Leading up to its release, Spore was the object of many impossible expectations, and understandably so: the game's scope is unabashedly ambitious, purporting to allow players to create and guide a new species through billions of years of evolution as it changes from a tiny single celled organism into a space-faring empire. Most video game designers would have the guts to attempt such a task, but Spore's existence testifies to the fact that Will Wright isn't most video game designers. Wright, best known for his hand in the fantastically popular Sims series, has certainly risen to the challenge, and although the end result isn't a masterpiece, it's definitely the most engaging and original PC game to hit shelves in a while.
In practice, Spore plays out in five separate stages, making it feel like a series of shorter games connected by the thread of your species' development. The initial portion, the cell stage, is basically a simple eat-or-be-eaten action game, with a small twist: eating gives you DNA points, which allow you to customize your cell to better survive primordial dangers. It's pretty simple—at any time can seek out a mate for your cell, at which point you'll be popped into the creature creator interface, where you'll be able to spend DNA points on parts like spikes, flagellum, and extra eyes. The new parts in turn affect your abilities, giving you extra speed or attack power. The cell stage is Spore's shortest and shallowest, and after about twenty minutes of eating and avoiding danger the organism can sprout legs and hike into the creature stage.
The creature stage is a bit more involved. It operates on the same principles of DNA points, mating, and creature customization, but it also gives you the option of socializing with other creatures instead of just attacking them in order to earn points. The creature creator is more complex as well, allowing for an amazing variety of imaginative creatures. The gameplay in this stage also depends on what your cell ate in the first stage—a micro-organism with a taste for other cells will evolve into a carnivore in the creature stage.
The two sections following the creature stage play less like action games and more like real-time strategy scenarios, albeit rather boring ones. The first, the tribal stage, lets you command a whole tribe of your creatures, developing their village and assigning them simple tools. The object is to either defeat or ally neighboring tribes by assaulting them with warriors or musicians, respectively. After six villages have been dealt with, the civilization stage arrives, offering a similar goal on a planetary level. This time, you need to deal with the other cities on your world, taking them over via military, economic, or religious means, with the help of your own custom-designed vehicles and buildings. While there's a touch of depth in the city building element of the civilization stage, both it and the tribal stage can be too easily passed by simply amassing lots of units and sending them after the neighbors for the win.
In retrospect, though, the initial four stages seem like just a prelude to the space stage. Here, your species takes to the final frontier for some open-ended gameplay. You control a spaceship (which, again, you can design yourself) and hop from star to star, accomplishing goals via a broad spectrum of activities. You can explore, contact other races, and ally, trade, or wage war. You can turn uninhabitable rocks into livable worlds with atmosphere and temperature-changing tools. Or you can expand your empire by colonizing new systems, among other things. After playing through the other portions of the game, the space stage is almost overwhelming, and the notable jump in difficulty and complexity makes it seem incongruent with the rest of the game. That same complexity, though, makes it by far the most interesting and addictive section of the game.
While Spore's gameplay has an inconsistent level of quality, it's really just an adequate vehicle for Spore's content creation and sharing tools. The creature, building, and vehicle editors are fairly intuitive and easy to use, and yet all kinds shockingly complex and creative creations are possible. Spore's custom content tools are made even better by the game's sharing system. As you play, Spore automatically downloads and populates your galaxy with content generated by other players, to the extent that, in the space stage, all of the races that you meet, all of the wild animals and tribes on primitive planets, and all of the buildings making up foreign colonies, are all unique creations of the game developers and other Spore players. All of the content is also available by browsing the Sporepedia in the menu, and you can freely download other buildings, creatures, and vehicles for your own use if you aren't feeling creative or if you'd just like to see the weird stuff people come up with (living iPhone creatures, walking vegetables, and close imitations of obscure video game characters aren't unheard of). The game's less than a month old, and there's already an ocean of user-generated content to swim through.
In the end, Spore is itself a unique beast. It borrows from established video game genres to create an inconsistent patchwork of gameplay that can thrill one moment and bore the next. Even the dull bits of the game are somehow made compelling and purposeful, though, by Spore's creative elements. It's inevitable that you'll be attached to your own personal species after you've invested time and thought into its every feature, and the subsequent draw of exploration and curiosity will be constantly fed by the input of other players. While Spore falls far short of perfection, Will Wright's ambitious project will appeal to anyone who feels the drive to create and explore.