Spore
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Jungle boogie, uh, get it on...

Sim City is one of those games that you either worship incessantly, or can’t see the point in. Some gamers could spend weeks or even months constructing an immense metropolis, complete with an efficient power grid and prize-winning transport infrastructure. Others would rather take a hammer to their privates than spend a single minute with the ‘virtual city construction simulator’.

Will Wright, the creator of Sim City, has marked his return with the hugely ambitious and original Spore. His own label for the game is ‘Sim Everything’, and in a way he’s right. You start the game in control of a solitary sea-dwelling organism, then oversee its evolution into an entire race of space-conquering super-beings. Each stage of evolution forms a different ‘level’, which gradually become more complex and involving. It’s a lot to explain in a simple text review, so I’ve broken the game down into a brief stage-by-stage account. Crack open a bottle and get yourself comfy…

Stage One: Eat lots and get it on

You begin life as a micro-organism, stuck deep down in a sea filled with all manner of beasties. The aim of this stage is as basic as you’d imagine - eat lots of stuff to grow, and get your microscopic end away to evolve as a species.

First you choose whether your creature is a herbivore or a carnivore. Once that‘s done and you’ve named the little blighter, you take control of the little beastie in a nicely-rendered 2D environment. You can move in any direction by clicking the mouse, and eat something just by swimming into it - floating green globules if you’re a plant eater, or another creature if you’re a carnivore. Whichever choice you made, you’ll still have to avoid other carnivores and creatures with deadly defence systems - spikes, electric shockers and poison glands. This is where the creature creator comes in handy.

Get it on with a mate at any time and you’re presented with the creature creator, which allows your species to evolve. This takes the form of a 3D representation of your creature, which you add parts to by dragging and dropping from a series of menus. You can generally customise the size, shape, colour and location of each part, to make your creature truly unique - or indeed, penis-shaped, if that floats your boat (and apparently it does, for many gamers). Fresh body parts can be discovered out in the game world, which are automatically added to the creator and available from that point onwards.

As soon as you’re happy with your creation, it pops out of an egg and you take control. Just keep on eating and you’re ready for the next stage in no time. It’s actually possible to continue indefinitely, but no matter how large you grow, the other creatures that make up the ecosystem all grow and evolve along with you. Consequently, the stage quickly gets frustrating as you’re always running away from glutinous blobs about five times your size.

Stage Two: Make new friends and devour them

As soon as you chow through enough stuff in stage one, your creature sprouts legs and waddles his way onto land. This is obviously evolution on a vastly simplified scale, but who’s got a spare million years to play a game anyway?

Once you’re on land, you’ll find yourself living in a nest with your brethren. There’s a number of nests belonging to other species in the area, and you advance through the stage by either befriending or devouring these beasts. Although you still only have direct control over one creature, you can recruit allies to follow you around and help you out with charming/killing the other species.

Just like the previous stage, you can evolve at any time by using the creature creator. New body parts will add to both your ability to charm and your ability to beat the living snot out of your neighbours. You can strive for a healthy balance, but it’s a lot more difficult than simply all-out conquering or pandering to those around you. You’ll also have a couple of distractions to deal with, such as the sudden appearance of a spaceship or a volcanic explosion, which adds to the amusement factor. Watching small creatures bounce around in total panic never fails to be funny.

Stage Three: My stick’s bigger than your stick

Your creatures have now evolved into a tribe. You have one last chance to shape them physically, then it’s time to slap on a loincloth and lead them to world domination. The control scheme changes from this point to a strategy-style interface. Rather than control a single unit directly, you select groups of your creatures and give them orders using the mouse. Aside from that, not much has changed from the previous phase. Your aim is still to befriend or destroy any rival groups, but this time you’re using instruments and weapons instead of wiggling your arse or biting your enemies’ heads off. Your tribal outfits determine how friendly or fearsome your creatures are, much like your body parts in previous stages.

This is another simple stage, and one that’s thankfully over just as fast as the previous two. Besides dealing with neighbouring tribes, there’s very little else to do. Occasionally you’ll need to hunt some animals for food, or harvest some fruit. You can try and tame a wild animal to turn it into a pet, but the point of this isn’t particularly clear, especially when slaughtering them is much more practical (if you’re a carnivore). It’s all pretty simple, and by this point you might be wondering whether it’s even worth playing on. The short answer is yes.

Stage Four: I go driving in my car…

After the simplicity of the previous stages, things finally become a little more complex. Now your creatures have invented vehicles - cars, boats and planes - and can use them to spread across the entire globe. You begin with a city shell, and must build up a network of houses, factories and entertainment blocks within the walls. Your overall aim is to take over rival cities, which are dotted across the map. This can be through diplomatic means - establish a trade route then buy them out when you’ve won their trust - or the more simple, violent and fun method of blowing them all to tiny little pieces. Oh, and to pay for all of this you have to mine a bunch of randomly scattered spice geysers.

If this all sounds very familiar, it’s because stage four is basically a slimmed-down, simplified hybrid of every strategy game ever. There’s very few unit and building types, so it should be quite manageable even for a strategy novice. Sadly, this also means it’s lacking in depth for anyone who enjoys their C&C. In addition, you’ll find you have to design each individual unit type and building before you can create them, using a similar tool to the creature creator. People who love to design and construct will doubtlessly love this part. Everyone else’s patience will explode when their warmongering efforts are put on hold while they decide how many sets of wheels to stick on their tanks.

Stage Five: Rocket man


This is what the game’s been building up to. You’ve finally conquered the entire planet, and there’s only one place left to go: the cold, dark reaches of outer space. Before you do that of course, you first have to design your spaceship. Mine was an inane cluster of random pieces, hastily thrown together. Huge scorpion pincers stuck out the front, along with an enormous laser cannon and a pointless set of robotic legs. Not the most practical, but at least it was unique.

For the rest of the game you will only be in control of this ship, which you steer using the mouse and/or keyboard. Your objectives come in the form of missions, relayed from your home planet or from other species that you come into contact with. These missions are nicely varied. Some involve colonising distant planets, or investigating for signs of life. Others will have you wreaking havoc in alien cities, zapping the inhabitants with a laser straight out of a 1950’s sci-fi b-movie.

The missions are purely a means of encouraging exploration, and to top up your funds - it’s more than possible to simply ignore them, and explore the Spore universe instead. It can be fun to simply discover new inhabited planets, then abduct a load of their citizens and raise the whole lot to the ground. If you’re feeling particularly malicious, you can even hover 300 feet over the burning ruins, then release the aliens you just captured. And yes - they do scream the whole way down.

There’s enough in this section of the game to keep fans occupied for quite some time. Those with plenty of time to invest can stretch their species’ territory far and wide, while anyone with an evil streak can invade neighbouring worlds. An interesting point is that the other species are not simply Maxis’ creations - the game also imports creatures that other Spore fans have created. Don’t worry, though - there’s a method of removing and reporting any particularly offensive penis monsters.

Conclusion

Spore is a game that’s destined to divide players as much as Sim City. Some will adore their little beasties and have bags of fun evolving them into a dominant species. Others will take one look at the cutesy box art and grab a copy of Big Gun Death Sluts instead. Still, it’s admirable that Spore can be fun both for lovers of adorable creatures, and also those who hate anything that’s even remotely fluffy. The whole experience should be ridiculously complex, given the mix of genres and the ambitious scope, but Maxis have done a fantastic job of introducing game elements in manageable, bite-size chunks.

Even if you class yourself as a ‘hardcore’ gamer, Spore is still worth a punt if the concept intrigues you.

Charging up the death lasers...