Have Will Wright and Maxis created a briefly brilliant toy rather than an enduringly entertaining game?
Ushering life from primordial soup to intergalactic colonization: the ambitious scope of Spore is enough to generate a great deal of good will. It's easy to feel excited by the potential diversity of play offered by the game's five distinct sections—survival at the cellular level; exploration as a larger, land-dwelling creature; creation and expansion of a tribe; diplomacy and war as a civilization; and, finally, space travel and terraforming of new worlds. Equally, such scope gives pause: could it not easily be that this diversity comes at the expense of depth? Will Spore really amount to the sum of its parts?
It has to be said that the hands-off demonstration at Leipzig didn't wholly allay these concerns. Featuring only the second and third sections of the game, the accelerated playthrough didn't quite manage to generate an interest in the world and your creatures' interaction with it. But there is still a great deal to admire besides. The editing tools that allow you to sculpt your own beast are a triumph of accessibility, for instance, tugging spines into curves or crooks with a few sweeps of the mouse—a couple of clicks molding flabby bulbs and long elegant limbs, reshaping skulls and jaws, and appending forearms with deadly claws. Colorization, meanwhile, although more clearly based upon preset patterns, allows you to layer the designs in such a way that the eventual skin tones look distinctive.
If nothing else, then, Spore looks to be a delightful tool for expressing player creativity, and, dropping the resulting animal into the world, it's clear that the game makes good on its early promises: no matter how strange the arrangement of limbs and joints of your creature, it will be animated appropriately. Further, the form of your animal will directly affect its abilities; mouth-shape determines whether or not it can eat meat, and the construction of limbs alters its chances in combat and social possibilities. But just how rich and significant a range of options arise from this is unclear—the interactions were very limited in the demo, allowing you to only either bite or sing, and the effect of further upgrades were not in evidence.
While there is an obvious joy in having your creations roam the world, the demonstration didn't really convince that what it was then possible to do with those creations was particularly interesting. As a recent arrival on to land, the second section of the game involves wandering a fairly featureless environment, acquiring 'DNA points' by killing or befriending other creatures in your immediate vicinity. Neither of these activities were hugely appealing—combat, aside from lacking a feeling of tangible connection, is largely out of the player's hands, and attempts to wow other creatures seem arbitrarily successful. It all contributes to the disturbing feeling that Maxis hasn't quite worked out what this part of the game is for, except to bridge the gap between the cellular and tribal states.
Eventually you can mate, and then spend your DNA points purchasing new parts for your creature. Later still, having befriended three different animals, you achieve intelligence and enter the third section of the game—the occasion heralded by a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which your creature triumphantly bashes something with a stick to the tune of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The genre remit for this section is better defined than its predecessor, essentially functioning like an RTS, in which you collect resources, build and upgrade your village's facilities, and conquer or recruit other tribes. And there are some neat touches—you can determine the clothing your creatures wear during certain activities, for example, making group identification and selection easier.
Once again, however, the range of your possible interactions seems a little limited—although time constraints undoubtedly restricted the focus of the demonstration. We saw some tribe members fishing, fighting and dancing—this last in an attempt to coax another tribe into joining them. Presumably there are further roles, but whether the organization of these will provide an interesting challenge is the real question, and one that was not definitively answered by the presentation.
It is a worry that, in trying to cover so many different gametypes, the promise of each will be reduced. Spore's central and ingeniously implemented selling point is the editor which enables the creation of so much in its world—but if this world is then only periodically engaging in its behavior, Maxis may have created a briefly brilliant toy rather than a enduringly entertaining game.