Version tested: PC
It's an unusual situation, to say the least. The Spore Creature Creator is one small part of the full game of Spore, due out on 5th September. Specifically, it's the bit - and smart, title-reading readers will spot this - about creating the creature. You stick bits together, in the manner of a 21st Century Mr. Potato Head, and watch it animate. There's no game. Of course, since one of Spore's main selling features is that your in-game universe will be populated with everyone else's creatures, they'll turn up in a game eventually, but right now there's nothing more than making a creature out of computer clay and marveling as Maxis' magic brings it to life. Maybe put it in front of a different background. Make it dance. Make it play with kids.
But to review or not to review? That is the question. The 'nay' argument: this is only one part of a much larger project, and in the UK it's basically a pre-order thing so you can get your money back. The 'yay' argument: whenever a company charges money for something, you bloody well review it. Like, obviously, you blithering idiots. Review!
If you've any interest in videogames, you should at least play the demo. While it's going to be disappointing to some people - and I'll explain why in a bit - this is absolutely one of the cutting edges of videogames at the moment. That it does what it does so naturally almost undersells its achievement: it just works. The difference between the demo and the full version is that you simply get a lot more parts out of which to construct your creature. Which, when written down, makes you wonder why anyone would pay for it. It'll all be in the game eventually, and you can have a crack at a fair chunk of it now... why pay?
Well, firstly, it's dirt cheap. But a better reason is to imagine a palette of paints. They've given you red and yellow for nada. And, sure, you can paint anything beautifully with the two colours. But those other five are awfully tempting if you're liking how these oils are spreading on the canvas. You want to see what you can do with the full spectrum.
You can do a lot of nifty things. The flexibility from the start is enormously impressive. When I was reviewing it, I wanted to see how quickly I could make a functional creature, knowing that within half a minute I could pull the spine into shape, lob on some limbs, add eyes and... well, I could have done it in the time. In practice, it was so adorable that I just stopped and carried on tweaking. Sure, it was a ball of legs, but it was my ball of legs.
That's the magic of it. I suspect in screenshots some people have been turned off Spore. It's pretty damn cute, and the saccharine may evoke a gag reflex in some. But when it's your creature it changes. It hits the parenting parts of the psyche hard when you see something you've made come to life. And, of course, the second you get involved with the game you discover you don't have to be nearly as cute as the pre-generated shots. And at that point we start talking about Spornography, and this is a family site. Stay away from the mobile phalluses.
There are limitations with the tools, despite the flexibility. For a start, the creatures you create basically have to be symmetrical. So while you can have one eye at the front, you couldn't actually have one, alone, on the right. The animation is a second point - while the ability of it to work out how to move with a horrific mass of legs attached to the side is impressive, there are some even simpler formations that lead to something that moves while twitching. It requires some careful tweaks to get beautifully smooth animation. That said, creating a fun gait is absolutely part of the art. And finally, there's a limit to the total complexity of the creature possible, with a maximum number of moving elements allowed. Well, at least without disabling it with one of programs that have spread out online and you can locate with the magic of Google.
But these are small fry - the biggest problems with the Creature Creator are those of expectations. From its initial announcement, people have been cementing their idea of how Spore should work. That the concept seemed so vague - what is it you do exactly? - that people have been spinning out their own concepts, and this is the first point where those beliefs are going to be confounded.
The problem is that while the game's capable of enormous variety, that variety is really solely aesthetic. You add a mouth, it can eat. If you add a jaw, no matter how much you change its dimensions, it'll bite at the same strength. Add more leg parts to add more speed. Add more armour parts to add more health. No matter whether one character is enormously fat with tiny stumpy arms and another is a spindly, long-limbed giant; as long as it's got the same claws at the end of its body, it'll strike as hard. If it's got the same number of legs, it'll move as fast. You don't get to do things like - say - play with novel limb lengths to create a creature with more range, or add muscle in areas to make a weapon stronger. This isn't robot wars. This is doodling a robot.
In other words, while the Spore Creature Creator lets you play god, it doesn't let you be god.
You can see why Maxis took this approach. The second you make every decision functional, you have two effects. Firstly, a whole load of novel-looking creatures would simply be impractical in-game - if you made something look cool, you were unlikely to be able to compete with a more efficiently-designed creature. Secondly, there would be certain optimum solutions to a problem. At best, this means that there'll be a universe full of creatures with a certain specific arm arrangement that proves terribly brutal. At worst, they'll be hyper-optimum solutions which bear no relation to anything in a conceivable life. I'm thinking of the Spore equivalent of the one-room houses in the Sims, which minimised floor-space so Sims could move from job to job with unrealistic efficiency. In the Sims, where you were on your own PC, that's no problem - your personal choice is your personal choice, and if you want to create a box, that's your call. But when your hyper-efficient yet not-creature-looking creatures are being shared across the internet, it's no good at all and...
Well, we've actually moved from talking about the Creature Creator to Spore proper - which, of course, we haven't played yet. That's the other odd part of the exercise - that while you can't actually see how Spore will play, you can see how it won't. Playing the Creator Creator sort of hints at the whole picture - normally, demos only show a selected fragment of the game. This is a little different - it actually shows one element of the game... but perfectly. (Though there's also vehicle, building and plant editors in the full game, so there's more than this.)
But being a teaser for the future Spore is actually only part of it. If you're buying from certain UK retailers (EA Store, GAME and Zavvi) it acts as a pre-order pack. But this is actually a fine object in and of itself, which is going to be played with by people who'd never normally play a traditional videogame. Because even if you were the sort who was expecting a design test rather than a design tool, you must not underestimate what an enormous achievement the procedurally generated animation of Spore is. In a real way, the characters you create in a couple of minutes' work are comparable to ones which are weeks of work in other games' animators. The genius is in how it makes almost everything transparently easy - take, for example, the .png files the game outputs. If you see one of them, you can just save it to your hard disk and the assorted meta-data to the object will allow you to import it into your game.
It absolutely re-democratises creativity in this way. As the number of successful total conversions drop in the mod scene, not least due to the effort in making even a single modern-tech model, this opens it right back up again. People can play. Is it worth a fiver? Completely. While it acts like a pre-order incentive, in actual fact, playing the Creature Creator, it absolutely justifies itself. Even if you never plan to play Spore, it's absolutely essential you play this.
9 / 10