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Joystiq impressions: Spore (PC/Mac)

Zack Stern

At a recent Spore demo, I spent four hours seeing and playing the game. I can normally sum up an in-development game in a half-hour, but I frantically took notes that whole time. I gorged on Spore, like a starving hiker stumbling into an alpine restaurant. So this was what all the excitement was about.

Even after watching and playing Spore to the point of delirium, I still had more questions. There was even more I didn't see. But I was so full that I figured if I never heard anything about Spore again, I'd be satisfied.

Somehow, in the following days, I started to miss Spore a little: the teetering walks of an off-balance creature, an alien spaceship scaring my nervous tribe, and the curved horizon lines. I could fill pages here with these little snippets -- and I did in my notebook.

But most of all, I came away thinking that Maxis could pull off Spore's overwhelming scope. This game could actually live up to Will Wright's intent, shipping on September 7. Through Spore, he could change gaming again.

I never wanted to read another hype-generating Spore preview again. I never thought I'd be writing one.

Gallery: Spore (2-12-08) | 81 Photos

Gallery: Spore | 65 Photos

I've read about Spore for years; I think we all have. I imagined that Spore was the greatest illusion ever passed over gamers and journalists. From what I heard, it was just a series of unconnected tech demos. Will Wright could expertly misdirect his audience, leaving them thinking that they saw a game, not an idea. I was skeptical, even a little cynical.

While I got to see all five of its phases -- Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization, Space -- they still weren't directly connected. Designers told me that there would be a nearly seamless transition between these stages, but it wasn't yet implemented. So I didn't see a single game either.

But instead, the five phases held up as five different, related games. And the designers weren't playing that down either; Spore lets gamers choose which areas to play and how to progress. Gamers can move through all stages in a linear pattern, or just pick-and-choose favorites.

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Cell Phase
Your creature begins as a little-developed life form, swimming in a pool of other creatures. Spore immediately establishes a theme that carries throughout the whole game: There's always someone bigger than you. As you steer the creature, eating and growing, other creatures try to snack on you in their own quest for survival.

As you eat, you'll find various "parts" -- another recurring element in the first game phases -- that let you upgrade the creature. A jaw part, for example, lets you become a carnivore. Extra swimming tentacles aid propulsion, while a single tail part moves you even faster.

The hidden-part idea seemed a little too much like shoehorning a collection-style game into the simulation. But I had fun sampling the various upgrades and redesigning the mostly 2D creature.

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Creature Phase
The creature evolves onto land somewhat abruptly, and you have to lead it through further evolution. The mechanic follows a similar survival style as the Cell Phase, but everything takes a 3D perspective.

The creature editor is the centerpiece of evolution. You can imagine and build nearly any sort of creature, choosing from dozens of arms, legs, horns, tails, and other body parts. Each part comes with attributes for offense, defense, movement, and other skills. You'll have a limited number of points to spend at any given time, earning more as the creature develops. EA expects the creature editor to be so popular, the company is planning to release a creature-editor-only version of Spore before the official September 7 launch.

When not evolving, you'll compete against other life forms to become the dominant species. In this phase, you can make friends with other creatures, gaining allies for fights. Or just pick on the guys smaller than you and avoid the bigger animals.

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Tribe Phase
While different species will continue to roam wildly on your planet, this phase lets you control a group of your own species. (Your species has established itself as the planet's strongest.) At this point, your tribe is competing with other tribes to thrive as a society. You'll use tools and outfit your tribe with weapons for confrontations or musical instruments to win friends.

This RTS-meets-The Sims section requires players to harvest food to keep the tribe happy and fed, while also allowing them to build tools. When I checked it out, we got too preoccupied gathering some fish and didn't leave any tribe members at home. While deserted, a large feral creature -- he reminded me of a monster from Where the Wild Things Are -- lumbered in to snack on our food stocks.

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Civilization Phase
More of a true RTS, this phase is about dominating other cities. If you play Spore consecutively, previous actions dictate your initial city type: religious, military, or economic. Pick a lot of fights, for example, and the game will start you with a military society and powerful weapons. Religious cities broadcast music and propaganda to convert other towns. Economic players throw money at everything, buying the allegiance of foreign groups.

The actual gameplay centers on "Spice Nodes." Spice acts as the main resource, making your people happy and allowing you to build more vehicles. Control Spice Nodes to expand your borders and eventually convert, convince, or collapse neighbors.

Each city permanently stays tied to its original affiliation, able to create one kind of a land, sea, and air vehicle. (If you capture other kinds of cities, you can add their vehicle types to your forces.) Spore can assign vehicles for your use, or like the creature editor, you can build your own. Also like that editor, vehicles have a limited number of points to distribute across many parts and attributes. If you ever change a vehicle -- maybe you'd upgrade its wheels -- all other vehicles of that type in use get the same upgrade.

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Space Phase
After conquering or allying with your planet's other cities, you'll launch into space. (Again, with your own ship design if you want.) The previous phases allow exploration and discovery, but the Space Phase adds even more.

You'll zoom through a galaxy of literally several million planets, colonizing new worlds and trading with other civilizations. Spice is still the game's resource, but different planets harvest different colors of Spice. You can take advantage of these varieties with trade routes through the galaxy.

While visiting planets, designers demonstrated how players can cut rivers, dye oceans, and otherwise continue open-ended play. Initially, you'll have to boot-up a barren world to life-sustaining conditions, using tools to heat the planet and modify its atmosphere. While you won't be able to begin the Cell Phase again on a new planet in the same game, you could start over in a different save file. Eventually, your two species of creatures could meet, but you'll always be controlling one or the other.

I had fun imagining my own stories to earlier events, but the Space Phase puts you on a "hero's journey" according to Will Wright. You'll be sent to the center of your galaxy, but you'll have to build up alliances, resources, and technology to make the journey. And there's a particularly strong civilization you'll encounter before finishing the quest.

Online outlook
Spore is an egotistical game where you control your own universe, but it's not quite single-player. Other gamers' creatures, buildings, vehicles, planets, and other creations will drift into your game though its online connection. That random giant that trundled into my village was likely created by another player.

All of these items -- and anything that you encounter -- are tabulated in the Sporepedia. This in-game data resource keeps track of your universe, but it also adds social-networking elements. You can turn off content propagation from others, or selectively activate it only for friends. Spore includes built-in video capture and messaging, even posting clips directly to YouTube.

Spore is about scale, and it's changing the way I think. Like Katamari Damacy on a microbe-to-galaxy level, I have a new perspective on size. I've had about two weeks to digest Spore, but I'm already hungry to play more. It's going to be a long wait until September.

Check out all our extensive coverage of Will Wright's Spore, including impressions of the DS and Mobile releases, news of the "creature-only" version that will be released early, some pics of Will Wright's office, and more!

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