Anyone remember Spore? The PC game built around the single idea of developing a brand new species from scratch? And then that idea wasn’t really that well developed, and the latter stages of the game ended up as pretty repetitive and boring? Yeah, that Spore. Although the game wasn’t perfect by any means, I loved it – the total flexibility of the in-game Universe really appealed to me, not just in terms of the creature customisation options, but regarding the role my species would end up playing in the Galaxy; it couldn’t just make a big green blob with 476 eyes, but I could use said blob to conquer the Universe, in reasonably plausible ways. The reason that we need a Spore 2 is because Spore has potential: the mechanics are innovative, if unrefined, the game’s structure lets you develop your species, even if it is a little stale, and there’s an awesome community out there to support another game in the series.
First up, those ‘mechanics’: the game is basically a tool that allowed you to make creatures, that was stretched out into an entire game. The actual creature creation is excellent: I played without the expansion packs because installing them confuses and frightens my ever-so-slightly technofearing mind, and found the tools to create endless animals, vehicles and cities. The various body parts one would drag onto one’s creature to develop and evolve them also had a purpose in terms of gameplay; you could make a creature from scratch with all the parts available for the Hell of it, or start up a game in which you grow your species from a single-cell upwards, only able to use body parts you find in the environment. These parts all offer different abilities, such as biting or singing, which are used to develop your species further, by either exterminating or allying with other local animals. This means that your species’ evolution is determined in part by chance; you may want to create a peaceful herbivore, but if you find a carnivorous mouth-part with level four biting, you’ll probably end up as a warrior race. For me, the gameplay when controlling an individual in ‘Creature Stage’, where you are still growing and developing your species, was a little repetitive: you only have four skills to fight with, and four to befriend others with, and both actions often boil down to mere part-finding, and button-mashing. However, this problem can be easily solved in Spore 2 with a less rigid system of fight or friendship – create a system, Maxis, where the relationship between body parts determines the abilities one has to use, to avoid the over-powered creatures I would end up having, where they had full level four abilities in all of the combat and befriending categories, because I created weird, Tyranitar-style monsters with five mouths. This was another big problem for me, in that I could cover my creature with poison glands and God knows what else, that would be practically pointless in realistic combat due to their size and placement, but the game would let me use them anyway – in Spore 2, I want my club-tail to only be able to hit enemies that are near the tail, rather than just those who are near me in general. Also, these problems persist throughout the game: by the end of the game, weapons on your spaceship are all as useable as each other, regardless of their positioning; this means that if Maxis can crack this problem, as still somehow keep the simplicity of creature creation that made Spore so playable, all of the stages will become significantly better.
The structure of the game is similarly flawed: excellent in theory, but weak in practice. The game is split into five distinct sections: Cell, where you are but a single-celled blob in a puddle; Creature, where you control one member of your species in derping around on the planet’s surface, and find new body parts to evolve by mating and passing on your genes; Tribal, where you lead a village of your species in establishing yourselves as the rulers of the planet; Civilisation, where your group of your species must dominate the other, rival factions of your species; and Space, where, having united the planet under your faction’s banner, you become a Captain of a Spaceship, and bugger off into the heavens to conquer the Universe. This is a logical progression from stage to stage of development, and one of the best features is that your roles and abilities in one stage are defined by your actions in the previous one: for instance, a species of mine was a peaceful group of herbivores, until Civilisation, where we unleashed armageddon and ended up as ‘Shamans’ in the space stage (I can’t remember the details of this, but I think we were basically peacekeepers, but with nukes, y’know, just in case). This means that everything has a purpose – you will be violent now if you were violent in the past, which makes a lot of sense. However, this structure basically means that there are five games in one here; Tribal and Civilisation are basically weak RTS games, that lack the personal control of Creature, and the scale of exploration in Space. Perhaps, Maxis, you could introduce a single politician in Civilisation stage that the player controls, instead of your entire city for some reason, which would allow the player more control over things like political structures (ie democracy or autonomy) and would make things like the people protesting more worthwhile – there’s no point in a city revolting if there’s an election coming up in the game, where they can easily get the player out of office. However, I would say that an improvement is not simply to put Creature Stage into all the others; although the Galactic Adventures expansion pack was fun, it was basically Creature Stage with guns and speech bubbles – the four-power structure was even the same! The great thing about the initial release of the game was the radical difference between the stages, which mimicked the surprise and almost fear of what will come next that my poor Niffins would had been feeling when they first discovered fire; keep the stages different, but keep the stage structure – it lets the player’s species develop in a meaningful way, now it simply has to be more fun to play.
Just a quick point now about the community – I can’t say much about it because I was never a part of it. I said I had a little technofear earlier, and this is true – I failed to set up an EA account that worked with Galactic Adventures because I buggered up my email address, and made it worse by uninstalling and reinstalling, de-installing and over-installing the game, resulting in me having no created creatures, missions or civilisations from other players’ games, and every Maxis-created thing being ominously named ‘BAD DATA’ (which reminded me of this). However, the fact that new creations are constantly scrolling along on the Spore website would suggest that there is at least some community, which would do nothing but support a game that’s already enjoyable in its own right (as evidenced by the last five years of my singleplayer life with the game).
Spore is not perfect, but few games are (okay, The Last Of Us, Mass Effect 2, Pokemon Black and the original Crash Bandicoot are possible exceptions), but it is genuinely innovative: the creature creation alone is a great idea executed well, and he game’s structure and gameplay beyond this compliment the development of your species in general, but need to be refined so that they don’t just fit chronologically, but are actually fun to play too. I’m not hopeful for a sequel any time soon; Darkspore was poorly received by players and critics, and Maxis would appear to be spending its time on the new Sims game, which I am also looking forward to. However, at some point in my lifetime, I want a sequel to this addictive and flawed game.
Other games I’m holding out on sequels for include Black & White 2 (not the Pokemon games!), Theme Park World, Split/Second, Crunchball 3000 and Pokemon XD.
– Spore website (webspore?)
– Eddie Izzard on Technology (are you Chad Vader?)
– Bad Wolf clip (not uploaded on the BBC’s YouTube channel, interestingly)