We’ll be doing a verdict next week, but for now, here’s the three things you should know about Spore.
1) Spore is a four hour character creator for a polished version of Space Rangers 2. It’s neat.
2) Ignore anyone’s opinion who’s played it less than – oooh – eight hours. There’s certainly good reasons to dislike or even dismiss Spore, but it takes that point before you see past your preconceptions.
3) There is no Autosave. I repeat: there is no autosave.
And a load more detail beneath the cut.
For example, I’ve been following the reviews and meta-gaming them a little.
There’s been some talk about it from comment-thread cynics as being another Black and White. As in, a game that recieved enormous scores from confused reviewers – presuming because it was so unusual it was probably good – and down the line pretty much everyone decided it was a load of old tosh. Funnily enough, I’m seeing it in exactly the opposite terms – I think reviewers are afraid of being the Black & White reviewers and are deliberately upping their criticism – which is one reason why even the positive reviews seem to be full of complaints.
In short: I suspect if Spore was released with less hype, it’d have had better scores. I suspect the fact Spore is so unlike anything else – by being a bit like everything else – that reviewers are slightly nervous around giving it too good marks, in case no-one likes it.
But that’s me thinking too much – there’s a second and more profound reason why the reviews read so down, and it’s a direct result of the traditional completely-descriptive feature-list style of reviews meeting Spore’s everything-and-the-kitchen sink design. A review has to describe everything in the game, which means that each of the five stages tend to get the same amount of space in the review. And since the first four of those stages are really sleight, there’s lots of room for slagging.
This is a complete distortion of the game.
The first four stages you’ll play through in four hours tops. The space stage is at least twice that, and probably a lot more. When you play the earlier games, it’s clear there isn’t much more depth there compared to a normal strategy game… but they’re designed to be comprehensible and entertaining for that very brief period of time. The problem with that is, on the first play through, you’re being mildy entertained and wondering “is this it?”. Spore is a big game – in terms of scope – and its actual experience is actually quite intimate. It’s not blowing you away in the way that you’re expecting it too.
But the game fundamentally changes when you reach the Space stage – it’s the one part of the game which is absolutely on par with any other game of its type – which is pretty much Space Rangers and sod all else in recent years (Comparisons to a game like Galactic Civilizations are deeply misplaced – you may as well say that Mount & Blade doesn’t stack up against Age of Wonders). It has a mass of mechanics – many of them introduced in the previous four hours, in a subtle and elegant way – and is a real, proper game, a pop-cute Elite with terraforming.
In fact, it IS the real proper game, and that’s what I mean by point one. You realise that the previous four hours weren’t actually the real game. They were about creating a customised race which you have a degree of affection for, with traits shaped by your actions in four stages. When you downplay the importance of the earlier stages in your mind, they make much more sense.
When I first played through them, I thought I’d never want to do them again. After the realisation, I’ve done the early stages another couple of times – in fact, the shallowness was actually a boon. When you know the mechanics, you can burn through them, with the experience enlivened by the slight change in methodology you’re following as you’re trying to create a different sort of creature (i.e. I’m using Religion to conquer rather than armies in the Civ stage so I can be a more altruistic nice space race). If they were much deeper, the simple process of making a new race for the real game would be extended pointlessly. You’d be far less likely to do it.
In other words, when you stop thinking about the early stages as the real game and something more akin to a character creator, you start having a lot more affection for them. The Cell and Creature levels are the most entertaining of the two (And the cell level, funnily enough, is the one where your creature design skills most actually impacts the game, in terms of you working out where to put your spikes to maximise your killing machine, and where the economics of what to buy next with limited resources bites hardest). The tribe is pretty vacuous, and the one I’m terribly glad doesn’t go on any longer. The World stage is a little more interesting, but carries a relatively heavy weight of demanding you to design most of the buildings and vehicles, which can make it seem to drag a little.
(Spore Anxiety comes into play here. As in, the pressure to actually create something that’s not rubbish, as you know your friends will see it and if it’s not at all interesting they’ll think less of you.)
But – really – I’m spending too much time discussing them. To be actually truthful to the experience, the early stages should be completely minimalised in a review. If there’s a total copy count of 1000, I more truthful division of the writing would be about 300 words on the creators, 500 words on the space stage, a quick 100 words on all four developmental stages and 100 words snarling at the lack of the bloody autosave.
My advice with Spore is just to relax. It’s a novel game that does a lot of things differently from almost everything else, which makes direct comparisons a little misleading. Don’t think of the hype and see if it takes you under its spell.
Oh – one final thing. The game doesn’t really do the fail state thing, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to fuck up. It’s certainly possible to make a big enough mess of a game – the Space Stage is most likely but if you’re really confused I suspect you could do so at the Tribal stage too – that starting from Scratch is just about your only option. Or, at least, the only option if you want to have fun. Its concept of difficulty kind of reminds me of Darwinia’s, oddly enough, but that’s over-digressing. If you’re in a position where you don’t think you can win – normally in Space when you’re being raided constantly with no where near enough resources to forge a peace – you can’t win and should give up and try again.
(At which point, I suppose, you probably should be glad for the lack of autosave, as long as your previous save game was fine, you can load from there.)
But me? When I fucked up space, I just restarted from the beginning with a whole new race, as I decided I fancied being a bit of a space hippy rather than a warrior. Which surprised me. It’s not normally the sort of thing I do.
I suspect Spore will end up surprising many people.