This week Zero Punctuation reviews Spore.
If there's one thing history's taught us besides "don't piss off people named Genghis or put lead in your water pipes," it's that if you're going to make something incredibly good that becomes frighteningly popular, make sure it's the last thing you ever make in your entire life. Because otherwise you get to spend the rest of your creative career struggling under the weight of high expectations and bricks. Will Wright created The Sims, a franchise which by shrewdly combining user-designed assets, the powers of a malevolent trickster god, and a massive amount of implied nudity now annually makes about twice as much money as Belgium.
So can his new game, Spore, possibly live up to that legacy? In short, no. In long, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
Will Wright's career path can basically be summed up as "meddle with people's lives at increasingly close-up levels." It started with SimCity, dropping buildings from space onto an earthquake hotspot to appease little black specks. Then later on it was The Sims, where you took direct control of little computer people to make them clean toilets and fuck. Now things proceed to their logical conclusion with a game that has you meddle with the very origin of life in the universe, including a depiction of evolution that would make a furious Charles Darwin eat his own beard.
Spore definitely has some pretty amazing technology behind it. The sheer number of creature possibilities is staggering, and it's impressive how you can give them eighteen legs and seven eyebrows and it'll still somehow find a way to walk and make suggestive poses. Even if it does tend to clip into itself a fair bit, but then you just paint it blue and pretend it's a ghost. You also get to design your own buildings and vehicles further down the line, so if all you're after is some sort of 3D art program for 8-year-olds, Spore is definitely for you. If you're holding out for an actual game, then you get to eat shit. But never mind, you can always design a creature that looks like a huge cock and imagine it pounding you in the arse.
The gameplay is divided into five sections for each stage of sentient development, and for each one the goal is pretty much the same: carnivores have to kill everyone, herbivores have to befriend everyone. Except in the early protozoan stage, in which case carnivores have to kill everyone and herbivores have to die a lot. The transitions between the stages are about as smooth and natural as a controlled demolition. Once your cell has scoffed enough food pellets, the hand of God staples a couple of legs to your arse and kicks you out of the sea to start the creature phase. Here you spend a few hours killing other races or braiding their hair and giggling while gathering the various body parts that litter the ground like there was some kind of horrific mid-air collision and nailing them to your body every time you get your mack on.
Will Wright is clearly no stranger to the odd cheeseburger, because playing as a friendly, celery-munching hippie race is a lot harder than being a bunch of aggressive, warlike megalomaniacs who communicate by biting each other's faces off. Once you move on to the the real-time strategy tribal phase, if you reject the savage, meat-eating, weapon-stockpiling lifestyle, you will quickly find that there are several tribes within inconvenient walking distance who didn't and will make you their little, whimpering bitches before you can even break out the tambourines. A stark and accurate portrayal of the development of human society, perhaps, but probably not the intended experience. And it only gets more one-sided with the civilization stage, during which you either pay all the other cities to not kill you or rampage around the world blowing up computer players who don't have the luxury of being able to pause the game and build fifty gun turrets.
The chief failing of Spore is that it's trying to be five games, each one a shallow and cutdown equivalent of another game, with the civilization stage even going so far as to be named after the game it's bastardizing. The rigid, level-based structure and its constant changing of gameplay feels restrictive and schizophrenic. A much longer, gradual development from cell to sentience with more options would have felt less like just ticking off boxes on a checklist. Wasn't this the whole appeal of SimCity? Watching the slow transformation from scout hut in the middle of nowhere to sprawling, carbon dioxide-spewing urban vomit puddle? That's why it felt so cathartic to then drop Godzilla into the middle of it, watching everything you worked for collapse beneath his mighty tread while crying and breathlessly rubbing yourself through your trouser pocket (or perhaps that was just me).
The final space exploration stage seems to be what everything is leading up to, the rock under which all that trademark Will Wright openness was hiding. In fact, everything beforehand feels like an unusually detailed intro sequence, like the recap at the start of an episode of Lost. You get to cruise around the universe turning planets into planets just like yours, plonking down colonies without asking, and introducing wildlife so you can torment them later with your tractor beam - a masterfully satirical dig at U.S. foreign policy. If you're happy with a pretty, if repetitive, space sim, then hooray for you! It's just not the elaborate, transcendental life simulator we were promised.
Fundamentally, though, Spore will never have the appeal of The Sims because of the excision of the human element. It wasn't simply controlling life that made The Sims popular; it was controlling life that resembles people we know or. optionally. Batman. So I guess what I'm asking is: can brightly coloured monstrosities really compare to Batman? Short answer, noooooooooooooooooooooo. . .
Plays god games Old Testament style: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
The trouble with designing hilarious penis monsters is that then I have to design some hilarious vagina monsters so they won't be lonely
How are you I am fine