Will Wright is one of just a handful of celebrities in the world of computer game design. Like his contemporaries Shigeru Miyamoto (the Mario series) and Sid Meier ("Civilization"), he has a level of prestige similar to, say, Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese in Hollywood.
His last creation, "The Sims," hit the Spielbergian sweet spot, appealing to a broad range of people who usually don't spend a lot of time playing computer games. It's the best-selling computer game of all time, spawning two sequels ("The Sims 3" is due in February) and countless expansion packs.
So, of course, "Sims" publisher Electronic Arts has been eagerly awaiting the next production from Wright and his studio, Maxis. And ever since "Spore" (for PC and Mac, $49.95) was announced in 2005, EA has been steadily ratcheting up the publicity, but nothing like the three-year-long buildup to "Spore."
Could anything live up to such hype? In this case, at least: No.
"Spore" is certainly ambitious, simulating nothing less than the entire evolution of a species, from single-celled microorganisms to interstellar explorers. Yet it doesn't inspire the sense of awe you'd get from, say, "2001: A Space Odyssey," just to name one pop-culture artifact covering similar territory.
Don't get me wrong: "Spore" is a solid, entertaining game _ or, rather, a collection of five well-executed games, each representing a phase in your species' evolution.
You begin in the Cell phase, swimming in the ocean and eating plants or other cells. You'll also discover meteor fragments that contain parts you can add to your cell, like spikes or flippers. Eating enough food earns you DNA points, which you need to move to the next phase. (No one promised that "Spore" would be realistic.)
Once you've grown some legs and emerged onto dry land, the Creature phase begins. Again, the primary activity is eating, and if you've chosen to live as a carnivore, that means killing a lot of other animals. You can also try to make friends with other species by showing off your singing and dancing, and you can mate with animals of your own species to create stronger, smarter offspring.
Eventually your team will discover fire, moving into the Tribal phase. You begin with a hut, some clothing and a small assortment of tools. Instead of just controlling one creature, you can assign different tasks to different tribe members: Some may go fishing and hunting, while others guard your tiny village. Soon, you'll stumble across other tribes that you can try to befriend or conquer.
Once you've dominated your small part of the world, the Civilization phase begins. Starting with a small city, you can add buildings and create vehicles. You'll need those vehicles to venture beyond city limits and search for "spice geysers," which produce the substance that drives your economy. Again, you can either conquer or form alliances with other cities, using military power, economic might or religious propaganda.
Finally, you'll escape your planetary confines in the Space phase. You can terraform and colonize neighboring planets, and eventually you'll want to stretch out into other star systems and galaxies. Naturally, there are other galactic civilizations out there in the void; some will need your help while others will want to blast you into space dust. This phase is, by far, the most complex and satisfying part of "Spore."
No single element of "Spore" is revolutionary in and of itself. Each of the levels feels like a simplified version of a game you've played before. For example, the Cell phase is a fairly basic, 2D arcade game in which the goals are to eat and not be eaten, kind of like "Pac-Man" without the maze. The Tribal phase is an introduction to real-time strategy games like "Warcraft." And the Civilization phase owes a debt to, well, "Civilization" (not to mention Wright's own "SimCity").
To be fair, "Spore" isn't aimed at hardcore gamers who have spent months or years mastering more sophisticated simulations. It's designed for more laid-back players, the kind who love tinkering with "The Sims" but may never play any other computer or video games.
I am not one of those people. While I admire the craft that has gone into "The Sims" over the years, I've never felt compelled to play it for very long.
I feel the same way about "Spore." It's impressive, but I can't imagine I'll still be playing it a few weeks from now. Three stars out of four.
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