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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Game Play: Spore

Let's get right to it - Spore is a good game. It's fairly engaging and fun. I haven't had time to finish the Space Stage yet, but it was entertaining enough to completely grab me for pretty much the entirety of last night.

I can't however, call Spore a great game. I would liken it to trying to compare Portal with BioShock. It's not entirely fair because BioShock is a great game because it does so many things we expect from a game really, really well whereas Portal does some things we don't expect really well and the rest kinda average.

Spore has a lot of average stuff in it, some even subpar stuff - but all of it gets nuzzled into enough stuff we don't normally expect from a game that it might take awhile to notice.

For the first two stages, Spore plays like an mashup of indie hit fl0w and The Sims only without any ability to wall in annoying creatures or hip spellings with numbers. Much of the reward for playing involves unlocking new pieces to construct your creature with and playing with how the changes interact with the environment. This is exactly the kind of mechanic which keeps Spore going. Actually clicking around and ramming other things? Not that interesting. The creature creator and the options it provides to the user? Pretty interesting. In fact, I'm not sure I can say enough good things about the creature creator - it works exactly as the hype machine said it would.

However I'd say that even fans of this game will hit a point after their creature has crawled on land where they'll wonder what else is worthy of the years of hype we've had to endure on this game. The Girl stopped by to see a group of my creatures dancing with another group of creatures and when she ask why I was dancing I responded "well, because that's what the other group did."

And then she does what all married people do from time to time: looked upon me as if I was insane. The second stage certainly stumbles a little with the fact that the core of the gameplay is a mutated version of Sims talking to each other.

Only without Simlish. But at least in Spore you can maul the heck out of the others if you want.

Plain and simple this is just a framework to hang your creation around and wander the world. Which again, not that bad of a thing. The mechanics of playing with your creature are rich and there's tons of replay to be had. Also, we can't ignore the online aspect here. Watching out for other creatures created by random humans around the net has a very unique charm to it and provides a glimpse into the kind of user orientated content creation most games could only dream about. I wouldn't call it a deep addition to the game, but it is definitely a noticeable perk.

With the third stage, Spore begins to diverge. No longer responsible for the genetics of your creature, you begin to concern yourself with the evolution of the group. At the Tribe Stage you organize your home turf and basically divide between basic exploration, gathering food and determining if you should go all native on your neighbors or get some instruments and win them over with song. Especially the Tribal stage feels like a natural evolution of the mechanics you've gotten used to playing. Sure, you can command multiple creatures now and need to worry about buildings and with the Civilized stage, vehicles - you are still basically bouncing around a world into other things and deciding between wooing them or beating them into submission, taking their stuff and using it for your own.

Now there is a lot to critique about those stages. They aren't particularly deep and if the powerful customization mechanic weren't in play we'd be looking at a very different story. The controls and interface for both the Tribal and Civilized stages have much to be desired and the overall simplicity at work here doesn't allow for a lot of strategy. That said, I got a great amount of joy last night when I decided to design the holy flying avenger from hell, built a small army of them and smited my foes with a decent amount of force.

So while flawed, I think these stages have a lot of merit. By the time Civilization Stage moped up the competition with what essentially the equivalent of a flying gun show, I felt like what had started with a tiny creature had evolved into something more and despite some stumbles on the way - you could see an interesting chain of events from point A to flying gun show of doom. The little history chart that is generated is actually pretty fun to read.

So I was pretty ready for the next step. And here I'm going to acknowledge that I'm probably going to be a bit alone in this opinion.

But what the hell is up with the Space Stage?

First off, after two stages of working up to the mechanics of handling multiple units, Space goes back a few generations to where you controlled just the creature and sqawked at friendly types to join your cause. This single design decision nearly cripples the entire stage for me. If I have to travel half way across the damn galaxy one more time because my home planet is getting raided I might just scream. To aggravate this, the controls - especially in combat are completely abysmal. In defending my home planet last night from a warring race I basically just left the ship in one spot and clicked around wildly. And of course since the other races don't share this fundamental strategy of only sending one ship out into deep space at one time - they're coming in droves.

I died.

I died quite a bit.

No longer am I customizing anything based on loot I'm grabbing off of others - the core mechanic which holds true for every other stage in the game. Now I'm plunking around the galaxy trying to figure out who has what color spice for what price in the hopes of selling it to another race for a higher price. This is when I'm not busy poking around the map trying to figure out which planet what random mission is sending me towards because apparently nobody in this entire universe ever decided to draw up a damn star chart. The best you get is "we think it's close to that red star over there."

Sorry? I'm stuck in a galaxy with a group of starfaring races whose best attempt at navigation resembles a bad joke from a Bugs Bunny cartoon? This is evolution?

It's almost as if Maxis' answer to the lack of depth and complexity in the previous stages was to stock so much depth and complexity into the last one that reviewers would call it a wash. And while many seem to have done just that - I can't exactly wrap my head around why my home planet is sending me on a mission to paint a planet a different color instead of sending out a second ship.

When I was attacked by a larger creature in the first stage, I could customize myself in a defensive manner.

In the second stage, I could run to allied nests and try to find bigger claws.

In the third stage, I could wait for the tribal chief to be somewhat alone and jump him with my entire posse.

In the fourth stage, I could manufacture an army of steel and death.

In the last stage, I'm clicking like around like a crazed squirrel waiting to die. Suddenly, I feel less powerful and less in control of my situation than when I was swimming around lonely in the primordial ooze. Sure, you can make your spaceship look as you please - but it doesn't really do anything different ... another fundamental departure from every other stage.

And I'm just going to come right and say it. There are better Elite clones out there. Space Stage doesn't entirely cut it for me. It's not all bad and there's some interesting bits to it - but as icing on the cake it's just ... well, for one thing, it is the cake. For readers unfamiliar with the game who might have thought I had spent the last thirty hours playing up to the space stage ... think again. You can blow through the first four stages in a few hours if you're aggressive enough. Space? I have no idea long that is going to take me. If spend as much time saving the collective asses of my race as I am right now, probably another week or so.

Thankfully the allies you can make fight much, much better than you. And turrets in every possible location helps as well. The mechanics of discovering new races and communicating with them is pretty spot on. Trading and controlling trade routes is somewhat interesting in its own right, and I haven't had a chance to really get a full grip on colonization yet - but it looks like there are some interesting angles there. It's not a loss, but it's not the ending I would have hoped for ... or more to the point, expected.

For the record, I've had no bugs or installation woes with DRM. That might be because it's on my Mac of course, but I so far I'm carefree with the experience of loading and getting the game to run.

At the end of the day, Spore earns a location on my hard drive. For one thing, it's hard to find good modern titles for the Mac in general, so my hat off to Maxis for including us on day one. Also, there's a cerebral side to the gameplay which you can feel is where the design is really trying to tickle you. I expect it will be fun to pick up, play a bit, save and return to later.

It's not going to change the world of gaming, but it will probably enter in the discussions which might change it down the road. I recommend it, but with the reservation that the option to walk on water has been left out. Spore is not the second coming of The Sims - it's just Spore.

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