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Spore is the highly-anticipated new life simulator from game designer Will Wright, creator of the popular SimCity and The Sims. Spore boldly strives to allow the player to mold not only a creature's appearance, but its evolution from a single-celled organism to a intelligent being conquering the galaxy. Unfortunately, while plenty ambitious and one of the most original titles in the last five years, the shallow gameplay in the early stages prevent Spore from achieving its potential.

When you first start Spore, you're greeted with a simple welcome screen with three options: Play, Create and Share. Spore is, by far, at its best in Create mode, where you have the ability to mold your alien species to your liking. The tools in the Create feature are intuitive and easy to use, making it a breeze to create everything from flagellates to spaceships. In Share mode, you can share your creations online in the Sporepedia, a world-wide catalog of creations by Spore players. For example, you can share your blue duck-billed alien with a friend and download the sleek spaceship she created and use it in your own game.

Choose the Play mode and you enter the game. Your journey begins in a tidal pool as a celled organism that must eat in order to survive and avoid being eaten at the same time. Seeing your creature grow and evolve is a real thrill, especially after you complete the stage, move into Creature stage, and take your first awkward steps on land. The Creature stage is also extremely simple, but by now you have more freedom to alter your creation as you see fit. As you discover new pieces in the skeletons of other species and interact with your fellow evolved brethren, you'll gain new abilities and accessories.

Once your creature has grown a big enough brain, it discovers the use of tools (triggering a cutscene lampooning 2001: A Space Odyssey) and forms a tribe, which starts the Tribal stage. The gameplay expands to interacting with other computer-controlled tribes and deciding if your species will invest in stone axes and spears or musical instruments and diplomacy. Do you kill off the other species or ally with them via a Simon Says-like social mini-game? Some basic resource gathering and comical costume discovery also highlights this stage.

After you've placated or obliterated other species, you move onto the Civilization stage and your quest for world domination. Based on your previous choices, you'll either be a Religious, Militaristic, or Economic city. In order to win this stage, you must conquer other cities by employing resource gathering, using vehicles, setting up trade routes, converting others to your religion, or using warfare. One of my favorite moments in the game was setting up a trade route with a city, buying it, and then using its military to conquer the rest of that continent.

Finally, with the world all united under your rule, you enter the Space stage, where you launch a space program and take your first steps into the galactic community. You must contact other aliens (both friendly and hostile), set up trade routes, forge alliances, create fleets, terraform planets to make them hospitable for life, colonize barren worlds, and expand your empire throughout the galaxy. The sheer scale of this last stage makes actual galactic domination nearly impossible; there are thousands of planets, but you earn merit badges for your efforts. Abducting aliens from one planet to transport to another can earn you a delivery badge, for example, and these open up new tools, options, and weapons.

Harsh realities

Spore is a very good game with the potential of being a great game. Its breadth is unrivaled; you trace the development of a creature from its single-celled phase to its dominance of the planet and eventual exploration of space. You get to customize everything, from the cell's look to your fully developed creature's spaceships, buildings, and tanks. This staggering scale is why Spore is often called Sim Everything by gamers.

But while you have great tools to customize, you actually can't interact with that world as much as you'd expect. Your customizations are limitless, but have almost no impact on how you play after the Creature stage. Sure, you have control over the percentages you want to allocate to a tank's health, weapons, and speed, but loading your tank with cannons is more aesthetic than functional. The designs you create for buildings may be inspired, but they don't effect gameplay at all.

Spore offers three tactical choices for your civilization, but they play quite similarly.

Sadly, once you've made your creatures look pretty, there simply isn't much to do with them. While Spore's customization is imaginative, your tactical choices are frustratingly narrow. You're consistently offered the same three choices: kill, ally, or both, and how you carry them out is almost identical no matter the choice or the stage. For example, if you choose to ally instead of kill, your strategies are very similar; instead of equipping guns, you equip flutes. Success basically becomes a simple numbers game, where you need to amass more resources than your opponents.

As a cell and creature, your actions are limited to eating, avoiding being eaten, and discovering things that will help you evolve. The Tribal and Civilization stages play like real-time strategy games, but their implementation lack sophistication are are too simplistic. You only have three unit types in the Civilization stage (land, sea, and air) and combat is a simple numbers game. While you have three civilization tactics to choose--Economic, Militaristic, or Religious--the Religious and Militaristic cultures play almost exactly the same; the Economic style plays differently but it's by far the hardest of three. Perhaps as a commentary on life itself, playing as a predator in Spore is the easiest way to progress. I finished the Civilization stage in about a third of the time with the Military style than when I tried the same feat while playing as an Economic city. To Spore's credit, though, the Space stage is the best stage, with a beautiful, rich, and deep experience. By comparison, the first four stages seem like prolonged tutorials leading to the Space stage.

Gameplay aside, Spore has made a lot of noise for its use of digital rights management (DRM) software to prevent piracy. Many gamers have complained about the stringent SecuROM anti-piracy software included in the game that required authentication upon installation and online use. Originally, the product key could only be activated on three computers, but EA, in response to public outcry, has since raised the limit to five. The controversy is perhaps the most visible example of the growing tension between publisher's increased attempts at preventing piracy and consumers' assertions that such systems are intrusive and impractical. EA has shown that it is willing to respond to the wishes of users and amended the Spore user license agreement, but the anti-piracy controversy is likely only beginning. Spore's sales likely suffered as consumers reacted negatively to the DRM software's inclusion in the game. Developers will have to decide if they are willing to risk that backlash in the future or if they are willing to sell games more susceptible to piracy.

Macworld's buying advice

With its flexibility in customization, its multi-stage sim development, and its social features, many gamers thought that Spore would redefine the gaming industry. And it some ways, it may have. The level of customization in Spore has never been attempted before, and the sociability aspect with the Sporepedia is one of the coolest features in a game I've played in a long time. If the developers could marry the connectivity and customization of Spore with deeper gameplay and equally imaginative strategies, we'd have a truly evolved game. For now, Spore is a comical, beautiful, and surprisingly fun journey that will likely satisfy casual gamers but will disappoint fans hoping to see a Wright masterpiece.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld assistant editor.]

This story, "Spore" was originally published by Macworld.

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