SLIDESHOW

Spore, The Year's Most Anticipated PC Game

From the team headed by Will Wright, creators of The Sims, comes Maxis's next wild burst of imagination, Spore. It's a game, it's a toy, and it's the most intriguing computer gaming experience to come along in years.

Welcome to the Spore Universe

Probably the year's most eagerly awaited PC game, Spore arrives from the folks who brought you The Sims series of games.

This ambitious new effort, from designer Maxis, allows players to control the evolution of a species--from paddling around as a single-cell organism in primordial soup to developing a sentient creature culture to launching an interstellar spacefaring civilization.

Part of your task will be to coax a wriggling critter out of primordial waters and onto two, four or perhaps even six feet. You'll palaver and hunt and sometimes hoedown with other life forms, shepherding a handful of nesting beasties into a planet-straddling empire. At some point you'll lift off into space, exploring thousands of whirling orbs that are seeded with species devised by other players and folded into your own universe on the fly.

Most important, you don't just play that scenario; you design it, making Spore's most compelling attribute the way it blurs the line between creator and consumer. Though it's not the be-all and end-all that its five years in the cooker may have suggested, Spore is a transfixing, perplexing, occasionally vexing, but mostly triumphant example of what happens when a design team gets the balance between imposition and choice almost exactly right.

(For more about Spore, read PC World's interview with Lucy Bradshaw, the game's executive producer.)

Struggle to Be the Fittest Thingy in a Rapidly Expanding Pond

The game Spore opens in a sort of primordial ooze. You start as a single-celled organism with tiny adjustable body parts that allow you to move and eat as you click around a 2D environment snarled with disruptive particulates and lethal predators.

Consuming bits of matter builds up your DNA, which you can then spend on new parts available inside a simple design tool that pops up whenever you choose to mate. These parts make you speedier or more formidable and can even change you from a vegetarian into a carnivore.

As you swim through the Cell Stage's psychedelic tidepool, with composer Brian Eno's hip synth pads throbbing and fluttering in the background, you'll make choices that have consequences for your species in the game's later stages.

Combat Predators: Equip Your Cell With Spikes, Poison Pods, Electric Shock Appendages, or Other Useful Features

Simple as the Cell Stage sounds, Spore uses it to establish crucial design principles that carry through to future stages. These include a progress bar at the bottom of the screen, the sophisticated but tremendously intuitive 3D creation tool, the radar and "current mission" displays (which keep you grounded when you tire of puttering around), and the way that dying gently whisks you back to a safe point without loss of points or abilities.

It's a clever way to introduce players of all stripes to concepts like "gene toolkits" and "inherited traits" without mentioning any of that stuff by name. All you have to do is steer, eat, and either avoid predators or become one yourself.

Bipeds Rule: Two Eyes, Arms, and Legs Are Ideal, but It's Possible to Craft Any Type of Creature

EA released its Creature Creator back in June for $10--a shrewd move that has prompted Maxis's online creature database to balloon to more than 3 million submissions. Shrewd, because Spore folds other players' creations into your own universe as you play (it's even possible to bump into earlier incarnations of your own creations as you slink from the tidepool and explore your starting planet).

By getting the Creature Creator out early, EA ensured that a vast array of fauna would be available to populate hard drives even as Spore lands on store shelves.

Some players may observe others' creations and be intimidated by their complexity, but Spore rewards function over form. All you need are the same skills you'd employ in playing with Mr. Potato Head. Body parts comes with clearly labeled benefits, and abilities like "bite," "jump," and "strike" are more important than your creature's physical morphology.

It's possible, for instance, to create a critter with parts and pieces in all the wrong places that turns out to be far deadlier than a sleeker and more obviously streamlined animal, though the game comes chock-full of vanity options for experts and patient amateurs who want to create something extraordinary.

Impress Neighbors and Forge Alliances by Dancing the Mutant Macarena

In the Creature Stage, you climb (or slither) onto land and survey the local landscape, meeting other creatures and struggling to earn DNA by either cultivating relationships or driving opponents to extinction.

