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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Spore Review

posted by on September 9 at 14:02 PM



It’s not until I abandon my city of monsters that Spore finally feels right. I’m in a spaceship, zipping across a Milky Way-sized galaxy and managing an empire with equal parts diplomacy and combat. My six-legged creations are light years away, and the distance is doing me some good.

It’s because by then, Spore has given up on evolution-based gameplay. Growing from a single-cell organism to a space-crazy empire sounded intriguing when Sim-lord Will Wright announced the video game years ago, but he never made it clear how it’d be converted to something worth playing.

There’s little evidence that his team figured that out, yet the issue isn’t the game’s ambitious sprawl between single cells and spaceships. Rather, Spore suffers from a disconnect between its brilliant creation system and the gameplay duct-taped to the back of it.

I’d do a disservice if I didn’t rave about the game’s organic Lego kit. Understand that Wright and his crew have made a system where you can mix and match hundreds of body parts in highly unsustainable ways, and yet the game will take your seven-arm, three-leg, four-vagina bastard and convert it to a lively, sentient being. Natural, procedural animations; emotional responses; maybe even realistic Kegel exercises (I didn’t check).

You can make something in ten minutes that looks and acts more alive than most game characters.

The pre-space chunk of Spore keeps these creations busy in four development stages: single-cell, creature, tribe, and civilization. The hope is that you’d create something and, through the game’s evolutionary system, feel connected to it through the growth process. With real-time adaptation, the game would always feel fresh.

Spore has no interest in this idea. By the time you take your critter to land, you’re confronted with the game’s hard-fast rule of advancement: either eat other species, or befriend them.

Your constructions can be abstract and bizarre, but their actions don’t have that luxury. Couldn’t I appease a more powerful beast by bringing it food? Befriend a brainy creature by serving as its sharp-toothed protector? Make myself look like a leaf and poison deer that bite me?

Nope. Either click the mouse repeatedly to kill, or get into an insultingly easy game of Simon to befriend. No natural adaptation happens—certainly isn’t necessary for this black-and-white system. More arbitrary limits show up, such as the lack of stacking. Say, if you cover your critter in 20 spikes, it’s no stronger than a single-spiker. You are not rewarded for creating wild, fun creatures; Spore would rather you study point values attached to these bits than experiment.

Don’t bother jacking up the difficulty. With such creative limits, you can’t use strategy to get through harder content. Rather, it just takes longer, proving how oversimplified Spore is. Why all the dumbing down and lack of creative options? Games like SimCity and The Sims were huge hits because they were nerdy, open, and intricate.

As you proceed, the Lego kit expands to make castles, factories, tanks, ships, and boats for your tribe and civilization. Again, they’re really fun to tinker with (and Maxis has pre-loaded content in case you don’t want to bother), but because you’re zoomed out in a Starcraft-style camera, you can’t enjoy their detail while playing. Worse, there’s no thinking needed as a tribe or a civ. Rack up huge armies of either military folks or priests, then conquer—like the creature stage.

The final space phase is fun—it’s huge, has considerable depth and tactical variety, and is remarkably easy to figure out. Other semi-sim space exploration games have come before it, and Spore borrows from the best of ‘em to make an open-ended, long-term journey through space accessible for the Sim and Flash-game crowds alike. No real ending or extreme goal here, unlike the other modes.

I’ll bold this line to give credit: Spore’s space mode is the bulk of the game, the one you’ll spend the most time with, and good enough to override a lot of these criticisms.

But it renders the entire game that preceded it useless. Was all that evolution stuff a tutorial? Could’ve skipped it; I had to learn a new system of flying through space and managing alliances. Were the evolution modes fun? No, and they’re so repetitive, I see no possibility of new fun in playing them again.

Nitpick time. There’s no autosave feature. Tread carefully. Worse is Spore’s online DRM, which only permits three lifetime installs. If my PC dies and I reinstall, my copy of Spore has to handshake with EA for permission. If that happens a third time, my permission runs out. This means even installing to my laptop for to-go Spore is iffy. Considering the game is already on BitTorrent with DRM removed by hackers, and considering Spore has no Internet multiplayer, what are paying customers getting? Other than the ability to download their friends’ custom penis creatures? Angry fans are bombarding the Amazon customer review site, killing the game’s rating there. Good on them.

Of course, for a game with so much hype and expectation, Spore delivers on enough of its promises to redeem itself. But there’s something peculiar about this uneven game—the fact that you can get the creature editor all by itself for only $10. Based on my many hours with the game, that may be enough of the Spore experience for a lot of players.

Me, I’m heading back to space.

RSS icon Comments


Bad stuff:

1: The Mac port is being handled by TransGaming, not the original publisher. TransGaming has an awful track record, with lots of buggy, slow ports of Windows games for OS X to its name.

2: As mentioned, EA and TransGaming are both using some idiotic DRM called SecuROM. It's invasive, it's buggy, it's caused lots of security problems, and it's also pretty ineffective at doing what it's supposed to do (prevent copyright infringement.) It is, however, greatly effective at slowing your PC down and preventing legitimate customers from playing the game.

EDIT: Tried making a real link to the Wikipedia page, but Slog seems to think that one link = comment spam. See for more info on the DRM.

I also sent a letter to TransGaming's Marketing VP to tell them what a stupid decision it was to license SecuROM. He sent back a lot of BS in return, which tells me that no one with a clue is making important decisions at that company.

3: Most other reviews are giving it pretty low scores. It's a fairly short game, and while you can certainly spend lots of time creating new life forms, the end-game space experience is "too repetitious" to warrant any real replayability.

