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Will Wright does not do things by halves. That's just as well, since with Spore, he will attempt to outdo The Sims, now officially the biggest-selling game of all time, having overtaken Myst and shifted, in all its variants, in the vicinity of 60 million units. Spore, undoubtedly, is his most ambitious project: It consists of five distinct phases, each pretty much a game in its own right, and mixes action-adventure, space-simulation, and RTS gameplay. But what will it be like to play?
Next Generation had a unique chance to get some hands-on Spore action, so we can offer some insight. A note of caution is required, however. Thanks to careful planning that ensured that the game’s most innovative aspects, such as the procedural animation engine and the super-friendly editors, have been in design and prototyping for years, all the building blocks of the game are now functional. Even so, it is clearly going to take Maxis at least a year to stitch all the elements into a coherent whole. But it is already fun to play.
Sadly, we were unable to try the first phase of the game, in which you design a single-cell organism, send it out into the wild, and hope it survives and evolves. But, according to Wright, that phase will be little more than a glorified tutorial, anyway.
Designing a creature
In many ways, the next phase – creature design – will be the core element of the game. And we were able to dive into the editor, design a creature, and send it out into the wild. The Creature Editor is astonishingly easy to use and powerful. You start by picking a backbone, which you can stretch by pulling the ends, and deform by grabbing and pulling (Maxis calls it a metaball). It comes with a standard thickness of flesh around it, which again, you can adjust, creating a body which could resemble your favorite animal or something never before seen in nature.
Once you’re happy with your backbone, it’s a simple matter of picking components (such as legs, arms, heads, eyes, antennae, and so on, which Maxis calls rig-blocks) and attaching them to your creature. Here, the editor does much of the work for you, snapping objects into place (and letting you know when you’re trying to do something it won’t allow by color-coding the new part in red) and assembling a skeleton.
The longer you play the game, the more body-part choices you get – collecting DNA from other species opens up new options (such as upgraded feet which allow your creature to run faster). And when you reach the final space phase of the game, you get access to genetic engineering, which opens up all the options in the creature editor, so you can really indulge yourself.
When you’re satisfied with your creature’s physical appearance (and there are plenty of decorative fins, horns, and stalks with which to adorn it), it is time to color and texture it. Maxis developed a special intelligent texturing tool, which recognizes different body parts and essentially lets you airbrush your creature with your chosen color scheme, and you can add overlays, such as stripes running down its back. When your creature is done, the game generates stats for speed, attacking abilities and so on, which becomes its Sporepedia card (Spore is likely to come with an accompanying card game).
It may not be there in the same form in the final game, but you could also hit a menu item and send your creature to Maxis’ 3D printer, which automatically creates a model of it. It is likely that a model-making service (which will probably require payment) will be available when the game appears. And before you send your creature into the wild, you can put it into a testing ground – in which you can click a button and see what its babies will look like and, for example, hear what noise it will make (which is dictated by the type of mouth you chose).
Taking your creature into the wild
Now it is time to add your creature to the Spore world. At first, you start as a baby, so the initial stages are about nurturing and finding food. You control your creature by pointing and clicking, or using the WASD keys.
As your creature grows up, it pays to be a bit more adventurous, collecting DNA from other creatures by stealing their eggs. You can procreate, a process cutely accompanied by cheesy '70s-style music, which results in the laying of eggs. You can also get fellow members of your species to follow you around, increasing your chances of stealing DNA from packs of aggressive creatures (which you can fight, again using simple point-and-click mechanics). Collect enough DNA, and you can return to the editor and upgrade your creature. Every time you do that, you restart as a baby. Once you upgrade your creature’s brain-power sufficiently, you graduate to the tribal phase of Spore.
The tribal phase
Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to get hands-on experience in the game's tribal phase, but it will be the most Sims-like phase of the game. You invest in tools for your creatures, grow flora, and design basic architecture for them, thereby affecting their behavior, and establish your tribe as the dominant one in your neighbourhood. The object is to nurture them to a state of civilization, at which point the game switches to the civilization phase, a fairly straightforward RTS in which you amass money and technology, so you can build arms.
As you progress through this phase, you become able to design and build increasingly sophisticated vehicles and buildings. This allows you to break out of your city and either form alliances with or attack your neighbors. Dominance of your planet, and working your way far enough up the technology tree to be able to build a UFO, opens up what promises to be the business end of Spore: the space phase.
Creatures in space
In order to acquire the freedom to explore the Spore galaxy, you must either buy or design a UFO. Piloting this, in keeping with the rest of the game, could not be simpler – you merely use both mouse buttons to move forward and up and down, and the mouse wheel to zoom out. Thus, to lift off a planet, you do a big, Powers Of 10-style zoom-out until you are hovering in orbit around your planet. Zoom out further and you begin to see other planets, which you can move to by clicking on them; zoom out further, and you can pick a different galaxy to explore.
The space phase is very much about exploration, so you can swoop down to the surface of a planet and beam up samples of its inhabitants, Destroy All Humans-style, or beam your creatures down to see if they have what it takes to create a colony. The beaming down/up process requires some care – if you cut the beam too soon, your creature may fall from a height and land with a splatter. Clicking on your ship gives you an inventory and lets you choose the buttons to launch your tractor beam, or use your weapons.
As you will be encountering sophisticated civilizations, it pays to pack some tricks in your UFO. Hover above a city populated by a religious, peaceful race, and a fireworks display may be all you require to get them hailing you as a God. But if you attack a city and realize you have not got the firepower to completely subdue it, you will find the race you attacked fighting back, triggering a mission, such as a video transmission from your home planet saying it is under attack. Such missions abound, but, like GTA, you can opt to ignore them.
If you are feeling particularly vindictive toward a planet, you can hover above it and indulge in a spot of terraforming – such as submerging the main city under a lake. And you can acquire nuclear weapons that completely destroy planets, which is why Will Wright developed Spore’s database system, which sucks up and redistributes content created by other players (apparently, a fully compressed creature occupies a mere 3Kb). Early indications suggest that Spore’s gameplay should live up to the hype – with the super-friendly yet powerful editors and the space phase offering particularly rich rewards.