Spore is an enjoyable game that pulls off an interesting balancing act. On one hand, it lets you create a creature and guide its maturation from a single cell to a galactic civilization through an unusual process of evolutionary development. Because the tools used to create and revise this creature are so robust and amusing, and each creation's charms are so irresistible, it's hard not to get attached to your digital alter ego. On the other hand, this intimacy is abandoned in the long, later portions of the game, when you lead your full-grown civilization in its quest for universal domination. The idea sounds ambitious, though Spore isn't as much a deep game as it is a broad one, culling elements from multiple genres and stripping them down to their simplest forms. By themselves, these elements aren't very remarkable; but within the context of a single, sprawling journey, they complement each other nicely and deliver a myriad of delights.
Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming...
Spore's greatest asset, by far, is its intuitive set of creation tools. If you've played the separate Creature Creator, released earlier this year, you're only seeing a small piece of the puzzle. At various stages, you'll construct, for example, town halls, land vehicles sporting cannons, and aircraft that spout religious propaganda. The creatures are the true stars though, and you can mix and match legs, arms, mouths, wings, and lots of other parts into a beautiful work of art--or a hideous monstrosity. Each part of your creation can be turned, resized, and twisted, so whether you wish to re-create a favorite cartoon character or develop an original concept, you'll probably find what you need in here. You don't need to be a budding Pablo Picasso to make an interesting creature, however; just slapping a bunch of random parts together can result in a truly hysterical beast. Yet even if your onscreen buddy is a three-armed ogre with scales running up his belly, you'll be spending some time getting to know him in the first few hours of gameplay, and you'll probably develop some affection for him in spite of his hideousness.
You will need to put some creative energy into Spore, but if you aren't the artistic type or don't find the building- and vehicle-creation tools as interesting as those for your creature, you can use premade designs that ship with the game. Even better, you can utilize Spore's extensive community tools, inserting other players' innovations into your own game in progress. It's actually a lot of fun to sift through others' creations, if only to marvel at the remarkable amount of imagination on display. And you can do this from within the game proper using an online database called the Sporepedia. In Spore, community and gameplay come together in a fresh and user-friendly manner. In fact, to get the most out of the game, you should be online whenever you play. Not only will doing so give you access to the Sporepedia, but most of the other creatures, vehicles, and even entire planets you encounter will have been created by other players. The early release of the Creature Creator has already proven that community involvement is a core aspect of the Spore experience, and the sharing factor is poised to give the game remarkable longevity.
In a game of Spore proper, however, you won't start off by molding the creature of your dreams. The game is split into five stages, starting with the cell stage. (However, once you unlock a stage, you can start a new game there and bypass any stage that comes before it). The creation tools at this stage are simple, limited to a 2D cell and a few odds and ends, like flagella and spikes. The accompanying gameplay is similarly minimal, and if you've played Flow for the PlayStation 3 or PSP, you will have a good idea of how it works. You choose the path of a carnivore or an herbivore at the outset, which determines what sort of food bits you can munch on. From here, you maneuver your cell about the screen using the keyboard or mouse, avoiding creatures that are looking to you for their next meal while grabbing a bite or two yourself. If you're an herbivore, you seek out the green algae; if you're a carnivore, you need meat, which means waiting for a fish fight to break out and gobbling up the remains, or starting the fight yourself.
You'll also uncover new parts as you swim about, and can then attach them to your organism. To enter the cell creator, you send out a mating call, which lets you get romantic with another member of your species. Then, you add a few bits that make you swim faster or jab harder, and jump back into the gene pool. However, it is all ultrasimple: You swim around eating so you can get bigger, and avoid being eaten. If you do fall victim to a sharp-toothed protozoan, you'll rehatch with no real punishment. All in all, the cell stage may last you 20 or 25 minutes, which is just as well, since it's not very interesting and wears out its welcome quickly.
Soon enough, you'll leave the environs of the sea, add some legs, and lumber into the creature stage. You'll still find new parts scattered about, this time hidden within the skeletal remains of other beasts. Again, the gameplay itself is pretty simple: You wander around exploring for other creatures and advance through the stage by either befriending other nests or conquering them. If you want to go the aggressive route, you should equip sharp claws, tusks, and spitters; if you want to make friends with the local duck-billed orangutans, you'll go with parts that let you charm, sing, dance, and pose. Should you decide on violence, the encounter plays out much like a very plain online RPG, in which you click on your target and use one of your four special abilities to do damage. If you want to make friends by singing and dancing, you'll play a little game of Simon Says, mimicking the actions of your hopeful buddies. As you progress through the stage, you build up a little pack of followers, and they will join you in your battles--and your posing routines.
For carnivores, this truly is forbidden fruit.
The gameplay in the creature stage may be simple, but it's here that you start to see what can make playing Spore such a special and rewarding experience. Seeing your creature slowly evolve from a flat cell to an awkward, gangly land dweller is fun, particularly if he doesn't look as though such a beast in real life would be able to walk, much less bounce around the forest. This is where your relationship with the creature is most prominent, and that connection is what makes the exploration of the creature stage so interesting. When you encounter a towering six-legged atrocity charging at the locals, you'll hightail it out of there--yet still be in awe, just as if you were the little guy himself. It's more about the gawking than the playing, but whether you're joining a pack of polka-dotted parakeets in chorus or catching a glimpse of an overhead UFO, there are some legitimately appealing moments to be had.
Once you reach the tribal stage, you will lose some of that connection with your creation. You will no longer be playing as an individual, but rather controlling a tribe, and the stage plays like a slimmed down real-time strategy game. It's disappointing that you can no longer make adjustments to your tribe's main features past this point; you can, however, adorn the creatures with different clothing items for the duration. Fortunately, the charm and personality of the creature stage is still very much evident, and you'll still have the same thrills as you encounter excellent and unusual creatures as you order about your small group of wacky travelers. Conceptually, the tribal stage is similar to the creature stage, only now you focus the violence on an entire village, including structures. If you like that sort of thing, you can go so far as to equip tribe members with torches and set the enemy village ablaze. If you'd rather woo your neighbors with the sweet, soothing sounds of song, there are a few instruments at your disposal.