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All hail Will Wright, creator of The Sims and now the entire universe...
Will Wright takes on the complex theory of evolution in his latest attempt to follow on from the phenomenal success of The Sims. In development since primates first came down from the trees (well nearly), Spore challenges players to evolve a species from a micro-organism into a galaxy trotting species that will ultimately shape the entire universe!
For a game that promises such a creative and unique concept, Spore draws undeniable influence from a handful of iconic videogames throughout history. Split into five distinct stages that chart the evolution of your creature, like life itself Spore begins in the primordial ooze.
Making the first of several choices that will ultimately form the entire species and the initial designs of your creature, players have to guide the organism around the ooze gobbling up other creatures or plant life. What's ultimately a variant of the classic Pacman is transformed into an entertaining hands on challenge that serves as an enjoyable introduction to the more strategic elements later in the game. It's survival of the fittest in the ooze and for something as simple as Pacman, this stage provides a surprisingly strong allure with its prey/predator dynamic. Watching all of those David Attenbrough documentaries finally pays dividends, with strategies such as patrolling the water streams and hunting on the creatures that use them coming into play.
There's a fantastic sense of the beginning of an epic journey during this initial stage, conveyed by the increasing size of the creature and the expanding area around it. After reaching a certain point of munching and growing the option to begin the first tentative steps onto land becomes available.
Through the first steps on land in the Creature stage before advancing your creature into a basic tribe and eventually into the dominant civilization, Spore continues its homage to the likes of Command & Conquer, Civilization and Populous. Exploring the planet making enemies or allies, establishing a small dwelling, before putting on your town planner hat and maintaining a happy, productive civilization through the correct placement of homes, entertainment venues and factories provides the challenge, although TVG found these stages the weakest and felt the need simply to rush through them. Though that's not to say that a more thorough approach won't have benefits, with the ability to discover extra items and gain a better understanding of your surroundings. The choice between being social or aggressive is on offer throughout the stages, shaping the eventual outcome of your species even further and unlocking new abilities and techniques accordingly.
Throughout each stage Spore offers the level of customisation expected from the team who gave us The Sims. Whether it's adding an extra few limbs, designing town halls or the spaceship that will ultimately bring galactic domination, there's a vast array of parts to add, modify and change colour, which should ensure that the Spore universe is crammed with very different looking creatures, ships and planets to encounter. Like everything in Spore the choice is down to you, so if like us you're not worried about blue skin with green spots clashing, then you can always just skip through it.
Although Spore is undeniably more of a game than The Sims ever was with definite challenges and undoubtedly more likely to appeal to a traditionally gaming audience, it could be argued that each stage taken individually is an extremely simple portrayal of the games Spore draws influence from. But that's where the magic of Spore truly shines. The phrase 'greater than the sum of its parts' was coined for Spore, when you look at the game as a whole the close-knitted nature of the stages creates an utterly enthralling concept of evolution and gigantic scale. The underlying simplicity also ensures Spore should find an audience with both fans of The Sims and the traditional gamer that typically stood clear of the phenomenally successful series.
Having established your civilization as the dominant species on the planet amidst civil war or diplomacy, inventing and designing land, sea, and air vehicles to conquer or convert, the jump into space finally becomes available and is where ultimately the real game begins. The sense of evolving from the micro-organism into a galaxy hopping tribe intent to colonise space is immense, it's one of the most invigorating gaming experiences to be found in years and worthy of immense praise.
If it hadn't been for the Space stage we'd probably feel slightly deflated by the sheer expectation surrounding Spore. However, once stretching into space the game literally becomes immense, taking on the classic Elite as inspiration as you travel around galaxies, trading, combating, and exploring other planets pollinated by the creatures of other Spore players. Zooming from the surface of a planet, to the galaxy it sits in, before eventually viewing the entire Spore universe (displayed as the game's logo) is perhaps one of the coolest effects we've seen in a videogame, it just never tires. The sheer scale perfects Spore's sense of evolution from the humble origins as a micro-organism in the ooze stretching right out to the entire universe.
Terraforming planets to establish new colonies, waging galactic war, scanning other species to build up your Sporepedia, and establishing trade routes for Spice that you fought so valiantly to control during the earlier stages, the Space stage is undeniably influenced by David Braben and Ian Bell's iconic 80's title Elite. Offering an immense universe that makes Spore's addictive hook largely infinite, players are presented with missions and a fantastic sense of freedom that defies sandbox design - you can quite literally get yourself lost! Successfully completing missions, becoming a successful trader, waging wars and plenty of other criteria helps to advance through the ranks and gain Xbox 360-like achievements, which in turn unlocks a vast array of new items and features that provides an engaging sense of reward for your efforts.
A key touch is the fact you've still got control of the micro options from the earlier stages, even if you are hopping between galaxies. Establishing new colonies requires a careful approach to the planet's atmosphere by altering the temperature and humidity, raising or lowering the terrain and introducing a basic eco-system (by 'abducting' flora and fauna from other planets) is the key to sustaining life and advancing your own empire. Using various gadgets the concept is handled impressively; Sci-Fi fanatics will lap up the way in which Wright and Maxis have captured the concept of colonizing planets and expanding your empire across the galaxy.