Occasionally a UFO putters in and beams up some of the natives, the rest of whom squeal and scatter in terror (an ominous reminder that the game extends far beyond your little slice of the cosmos). Aside from exploring the landscape by skittering, hopping, or flying around, at this stage you have to set your stance to "social" and sing a few tunes or to "combat" and chomp a bunch of critters. Then you invoke the Creature Creator by calling a mate to share your blossoming little terrestrial.

It's cute enough on the surface, but since you essentially do the same thing over and over, it would become monotonous if the stage didn't end so quickly. And that's another of Spore's banner design principles: Just when something begins to grow tedious, the game resets your curiosity meter by radically switching gears.

Do as I Do, Not as I Say, and Maybe We Can Be Friends

The Cell and Creature Stages constitute Spore's textbook flirtation with Darwinian (or Lamarckian, anyway) evolution, compressing eons into minutes and allowing you to make radical morphological changes to your species before slowing down the clock and arresting your physical development. At the same time, Spore tracks whether you've been naughty or nice by building in "consequence" abilities that affect your species at future stages.

Play benevolently and you'll gain the power to soothe nearby creatures or to launch fireworks that temporarily improve social relationships. Play predatorily, and you'll earn the ability to intimidate those around you with sounds and fire bombs.

Epic Creatures Stomp Tribes to Smithereens

Sandwiched awkwardly between the Creature and Civilization Stages is the Tribal Stage, which is both Spore's cutest phase and its least-necessary one. Here you'll assemble squadrons of combatants or musicians in tiny villages and build a handful of structures to repeat what you did in the Creature Stage on a nominally broader scale.

The Creature Creator morphs into an outfitting tool here and lets you drop head and body gear onto your tribal chieftain to boost your tribe's social and combat ratings slightly. Given the impossibly broad array of creature configurations, it would be silly to expect form-fitting skirts and fanny packs, but the ornaments available in the editor fit so awkwardly that they may dissuade some game players from using them at all--a vanity glitch that clashes with earlier, more integral design choices.

No Pitchforks, but Plenty of Torches

Combat in the Tribal Stage is essentially one-dimensional (attack tribes that don't like you and raze their village centers to advance your own prospects); and this fact makes forming alliances with them a more substantive tactic. Playing musical instruments to impress other tribes is mildly diverting the first couple of times you do it. Even at its most complex, however, this becomes a shallow four-button game of Simon Says in which you press the button that corresponds to the instrument your audience signals you to play.

Fortunately this stage will end before you lose interest--it takes maybe an hour to polish off--and it's enlivened by the most amusing animations in the game, as tribe members perform flamenco dances around fire pits, retinues throw flowers and frolic as they trot off to "gift" another tribe, and music that suggests Elmer Berstein's theme from the movie The Magnificent Seven cues each time you domesticate a creature and march it away to a corral.

Puzzling Out the Perfect City

Though it pays homage to advanced civilization games like Sid Meier's Civilization, Spore's Civilization Stage also offers a glimpse of the diversity that awaits you in the game's final Space Stage. Here, your scope is the entire planet, and your win conditions double from two to four, thus inviting you to undertake alliances and conquests but also to convert or purchase 10 cities strewn around the map.

You start with a single city, scouting for spice nodes (the Civilization and Space Stages' primary currency), establishing trade routes, and (if all goes well) raking in Sporebucks to purchase and position buildings that increase your recurring income to fund land, air, and sea vehicles.

In this respect, Spore at the Civilization Stage resembles a real-time strategy game that emphasizes overwhelming your opponents in tug-of-war style stand-offs, not outflanking them tactically or by researching elaborate technology trees.

We All Live in a Yellow Sub-Tank-Marine

Where other games provide all of the widgets up front but give you little or no say in their function, Spore's Civilization Stage invites you to participate in the design process for buildings and vehicles from the get-go.

"Build your own," says the game before you're even out of your city's gate--not because it's lazy but because design gurus like Will Wright want you to help decide how the toy factory's toys will look. And why not? The builder is outstandingly easy to work with, and the experience that you gain in the other Creators prepares you for this moment. The result: You're simply laboring with additional options, not more-complex ones.

