Evolution. It doesn’t seem an obvious subject for a computer game, but the makers of Spore obviously weren’t following a tried and tested path. In fact, describing Spore as a single game is doing it a bit of a disservice. It’s more like five games merged very cleverly into an interactive system, where your behaviour in each of the increasingly complex levels effects how you’re able to behave in the next.
You start off as a single celled organism, falling from the sky in a meteor, taking your place amongst other cells in a graphically beautiful primordial soup. This first level is simple: you choose to be a carnivore or herbivore, and the fundamental aim is to grow, develop the ability to -swim’ faster, attack other cells more strongly and, eventually, after billions of years (or about half an hour) develop legs and crawl onto land.
There you’ll be met by the second level: a battle for your species’ supremacy over a variety of others, the strongest of which eventually form primitive tribes (the third level). On completing the third level, your species dominates the planet, but, true to reality, there’s now some serious in-fighting. Your new aim is to become a global power, in a fourth level that’s very similar to Command & Conquer. Having finally won planetary domination, it’s off to space – and the game’s true highlight – you go.
The space level is the game’s most complex world, one so vast that it makes everything before it (hours of gameplay) seem like a simple precursor. The aim is to dominate, finding your way past a vast enemy, making some friends and eventually discovering what lies at the centre of the universe. Your early decisions still affect the way you behave, even at this stage, but there are so many varying aims and side puzzles to complete that, simple as it all sounds, it’s going to take some serious time to get bored.
If you have a high-powered PC, the graphics on the space stage are something special; turn off all the overlays (they help immeasurably with navigating amongst the 3D solar systems, which takes up an area so vast you’d have to be a serious addict to cover it all) and you could almost be looking through a high-powered telescope. Though the gameplay is at times pretty simple, the clever pace of the story’s development and the side missions, collecting rare (and comically named) gems, fossils and even ludicrously inscribed scrolls, as well as developing your ship and earning badges and awards, provide ample distraction.
Best of all, there’s little you can’t control. Your creature develops entirely as you choose, and can look like anything from a huge blob with nose and mouth to a sophisticated insect-like character or caricature of yourself. If you pay online (free), the worlds become populated with creatures, buildings and spaceships dreamed up by thousands of other players (though you don’t play directly against them), and a geek culture has developed online entirely around instructional videos on how to make stunning looking creatures, with the game’s website highlighting some of the best. In the latter stages you can even reshape entire planets, if that’s what floats your boat.
There are flaws in the game – the space stage can be frustratingly repetitive if you’re not into completing side missions, for example, though wanting to know just what is at the centre of it all will probably keep you going – but it’s difficult to fault the flexibility and variety on offer overall. Spore is a game that’s simple to grasp yet difficult to put down, as straight-forward or as complex as you want it to be. And for all the gameplay variants that you might have seen before, the concept – and the way in which it’s all strung together – is brilliantly unique. At the end of it all, when you’re finally done, you’ll probably want to go back and do it all again differently.