Spore: First Review

As mentioned in a previous post, I’d gotten the pre-purchase download for EA’s highly anticipated “massive single-player online game”, Spore.

Late last Sunday night, the pre-load unlocked itself and I was able to install it — but being late, I didn’t do anything other than to confirm it installed okay.  Actual gameplay didn’t commence until the following morning.  Since then, I’ve usually played a couple hours each day.  In the game I’ve taken the farthest, I’ve just started the Civilization (4th) stage.

Initial impressions — the pros:

It’s a really beautiful game, and quite entertaining simply to enjoy the visuals.  In general, the basic gameplay is fairly simple.  For instance, at the earliest “cell” phase, you just swim around and eat stuff.  Along the way, you try to collect parts for function upgrades.  Eventually, you get big enough to evolve into a creature.

As a creature, it’s much the same thing, but now there’s more focus on whether you fight other critters or tend to be social — and again, you try to collect new parts and abilities.  Eventually, you move on to a tribal stage, then civilization, and finally space exploration.

How you play and behave reflects itself in the abilities you unlock and acquire, and also in how newly encountered strangers will tend to treat you.  Be a friendly-type creature, and when you form a tribe, you’ll continue to tend to be favored socially.  Be a ruthless carnivore, and others will be hostile — but your tribe will also have evolved more attack strategies.

It is super easy even for a total non-artist like myself to create interesting and highly detailed creatures.

The game is constantly updating itself with content from online servers, you never know what kinds of creatures, buildings, vehicles, and spaceships you might run into — most of which were created by other players.

Once you have unlocked a particular game phase after the 1st one — creature, tribe, civilization, or space — you have the option to begin new games at those points, rather than having to start over as a cell.  But if you do that, you do forego some of the ‘acquired characteristics’ that result only from having a continuous past.

Although Spore’s depiction of evolution bears only a nodding resemblance to the real thing, the whole concept of this game has to be driving the creationists crazy.

The cons:

Sometimes the directional controls can be really clumsy, and I’m not finding it very easy to keep the camera focused where I want it to stay.

The on-screen mini-map and status icons in the Creature and Tribal stages are way too small.  The display elements ought to be more customizable.

It’s also not always obvious what you’re supposed to do, or how to accomplish it.  In addition, when you move from one game stage to another, the mouse-click behavior sometimes changes — an inconsistency which can result in lethal errors.

There’s almost no penalty for dying, you just get reborn back as an egg, or at your village or city or planet.  I keep thinking there ought to be some cost, even if it just means you have to spend more time again collecting DNA points, food, or Sporebucks.

This is just me, but I like to fiddle with things, try stuff out — and the ‘real-time’ nature of the game can make this difficult.  I generally prefer a “turn-based” option, or something that automatically pauses the action so I can take care of tasks. Or some way to speed up or slow down time.

The lack of elapsing time control is exacerbated by the fact you only get one save position for any given game you’re playing.  For instance, in my current game, I’m in the Civ phase.  I cannot go back to, say, the Creature phase and make different decisions (like, “I want to be more ‘adaptable’ than ‘social’, so instead of making friends, my critter should fight more”).  The only option is to start over in a brand new game, back at cell stage — and it looks to me like there’s a limited number of games at any given time (about 10, I think?).  If I had to pick one peeve, it’d be this one: Let me have at least 10 save positions per game run, not just furthest advanced.

Ought to be some way to screen out or replace non-alphabetic creature names.  The game sometimes goes out to the main Spore servers and downloads player-created content.  Now the game’s been released worldwide, I’m seeing critters with names in Japanese characters.

Summary:  (Above is a little Flash widget showing my various creations.)  It’s fun.  Despite the shortcomings, this is the first computer game in ages which has actually managed to captured my attention and enthusiasm.  That said though, I found both the installed game ‘Sporepedia’ help systems and user manual to be woefully inadequate in terms of helping me figure out what to do — hence I have to recommend also getting a copy of Prima’s game guide.  I bought and downloaded the eBook, and it’s proven invaluable in explaining how to do stuff.

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