Version tested: PC
At the heart of Spore, say some, lies a fascinating, amusing, baffling contradiction: you're the Creator in the ultimate God game, in which you can succeed by imposing your beliefs on others, and yet Maxis' universe - a convincing mishmash of procedural and many-user generated species - is, as the game puts it, "an epic journey of evolution". One tends not to get on with t'other.
However, as with so many things (religious fundamentalism, for instance), the mistake was to accept the premise; Spore isn't a God game, it's a many-Gods game. In it you guide the development of your species from a single cell in a 2D ocean onto its newly formed feet, along a prickly path to abstract reasoning, problem-solving, emotion, science and interstellar conquest, with rest-stops in savagery, tribalism and tank-rushing. As you do this, thousands of other real-life players do the same and their species become part of your game-world, adopted by the AI ruling their own planets to greater or lesser effect.
Spore's happy to think of you as a God, but in the end your status is debatable. Perhaps you're just evolution itself. So endeth the contradiction in what, as is typical of Spore, turns out to be bright and amusing fashion.
The many-Gods structure is a novel idea, but it's also the source of so much of Spore's appeal; the game-world is a Frankenstein's universe of inventive or funny or pop-culture or genital Adams-of-the-other-guy's-labours, and that self-replenishing variety (optional, if you're boring, and actually rather devoid of penis monsters) is as crucial to keeping the smile on your face and compulsion in your exploration as any of the game mechanics Maxis has implemented.
If Spore's on your watch-list then our encouragement is probably redundant, but it's worth throwing in for the only semi-curious: invest yourself in the things you make. Your first hours in the game are spent tooling around the Cell, Creature, Tribal and Civilization phases, which are simplistic (and difficult to fail) challenges that owe much of the appeal they have to your and other creations.
Cell is a physics-based survival contest; eat the flora or eat the fauna, which you kill by driving yourself into it with spit or spikes pointing in the right direction, or a tendency to go electric on contact. It's beautiful and elegant, but over quite quickly, and you might not throw much thought into your Cell creation, although it's still quite good fun in either case. From Creature onwards though, do.
Creature is about charming or attacking others, which means integrating the right combination of body parts, some of which are ornamental, but many of which enhance certain abilities, like singing or dancing on the social side and striking and charging on the other. As you explore the planet you collect body parts from allies, defeated enemies and discarded remains, and it's worth doing a bit of good and bad so you'll have allies when something bigger and badder comes along. Maxis means something else when it says Spore is a bit like a single-player MMO, but Creature is pretty comparable to soloing the low levels of your average fantasy online world; keyboard shortcuts, cooldown times, simple tutorial quests, albeit under the terrifying gaze of the occasional spaceship or quaking at the feet of an epic monster.
What makes it work is how much you like your own creature, and what you encounter. There are herds of Star Wars walkers, beached baby seals that slide along the ground, moustachioed gremlins... What's that coming over the hill? It's a reference, to a videogame or film or cartoon or internet meme or book or TV advert. Watch out for our Bank Holiday sofa sale species; they don't bite you at first, but the interest gets you in the end. New parts and ideas and stronger foes send you scurrying back to your nest to revisit the Creature Creator and evolve or redesign.
With enough huntering and gathering and copyright-infringing under your belt, you then progress to the Tribal phase, with a hut and a Costume Creator, and a mandate to ally or conquer neighbouring species as they reach the same stage as you. The mechanics are similar to Creature, with a few extra concerns; which instruments to give your social mob, how to split your force, whether that buffing breastplate is worth the aesthetic counterpunch. Do the needs of the tribe outweigh the needs of the visual reference?
The Tribal phase is over quickly, though, at which point it's time for Civilization, and here the creation tools start to stack up. You could borrow the work of others in the Sporepedia easily, but why would you do that? So you need a city hall, entertainment, a factory, houses and turrets, not to mention land, sea and air vehicles, and whereas the Creature Creator demands more compromise by forcing you to incorporate certain parts to improve key stats, with the Vehicle Creators the strengths of each component are distributed across a percentage scale of speed, health and might.
Outside your city borders are spice mines to control, which builds up resource to spend on infrastructure and units, and the goal is to conquer your continent and eventually the planet. We did this by imposing our beliefs: broadcasting a mile-high image of our singing chief to neighbouring infidels until they were normalised, but you can do it by force or diplomacy if you prefer.
With the world under your control, it's time to go to space, the Spore endgame, where your options suddenly multiply enormously. You can fight, colonise, trade, explore, establish relations; only a certain amount is imposed, and while there is a lot to do, you're prepared for it, thanks to what's arguably Spore's greatest trick: the hours you've spent up to now were an elaborate combination of character-creator and tutorial masquerading as a game.
