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Critical Reception: EA/Maxis' Spore

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reactions to Will Wright's awaited simulation epic Spore, which reviews describe as "a technological coup that opens up a whole new genre of gaming."
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Will Wright's awaited simulation epic Spore, which reviews describe as "a technological coup that opens up a whole new genre of gaming." Described by Wright as "SimEverything" during its development, Spore offers evolving simulation gameplay throughout many stages of a user-created creature's development. Given the popularity of previous Wright efforts like SimCity and The Sims, many wondered if Spore could measure up to its predecessors in popularity and critical reaction. Spore debuts this week to a Metacritic-averaged score of 86 out of 100. Dave Kosak awards Spore 4.5 out of 5 stars in his review at GameSpy, describing the game as a technological marvel and a genre unto itself. "Content editors are integrated right into the gameplay, and by simply playing the game you're building out the universe for the next player," he explains. "While the gameplay isn't always perfect, Spore is a technological coup that opens up a whole new genre of gaming." Spore's creation tools are particularly impressive, according to Kosak. "In many ways the real genius of Spore is that the immense complexity of the technology is hidden beneath very simple editors, such that you forget the technology is even there," he writes. "Spore allows players to create fully articulated and textured 3D models of vehicles, buildings, and creatures. The creatures are the most impressive: they're instantly capable of walking, chirping, fighting, singing, running, even flying." "The fact that anyone, including non-gamers, can create and share these models in their first game session without any training or practice is remarkable," Kosak praises. While Kosak notes that Spore's depth varies with each gameplay phase, he finds the Space stage to be the most worthwhile. "The Space game is where Spore really opens itself up. Whereas the other phases can be blown through in an hour or less, the Space game provides hours of exploration into the cosmos," he says. Kosak continues: "Biological disasters and pirate attacks erupt all over the local cluster. Enemies attack your friends. Allies plead for help. Then your friends start attacking each other. It's insane and insanely addictive -- the hours fly by as you cruise from star to star on your own agenda." Though Kosak describes the overall experience as imperfect, he finds that its evolving content makes for a worthwhile play. "Spore is completely unique: a game where the very act of playing it helps create the world for other players," he concludes. "Spore is a technological triumph that introduces a whole new way of tapping into a bottomless well of content." At 1UP.com, Thierry Nguyen gives Spore a rating of B+, praising its complex premise and universe-spanning scope. "Leave it to iconic game designer and Maxis cofounder Will Wright to one-up his own work on The Sims," he writes. "If you really need a quick one-line summary of what Spore is, I guess I'd describe it as 'intelligent design via minigames.'" These minigames recall various titles throughout gaming history, Nguyen says. "The Cell stage resembles flOw (but with more purpose); the Creature stage feels like a mashup of World of WarCraft, The Sims, and, er, Simon Says," he writes. "The Tribal stage plays like an elementary real-time strategy game; the Civilization stage is sort of like a real-time version of, well, Civilization; and finally, the Space stage makes me feel like I'm in a hybrid of Master of Orion and Wing Commander: Privateer." Nguyen warns that many of these stages lack depth, however. "With the exception of Space (and Civilization, depending on your strategy) -- each stage isn't very long, and the learning curves are quite gentle," he says. "Heck, the previous four stages almost feel like extended tutorials for the Space segment; I breezed through the pre-Space stuff in about four hours, but the Space portion easily takes up 10 hours on its own." Nguyen also cites complaints with Spore's repetitive gameplay. "The actual gameplay gets really repetitive -- even for casual gamers (Spore's obvious target audience)," he cautions. "Whether you're performing the same sequence of dances and hoots for social behavior in Creature or defending your homeworld from angry aliens for the umpteenth time in Space, you find yourself doing the same things...a lot." "Strictly as a game, Spore's a flawed effort in five different genres, smushed together in a casual-player-friendly manner," Nguyen summarizes. "But as a tangible representation of intelligent design, with an emphasis on creation and sharing, it falls perfectly in line with the rest of Will Wright's work. It's not a perfect game, but it's definitely one that any serious gamer should try." Chris Kohler at Wired scores Spore at 7 out of 10, hypothesizing that few titles could live up to its considerable prerelease hype. "Has any single videogame been so relentlessly hyped prior to its release as Spore, the latest brainchild of SimCity creator Will Wright?" he asks. "Can anything actually live up to that standard?" "If Spore is our test case, then the answer has to be no," Kohler continues. "For all the work that went into this intricate and complex simulation of life, I never found myself gripped by the simple gameplay. But this isn't to say it's not fun to see what happens when you open up and start poking around in this game that bills itself as 'your own personal universe in a box.'" Kohler finds that Spore's character creation tools and data sharing features make for compelling gameplay incentives. "It says something about the appealing nature of Spore's creators that even I (who ordinarily could not care less about such things!) spent a few minutes here and there making cosmetic changes to Spike every time he evolved," he recalls. "And it pleased me to no end when I started a new game and it automatically imported my creation into the worlds, and I could see little Spikes that I designed running free about the planets of the new universe." Kohler expresses a lack of enthusiasm in regard to Spore's actual gameplay, however. "Spore's creative tools are proving to be very popular," he notes. "And it's clear that lovers of space-exploration games will find a great deal to keep them occupied for a long time. So I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I just don't get the appeal." "Strip away all the truly innovative and occasionally mind-boggling tricks that Spore pulls behind the scenes, and you're left with very simplistic gameplay," Kohler warns. "In attempting to Sim everything, Spore tries to be all things to all people -- a strategy that never quite works out the way it's supposed to." Interestingly, many reviews thus far award Spore high review scores in spite of noting disappointment with much of its gameplay. Critics appear to be most impressed with Spore's scope and creation tools, and warn that those expecting deep gameplay throughout may be disappointed. Given the strength of its technical achievements and robust social aspects, however, Spore may still be worth a look for fans of previous Will Wright-created titles.

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