Spore is far from a new game. It was released almost four years ago to a tremendous amount of hype, in part due to it’s lead designer having a history of simulation games including the blockbuster SimCity and The Sims franchises. It received some criticism due to that hype, but it still turned out to be a fantastic game even if it hasn’t been awarded the same legacy and future that The Sims holds.
Spore is a simulation game based around evolution where you take a species from being a mere cell in an ocean to a galactic, space-bourn empire. Through the game you are slowly introduced to more civilised concepts of unity and, through hostile or friendly measures, eventually achieve world and galactic domination. As part of our look back on some of our favourite Mac games as part of Gaming Month, let’s take a look at this ambitious game.
The first stage of Spore is Cell Stage. After a short cinematic of a meteorite falling to earth your avatar breaks free and starts to roam the ocean. There’s pretty much only one aim here: eat food. You don’t even have to worry about survival, since you’ll just respawn without any loss of anything you’ve gained up to that point.
Depending on your choice when you setup your game, you’ll either be a herbivore or a carnivore, and will therefore either eat meat — chunks floating in the ocean already or ones you gain by killing another cell — or plant matter. Eating food gives you DNA points which earns progress up to a final point in which you can evolve to land. DNA points also allow you to purchase new parts for your cell which results in the ability to better fight off other cells or eat other types of food.
Each stage of Spore is roughly reminiscent on an existing game, with Cell Stage resembling flOw and featuring similar physics and fluid dynamics that add an extra dimension to the game. Cell Stage is sort of a souped up Pacman; it’s fun but fortunately doesn’t go on for too long.
As your being eats enough food to progress, you’ll eventually be given the option to advance and evolve into a land creature. You’ll enter your avatar editor once again and be tasked with tweaking your cell into something capable of living on land before a cinematic of you leaving the ocean plays.
Creature Stage is very similar to Cell Stage. You’re thrown into a game world inhabited by other species and your own and must earn DNA points in order to achieve eventual evolution to the next stage. While you do need to eat, food isn’t the main way of earning DNA points in this stage; instead, you need to either befriend or exterminate other species. Performing friendly or hostile interactions with other species — the intensity of which are determined by the parts on your creature, unlocked by befriending/killing species or interacting with piles of bones in the world — earns you points with a bonus for totally eradicating or allying with the species.
The world in Creature Stage is much bigger and you can run into rare features such as crashed or flying spacecraft, spice geysers (which will become very important in later stages) or unusual landmarks. However, the stage does get repetitive after time and could have benefited from being shortened. Fortunately, though, this is the only stage of the game that does feel too long.
Creature Stage introduces the player slowly to the concept of civilisation as you grow a pack of animals to help you to befriend or kill other species. At the end of the stage your species becomes more sapient and forms a tribe from the nest it called home.
Again, Tribal Stage doesn’t introduce any radical new gameplay concepts. You still need to opt for a hostile or friendly approach, or a mix of them both, and interact with other species to progress. You need to either ally or destroy all the other villages in your game world to progress on from this stage, but this is no longer about the sum of your parts. Instead, the stage introduces the player to using tools to help in passive, friendly or hostile missions by purchasing buildings in their village.
Tribal Stage also introduces the player to a greater sense of economy, using food as a currency. Fortunately it’s pretty much constantly available from animals (eggs and meat), the ocean (fish), trees and plants (fruit) or by stealing from other villages. This food both supplies your villagers with nutrition and is used to purchase new buildings for the village, afford new members of your tribe and as a method for offering gifts to other tribes or enticing more primitive animals to live in your village and lay eggs to collect as more food.
This part of the game is particularly well done. It doesn’t push the player into anything that’s too difficult to instantly pick up nor does it consist of repetitive tasks.
As Creature is to Cell, Civilisation is to Tribal. Civilisation Stage resembles a technological advancement in your species as it becomes capable of engineering ground, sea and air vehicles in addition to conducting diplomatic relations. Your species establishes an economic, military or religious philosophy based on your actions in the earlier stages and use this as a method of taking or converting other civilisations on the planet.