It makes sense in reverse. Cell taught you the basics of survival; Creature showed you the virtues of social and militaristic growth; Tribal introduced you to society and multitasking; and Civilization honed everything and taught you to conquer on a massive scale and multiple fronts. You were designing your species - or rather Designing - and of course actually designing in the visual (and aural) sense as well; establishing your look and play styles by living through elaborate and occasionally brilliant examples.
And so to space, where the potential is still slightly overwhelming, but not too much. After a brief piloting lesson you take your spaceship - your avatar for the rest of the game - away from your homeworld by dragging back on the mousewheel and ascending through the atmosphere to witness your planet travelling past the sun in its green (ideal-for-life) orbit, and while you orbit a planet you can contact the people on the ground, receive missions, sell anything you've looted and buy upgrades, terra-forming equipment and more.
A few more wheel drags and you leave the system and get to pilot yourself to nearby alternatives on whatever premise. Pick somewhere you like and grind the wheel forward and you descend. Perhaps you'll make contact with a new species and trade, kill or befriend, or perhaps you'll just fly around the planet abducting plants and animals you like.
Travel is limited at first, partly by your ship's entry-level warp drive (forcing you to hop between local systems to reach the distant ones), and partly by the competing needs of your growing empire of colonies and network of friends and enemies.
Lovable as you are, people need convincing. One of our early acquaintances - the self-appointed fashion police of the universe - demanded that we rid a neighbouring planet of its ghastly turrets to earn their trust, which was painstaking (and painful) as we were already part of a trade route with them. Others are too meek or aggressive to be dealing with; and then there's the Grox, the pirates and other ever-present threats. It can all seriously hamper your quest for the many Achievement-style badges, the rare item sets, terra-forming equipment and proficiency, and the big secret at the centre of the universe, but it's seldom the tedious drag of the Sims' inability to wash themselves or clean up.
There is so much to do, and while much of it seems functional on the page (the many fights with pirates bothering your trade routes; scouring systems for tell-tale yellow outlines that predict a rare item; building up a fleet of allies; looting and grinding to gather money to spend on new kit and to buy up entire systems) there's an inherent appeal that's traceable partly to the desire to experience the unknown. The history of your species is on a timeline of exploration, and there's always a What's Next. (There's also a visual timeline of your exploration to inspect, if you're curious about what you did yesterday.)
It's also partly attributable to Maxis' Sims-style sense of humour, ballooned manifold by the massive expanse of populated space into which you're thrust. There's the reams of dialogue to chuckle through (with your own range of amusing responses; Star Trek's first contact could do with more "Yeah, I could get into that"); there's the Sporecasts you can sign up to, which populate your galaxy with the best of someone else's discoveries, ever the hook.
By now though your eyes have crept down (after all, What's Next?) and maybe started a bit at the number, and it's true that Spore's recommended with caveats. Although you're mostly prepared, space can still be unforgiving after a sequence of innocent missteps, like a shortage of funds because you misinterpreted an instruction, or an unwinnable war you stumble into, and while the Spore Guide help files are deep, they don't always answer your questions.
And for all their mighty purpose, the first four phases of the game don't always play brilliantly, and they're too fleeting. Creature is the best place to experience other people's work, for example, and while there's nothing to stop you lingering or beginning again in Creature, there's not enough in the repetitive gameplay to encourage this. Throughout the four there are myriad reasons to frown intermingled with the smiles: the Costume Creator is a bit crap; the Civ and Tribal phases are very lightweight and there are too many buildings to edit in Civ; the Creature Creator doesn't let you make exactly the creature you want because your survival depends on parts that spoil the look.
But while there are days you won't want to go to the four-stage school, and compromises to be made, such is life; and ultimately it is worth it for the fun you have along the way and the experience of the space strategy game at Spore's heart, which overwhelms any burgeoning disappointment. All along we've known that Spore's ambitious design demanded so much of the developer that it had to - and of course wanted to - pass some of that onto you, and perhaps the flaws that endured are symptoms of that extensive, intricate development and infrastructure, and that fate which sometimes befalls even the best developers: losing sight of a few basics.
Yet they're irrelevant to the bigger point. We're all familiar with the innovative, web-aware customisation cloud that underpins Spore, but nobody's done it better (even though many now do it - apparently years after Maxis thought of doing it here) and the final game is proof that it was all worth it: you're all one big Designer, and Spore succeeds as much because of you and me as the many worlds scattered across the stars and the many ways we've been given to explore them.
9 / 10