If you don't feel up to devoting an hour or two to lingering over color patterns and tuning speed-to-health ratios or proper tail-fin placement, you don't have to. Spore wisely offers players the option of grabbing anything submitted by anyone to its central database and instantly wield it as their own.

I Am the Great and Powerful Oz

Smashing someone to bits during the Civilization Stage boils down to slinging military units at a city en masse, but achieving an economic or religious victory requires subtler strategies. You�re initially limited to one of these three options, and your choice dictates the units you can and can�t build.

A military player will build units with weapons while an economic player will build trade caravans. Not to worry, you can toy with any of these units as you capture competing cities and (if you wish) add their traits to your burgeoning terrestrial empire.

Going religious offers the most amusement: Giant virtual versions of your species hover over cities and preach them into submission. Economic victories seem to be more difficult to achieve, as they involve maintaining good relations with target cities long enough to establish flourishing trade routes that convince a city to sell.

Unfortunately, success via the economic route is also the least satisfying, since you just buy everyone out after passing a certain threshold.

Pink and Green Planets Are Just the Start

When you finally hit Spore's sprawling Space Stage, it's like booting into a completely different game that you somehow already know how to play. Everything up to this point has been preparing you for the shock you'll experience as you pull your preliminary spaceship up above the clouds of your planet and gaze at the stars. Ready to feel small? Here we go.

Pull the view back, and you'll see your solar system--its sun in the middle, comets hurtling by like slow-pitch snowballs, and planets whirling on colored orbital paths that indicate their propensity to support life. Pull the view back farther, and you'll hover in your local galaxy--surrounded by stars that you can radio-scan for sounds of life with a SETI-scope and that your preliminary spaceship can just barely reach.

Pull back all the way, and you'll find yourself gazing at a twinkling spiral-arm galaxy flush with thousands of systems harboring who knows how many player-created life forms, any of which you may explore at your leisure (or maybe not, as hostile species come a-knockin'). At the galaxy's center, an ominous bulge of white teases an optional endgame story line that you'll encounter as you expand your interstellar empire. Do you have to pursue it? Nope, and even if you do, the game lets you keep exploring afterward for as long as you like.

Breathtaking Billions and Billions and Billions...

Once you're up and winging around the galaxy, you'll discover that things never settle into the redundant rhythms that held the other stages back. Each time you seem to get a handle on an activity such as carting different colored spices between planets for cash or terraforming inhospitable planets (transforming them to make them capable of sustaining life) prior to launching colony pods, the game throws something new and unexpected at you.

Destroy creatures "infected" by an alien race, but don't kill anything else accidentally or you might start a war. Abduct specimens for research by tractor-beaming them into your cargo hold, but don't drop them! Lob cosmic paintballs into a planet's atmosphere to change its color. Search for randomly scattered artifacts that you can pawn for megabucks. Transplant entire planetary ecologies one plant or animal at a time to create an ideal civilization.

Though the game's level of complexity rises dramatically here, at no time does it feel cumbersome or clunky. The elegance of Spore's vast and multifarious Space Stage is visually and mechanically breathtaking.

Oh, The Places You'll Go

Should you buy Spore? For anyone who's ever played or considered messing around with a computer game, the answer has to be yes. Spore isn't just for routine computer gamers (though its Space Stage clearly offers them something vast and beautiful and unusual to play with). It's for anyone who has every wanted to build a toy and then take it out for a spin and see how it stacks up against other people's. It's a grab bag of clever little mini-games and witty pop-culture winks that lets you devise your own rules instead of having them imposed on you.

And just think: This is only the beginning, the foundation poured and the beams laid out for a content empire. Don't wait for it--with over 3 million creatures and growing, it's already here. And while you're playing and exploring and expanding your galactic persona, don't be surprised if you find yourself bemusedly asking what the point of it all is, which, in a highly ironic sense, is exactly the sort of question Will Wright wants you to grapple with.