts don’t matter anymore; it’s all stat-based now. Definitely a step back from what was established in the cell phase, it doesn’t matter where you place a mouth piece, a pair of arms, whatever. Spore loses this strategic aspect of evolution in the creature phase, instead of building upon it. This phase’s biosphere also feels extremely artificial. Unlike the cell phase, where it was teeming with activity, creatures rarely ever leave their nests or really do much of anything; they just stand around for you to engage them.
The creature phase is one of the weaker phases of Spore in terms of pure gameplay, but it totally delivers on one front: the creatures themselves. They’re fun to look at, and you can really see the procedural-intensiveness of Spore in full-force here; creatures animate naturally even with ridiculous body proportions and leg and arm placements. Each creature looks completely different from one another, and wanting to see what freak of nature is over the next hill is the primary reason to play and complete this phase. Once completed, which should take no less than an hour, your creature is fully sentient and billions of more years have flown by. It’s time to slowly become civilized.
Your creature’s design is now finalized; he’s fully evolved. Customization now comes in the way of adding items onto your creature to increase his stats. The game shifts into real-time strategy for the next two phases, with your currency now being food. Completing this phase requires you to either befriend or destroy tribes around you, much like the creature phase.
The tribal phase stands as the weakest phase out of all five. There’s no real hook; the cell phase made strategic use out of the editor, the creature phase had a sense of discovery, but the tribal phase is a stripped-down RTS and nothing more. Stripped as it is, the tribal phase is decent, and it ends before it becomes a bore. After befriending and destroying the remaining tribes (or doing a little bit of both), your creature is now the dominant species of your planet. Technological advancements arise, and now you move onto a full-blown civilization.
The civilization phase is a bit more fleshed out. A city hall is the centerpiece, while factories, houses, and entertainment structures are built around it. Factories generate income, while decreasing your citizens’ happiness, houses increase the amount of land, sea, and air units that any one city can produce before reaching the cap, and entertainment structures make your citizens happier. There’s some strategy to consider when placing these structures (that you can create yourself, of course). Whether you want to make your city depressed but a money-making machine (which will make your city more susceptible to religious conversion), a happy but moderate income-generator, or a balance of both is up to you.
You start off with just one city and depending how you’ve played the game up to this point, you will take neighboring cities by either religious, economic, or militaristic means. Religious and military routes are pretty much the same – overwhelm other cities by sheer numbers – but the economic route is unique. Establishing trade routes increase relations to the point where you can buy a city out, making it part of your budding empire.
As much as the gameplay depth increases slightly in the civilization phase, it’s also imbalanced. Playing economically is really fun, but it’s downright impossible to win the endgame if you don’t have any militaristic cities. Economic vehicles don’t have any offensive attacks to speak of, and your empire can slowly crumble at the last minute. A diplomacy model is also introduced, but while it’s simple, it adds an oh-so-thin layer of depth. Building creation is also a missed opportunity, because what you make only affects the visual look of the structure and not the gameplay itself. Still, the civilization phase is easily the most exciting out of the initial four. It’s almost always chaotic, as warring nations attack others for supremacy, and weaker nations often beg for your help. It’s a lot of fun, even with its issues.
Simple. It’s a word that has been used a lot in this review, because the first four phases are just that: simple. The awfully short length of each phase assures that the simplicity won’t go from pretty fun to mind-numbing repetition, as shallow as they are. Consequence abilities, which are certain abilities given to your creature as a consequence of how you’ve played (have you been a carnivorous species, a friendly one, an adaptable one, and so on) adds little depth as to how you go about your world domination run. The abilities don’t severely impact the game to much of a relevant degree, so where you take your species’ general philosophy is more influenced by personal preference than anything else.
The transitions from one phase to the next are also quite jarring. One second your creatures are tribal beings and then for some arbitrary reason, they suddenly come up with the notion of skyscrapers and machinery. An underwater portion between cell and creature phase would’ve filled out the transition from cell to creature, too. Actually, building a civilization underwater would’ve been awesome. It would’ve also encouraged multiple play-throughs but alas – maybe in an expansion. Scratch that, an underwater expansion is inevitable. This is EA we're talking about.
The only transition that makes sense is from the civilization phase to the space phase, and it’s in space when the game opens up considerably. There’s quite literally an entire galaxy’s worth of stars and planets to explore and discover. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that it’s not possible to visit every single planet in one lifetime. The size and grandeur of the space phase is practically infinite, but what exactly do you do?
Not a lot, initially. You’re not given a lot of cash, and your basic interstellar drive tethers you to your home star system. Your limited set of tools also means you can’t do much with planets except abduct stuff and marvel at how gorgeous the view is. Most of your profit will initially come from completing quests, which are rudimentary in design. Go scan this, go get that, etc.: it’s very basic, but the sheer variety of planets and their respective flora and fauna keeps interest high. Much like the creature phase, the sense of discovery and adventure is here, except that sense is amplified to the thousandth degree.
