For about the last 6 months, there are only two games that my boys and I have been waiting for, and those are: Star Wars Force Unleashed, and Spore. Since Force Unleashed isn’t out, and Spore is, we’re going to talk about Spore.
Spore has a great pedigree. Sim City and The Sims are all very popular, very involved, and have a lot of moving parts. The biggest problem with those games is that there’s really no goal – no objective – no purpose. In fact, in some ways, it makes you learn to enjoy natural disasters – ‘That tornado just ripped through the center of my city. Oh goody, now I can put in that high-density Commercial district I wanted’.
But I digress, this review is about Spore. Spore is the ultimate evolution game – you start out as a Sir Fred Hoyle-honoring Panspermatic alien microbe, riding the #4 meteor bus to rube-ville – or should I say “A new planet”
And this is where the first failure occurs – the planet is already occupied by microbes, and things that are much bigger than microbes, and they’re all trying to eat you. So you run away from the ones that are bigger, and eat the ones that are smaller, and grow and grow and grow, until you’re big enough to find another creature just like yourself, mate with it, and evolve. And if you die along the way? No worries, you get to start over, pretty much exactly where you left off.
Evolving is fun – you get to add new parts to yourself, shift yourself around a bit, even sell off all your parts and start from scratch. And so you go through this process of evolving and eating for a while, the entire interface consisting of right and left mouse clicks, until you finally evolve high enough to walk on land.
Now you have to evolve again, give yourself feet and such, and try to go around eating other creatures. Only this time instead of eating creatures in a colorful 2-d environment, you eat them in a colorful 3-d environment, filled with oddly shaped plants, unusual ‘Epic’ monsters and random skeletons that apparently provide the key to enlarging your brain. This makes sense, of course, everyone knows that undertakers and gravediggers are the smartest people on the planet, what with finding all those brain-engorging powerups in the bones of their customers.
But I digress again. What makes the game fun at these points is that the other creatures you are fighting are all on the same plane as you – some have different strengths and weaknesses, but they are all at similar levels of advancement – you have a certain level of power, your prey has a similar level of power. You never go pouncing on a tasty morsel, only to find yourself on the wrong end of a howitzer.
Oh, apparently you can play as a herbivore, and apparently you can advance through social means instead of combat, but where’s the fun in that? If I wanted to win the game through socializing, I might as well go hang out with my boss and laugh at all his jokes.
But I digress. After the pack stage, there’s the tribe stage, where you build buildings to give you tools and weapons, and use those to conquer or… gag… socialize with the other tribes. But this is the next level of failure – there’s only 9 buildings to make. It takes you maybe an hour to get through this phase, which is really a pity because there’s a lot of promise there – like the early parts of Age of Empires or Civilization. I was a bit dismayed at the lack of depth there.
But no matter, I said to myself, the next phase is civilization. And somehow, I evolve again, only this time, I evolve into a species that goes from barely mastering fire into one that has tanks, airplanes, boats and factories around every corner. Immediately, I build some tanks and start taking out my enemies, in the tried and true Tactical RPG technique of throwing a huge wall of tanks at the enemy, and beating them mercilessly into submission. Rinse, Repeat. Rinse, Repeat. A few of the enemies are on cities on other continents. That’s ok, I’ll just take my tanks and carry them over the water…
Oh wait, you can’t transport tanks over water. You have to use boats to attack the enemy cities, take them over, and then build tanks in your new city. yeah, that makes sense.
But now I have tanks, and I can throw a mass of them at the enemy’s walls. Rinse, Repeat. Rinse, Repeat.
The best bit from this level is that you get to design your own tanks, airplanes and boats. Oh, you also get to design your own factories, houses and theaters, but then, those designs provide absolutely zero benefit for you, so you might as well just slap a box on the ground so you can keep up with the killing.
But the vehicles… to the games credit, your outlandish designs actually matter in some ways – if you want your tank to go fast, you have to sacrifice a bit on armor and weaponry. If you want it to pack a big punch, you can’t be super fast. etc. This works really well, in the sense that bringing a gun to a knife fight works really well, since the other players are computer-driven AI morons, and you’re a human being who can optimize your vehicles to hit very, very hard, and not worry so much about how many of them die in the process. You can always make more, eh? One thing that I didn’t like – when you’re piling on weaponry, your vehicles should be more expensive. But they’re not – they’re exactly the same cost as a tank with a pea-shooter, which seems silly if you ask me, but they did _NOT_.
And in short order, you have mastered the entire planet. Wow, that was quick. Did I miss something? Wasn’t there some technology boosts I could have made, research to do, anything other than rampant killing for 45 minutes?
Answer: No. that’s it.
And now you’re finally on the last part – where your spaceship launches off into the galaxy. Impressive. The galaxy is large. There are lots of planets to explore, lots of star systems to visit, and all sorts of alien life forms to abduct and probe. Woo hoo! You wander around from planet to planet, checking things out, visiting with the alien races, trying to do quests for them, when…
Ah crap, I pissed them off. Now I have a huge empire of distinctively unfriendly aliens pouring into my little patch of space. And this is where the game fails utterly. Up until this point, everything’s been balanced – your about the same level of ability and power as everyone else. Only now, in the space level, you’re a complete wuss. Or, more specifically, your entire species is a complete wuss. I’m trying to go solve quests so I can accomplish some of my mission goals, but I keep being summoned back to my planets to defend them from alien armadas with my one spaceship. I have a planet with tons of factories, but apparently they can’t be bothered to build spaceships of their own to defend the planet. I have to do it.
I mean, at least my spaceship is several times more powerful than theirs, yes? Well, yes and no. As we’ve already learned, if you throw 5 or 10 ships at an enemy, the enemy usually crumbles under the onslaught. Unfortunately, perhaps in a case of too-clever-by-half, you’re the poor sap with just one ship, and the enemy has 10 ships wailing on yours.
And they can field fleet after fleet, attacking all of your worlds in parallel, and you’re stuck there with one ship trying to keep things afloat, while your missions go unresolved. And the great tragedy of the game is revealed – in about 2 hours, it goes from ‘ooh, this is cool’ to ‘jesus h effing christ, this is no effing fun at all.’
So there it is. You’ve spent 4 hours working through the various evolutionary stages, to get to the big open-ended game… and it sucks. It’s unbalanced and gobsmackingly tedious. To say that I feel let down is like saying that Monty Python’s Black Knight has some minor sensory integration issues.