Three strikes. No purchase. And really, it doesn't sound interesting enough for me to pirate it either.

Posted by sociallytangent | September 9, 2008 2:20 PM

I was set to buy this game last night, but then I was shocked to see 1 star on Amazon. It made me uber-conscious that I was about to throw $50 at EA for a game that would be more of a headache to own than it would be to just pirate it. That and the apparent lack of depth have me questioning whether it's worth the investment.

Do I support an innovative game or do I boycott evil and stupid industry practice? hmmm....

Posted by Keo | September 9, 2008 2:26 PM

There are some real problems with stability for the game. I am in the creature phase and am facing the same kind of errors that people are facing in the Space phase; CTDs galore.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 2:46 PM

I think this is the first review I've seen that mentions the nasty DRM nonsense EA crippled Spore with. Regardless of how good the game is, I won't be buying it unless they get rid of or neuter the SecuROM.

3 installs for life is ridiculous. I can't even count how many times I've reinstalled my favorite games (like Starcraft) over the years. $50 for a game rental? No thank you.

Posted by The Tim | September 9, 2008 3:19 PM

The 3 Installs shouldn't really apply if you install on the same system without major hardware changes.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 3:29 PM

@5: Have you ever owned a Windows PC? My current machine is on its fourth format. And if they expect this game to have Sims-like years of success with expansions and such, the install limit might actually have a serious impact for single-PC players.

Posted by Sam M. | September 9, 2008 3:49 PM

The formats wouldnt matter. The hardware profile is the same.

And you can always contact EA if you have special circumstances.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 3:57 PM

And there are far more glaring problems with the copy protection scheme like only allowing one user account.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 4:00 PM

I've reinstalled games as I've upgraded machines. My original Sims install has gone through 4 machines, and that doesn't even count how often I restore a machine. If this is similar to the windows activation then it doesn't matter because it will always say that my hardware has changed. Its not about them okaying a call and unlocking it. Its the fact that I have to call. I have to take time out of my day to call and go through an automated system and authenticate my activation. If I pay for software I should get to do whatever I want with it. This just means I won't purchase their product. I make the same choices on other products and business. You don't get my money unless I agree with your business practice.

Posted by Sil | September 9, 2008 4:07 PM

Sil, if you pay for software you don't get to do whatever you want with it, legally at least. There are some good reasons for that. And you've clearly stated the customer's ultimatum; don't fork over your cash for something you don't like.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 4:11 PM

@5: I have to agree w/ Sam. I tend to format my Windows box at least once a year.

@7: With the typical PC upgrade cycle being around 2 years, you would use up your 3 installs in just six years. Do you realize how ridiculous a notion it is to contact EA to ask permission to install a game you already paid for?

Bottom line is that if I buy a game, I should be able to use it without it having to "phone home."

Posted by The Tim | September 9, 2008 4:14 PM

You should be able to do a lot of things that you can't.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 4:25 PM

@7: As with Windows XP and Vista, the activation hash is not solely determined by your hardware profile. And really, I don't feel like contacting a company to beg for the privilege of installing a product I already bought.

This is why I used a cracked copy of XP despite owning a legitimate one before I switched over to OS X. The process was just so much less painful and time-consuming (especially when it was farmed out to India call centers, zomg) and certainly less humiliating.

"Oh, please, great EA, wilt thou grant me, thy unworthy servant, grace enough to install thine Incredible Game once more?" ... no, sorry, not my style.

Posted by sociallytangent | September 9, 2008 4:29 PM

in 6 years we would see spore 2 come out.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 4:29 PM

@12: Awesome attitude. So let's just ignore it and embrace crappy, excessively-restrictive DRM then?

Posted by The Tim | September 9, 2008 4:45 PM

or download the game from BitTorrent. I don't really care about the cat and mouse game and who is the cat and the mouse. I'm just tired of people, capable people, bitching about it like they don't have a choice.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 9, 2008 4:49 PM

@16: I guess I don't see where you're coming from. If others complaining about the DRM are like me, they are exercising their choice by not buying the game. Simple as that.

I don't see what's wrong with voicing the reason for making that choice.

Posted by The Tim | September 9, 2008 5:20 PM

I would say that what was said about this game is mostly true. Not entirely, there is more depth in the first 4 stages if you try. I found the herbivore/carnivore game to be a bit boring, but then I tried to make an omnivore creature.

Let me tell you, this is where the game really shines in the beginning part. (I can't comment on space yet as I havn't reached that far in the industrious path)You get to be social to the nice creatures, and destroy the creatures that don't want to talk.

In the tribe phase, I played a juggling act with my buildings so I could impress a couple tribes, and then alternatively lull another into a false sense of security by offering them food, then steam rolling them with an assault shortly after.

I have spent many sleepless nights playing this game, which is really amazing if you play the way you want to play. Which this game really allows you to do.

There is also an amazing collect all the pieces element that I can't get enough of that really makes this an addiction for me.

Posted by person34 | September 10, 2008 12:43 PM

Anyone play the two iPhone versions of the game? They're harder to bittorrent.

I'm really happy at the trend of most new PC games that don't involve shooting army men being released for Mac.

PS Cry me a river about DRM. If you like a game to play it for 6 years straight and four computers, fork over $5 for a new copy in 2014. What a ridiculous petty reason to not buy a game that you predict you'll spend years and hundreds of hours playing. (not talking to Sam because it's worth mentioning at least.)

Posted by jrrrl | September 10, 2008 1:05 PM

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