Just like interacting with tribes in the previous stage, in Civilisation players communicate and interact with other settlements — your planet’s civilisation are now all of the same species, although tribes of others still exist and can be found on the planet — and use vehicles as a proxy for this. Again, Spore does a good job of not needing nor pushing complex concepts on the player but doesn’t result in a repetitive experience. It’s different but intuitive enough that it doesn’t feel so.
In doing it’s job of preparing the player for the final stage, this part of the game pushes a greater sense of economy on the player. Cities earn money for the player, as does claiming geysers of valuable spice on the planet’s surface (try to claim these as soon as possible when only your civilisation exists because, as new ones establish themselves, they’ll be claimed by others). More money is earned by adding more factories to cities, but this must be offset by entertainment buildings to ensure citizen happiness. Vehicles also cost money and budgeting expenditure to the correct areas is important to avoiding slow progression.
As with each stage there’s customisation tools here too, perhaps more so than any other. You can too create your citizen’s dress, but more importantly design all the vehicles and buildings in the world. I’m not a big fan of doing this, though, so it’s fortunate you can use the Sporepedia to populate with other creations. If you’ve logged in to Spore’s online service, the Sporepedia is populate by other player’s content and their creations can appear in your worlds, much like their species can appear in the Creature Stage, etc.
At the end of the Civilisation Stage your species advances to such a state that it can engineer spacecraft to leave the planet. Space Stage is really the primary part of Spore, although the choices you made in the earlier stages do influence the gameplay in this stage slightly, especially in the tools made available to you and their price.
In Space Stage your aim is to grow your empire. Planets produce spice — adding more factories to colonies and cities still results in more efficient spice production — which can then be sold at varying prices, with various types and different rarities. This money can then be used to buy tools that enhance hostile or friendly interactions with other empires whom you may encounter through exploration of the galaxy, form new colonies and upgrade your spacecraft. You can also find and subsequently sell or collect rare items in addition to being rewarded for performing tasks for other empires and your colonies.
Space Stage does not have a real end, although you can level up. However, after that the game continues and little is changed. Similar to the “official” ending of Minecraft once you’ve defeated the Ender Dragon, there is an ultimate goal to Spore, even if the game continues after then. Reaching the centre of the universe triggers a cutscene that forms the “end” of the game, a difficult task since it requires significant travel from the player’s homeworld and requires navigating the sprawling and hostile territory governed by The Grox.
If it were released in 2012, Spore probably wouldn’t win any awards for graphics. However, there is a cartoonish charm to it’s presentation that doesn’t attempt to be too realistic. Creations can be made to be overtly cartoonish and unrealistic but as is the nature of a game that doesn’t try too hard to be scientifically realistic.
Spore particularly excels in audio with sound effects being well distinguished between the stages. The ambient music in Spore is particularly good and just good stuff to listen even outside of the game.
Spore is essentially an amalgamation of five much more simple games with the added dynamic of events in the previous stages having some influence on the current one. Standing alone, these individual stages mightn’t be as credible (although they’d make killer iPad games!) but combined they make for an ambitious project. It might not live up to the insane amount of hype it received prior to original launch or be scientifically accurate, but it does result in a fun experience. Plus, it doesn’t suffer from any performance or stability problems through it’s use of Cider like The Sims 3 does on OS X (at least, it hasn’t for me playing this game on three systems or on the three previous iterations of OS X).
You can pick up Spore for less than twenty dollars now which I’d say is definitely worth it. Spore will still give a few hours of play and the various possible routes you can take your species mean it has some replay value. Although it hasn’t received the same legacy as The Sims, Spore does have one expansion pack, Galactic Adventures, that adds some more goal-based gameplay through mini-games that take place on planets and can be produced and shared by players.
Spore’s a fantastic game and, four years on, the price reduction only means it offers better value.