Soon enough, you’ll rack up enough money to buy decent upgrades and critical tools to expand your empire. Spice is the main resource that drives the galactic economy, and it’s on practically every single planet. There are varying types of spice and some go for outrageously high prices, so colonizing planets becomes a crucial part in roughing it out in the cosmos. Before colonization can be deemed successful, though, the planet’s biosphere must be stabilized. Terraforming by pumping fumes into the air enhances the atmosphere, and plants and animals you’ve abducted will round out a planet’s ecosystem. For a while, this process is exciting (you can even pump enough atmosphere to the point that it causes global warming; it’s funny and ridiculously cool), but it becomes routine after doing it for the fiftieth time. The rewards are worth it, however.
The space phase, quite frankly, can get insanely addicting, but several problems strike at the core of it. Once your empire expands and more and more spice colonies are created, micromanagement rears its ugly head. Spice isn’t directly transported to your ship; you must go to every single colonized planet to obtain the spice the colony has mined. Imagine you’re suddenly short on cash, and so you must begin a ten-minute escapade of flying to every single colonized planet to gather spice to sell. This process repeats itself forever, and it’s exacerbated when you continue to expand. Eventually, you’ll be so rich at points that spice will become irrelevant, thus stalling the need to go to every single colonized planet. Soon, though, your coffers will start to dry up… and here you go again.
Another issue, which is possibly just as annoying, is how incompetent everyone is. Your empire and your allies constantly prod for help, saying they need some infected creatures destroyed to save their ecosystem, or that a band of pirates must be stopped from stealing spice. Their requests are so stupid that they could easily handle the issue by themselves. Eventually, like the issue with spice mining, you’ll learn to just ignore such pleas for help, because failing to assist doesn’t bring on cataclysmic consequences. Only when diplomatic relationships start to deteriorate is when assistance should be given.
The space phase has problems – that much is crystal clear – but on the whole, it’s the true meat of Spore. There’s so much to just simply see and do. Black holes, still-developing star systems, brand new planets, and brand new creatures await you. Creatures from other planets will slowly move to the next phase, and you can watch and wait for it to all happen, or you can speed the process up, and they’ll take notice and revere you as a god. If you’re feeling immature, go ahead and carve a giant pair of genitals on a moon. Oh yeah, that's a ton of fun. The space phase will eat up hours upon hours of time, when it only seemed like only thirty minutes passed by.
Spore is going to last a long time, longer than it should, thanks to how it integrates user-generated content. The Sporepedia is your one-stop tool to search user creations and upload your own. It’s always on the bottom-left of your interface, and it takes a split-second to load up. If you just can’t seem to create a decent Serenity space vessel, there are a couple nice ones out there. How about some cylons? Sure, there's a couple good ones. The result of this integration is a galaxy teeming with unique, one-of-a-kind creatures
All these user-created designs and varied planets would mean nothing if Spore didn’t look good. Fortunately, even after being in development for so long, it’s a beautiful game. Yes, textures blur greatly up-close and the shadows could use work, but the sheer beauty of the game overwhelms such flaws. The cell phase has a great, creative artistic flair, and the creature phase has its share of jaw-dropping, picturesque landscapes. The tribal phase, well, it looks average at best, further cementing it as the worst phase. The civilization phase’s scaling effect looks terrific, and then space permanently keeps eyes widened. It’s simply a joy to fly around planets and watch the surface change and scale. Look upwards as the sun starts rising, and Spore becomes an ethereal experience for a brief moment. Spore also has extremely lax system requirements, like all of Maxis’s games, supporting cards all the way back from the nVidia FX series.
The audio isn’t quite up to par, but it’s hard to imagine how it could in the first place. Brian Eno’s ambient soundtrack is the highlight in Spore's audio component. His style is perfect for a game like Spore. It sits in the background, while you put hours into the game in one sitting. It’s a strong audio effort, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It’s just well-designed.
Spore goes on forever and it's simply up to you when your space voyage will come to a close. There’s a lot to see and do in space and the user-generated content guarantees longevity. There is an ending to the game, and while the ending isn’t very remarkable, it does give some finality to your epic journey. The game even highlights certain moments on a massive timeline that starts from your humble beginnings as a little cell. Don’t fret, though, you can continue on playing after the ending. Getting to it might be more trouble than it’s worth, but if you want some tangible conclusion, then it’s there.
When it comes down to it, it’s Spore's technology that’s more impressive than the game itself. How it integrates user-creations into the game is remarkable. Remarkably, Spore also provokes thought. We were once little cells, only to change and adapt to what we are today over course of billions of years. As much as we have accomplished, we’re still quite literally a speck of dust in this galaxy of ours, and our galaxy is a spec in the grand universe. The ideas that Spore provides makes you think, and that might be what Will Wright was trying to achieve all along. If that's the case, then he’s succeeded and quite possibly surpassed expectations in that regard.