Mac gaming appears to be going through something of a renaissance at the moment, which reached a crescendo last month when Will Wright turned up at the Apple Store in London to talk up his latest game, Spore.
Will Wright, along with a few select others, enjoys relative fame because of the phenomenal success of The Sims series (which EA recently reported selling it’s 100 millionth copy). Wright has also created a range of critically acclaimed games around the ‘Sim’ brand including Sim City, Sim Life and Sim Earth.
Spore – which could easily have been called – Sim Universe, has been between five and seven years in development, and after three years of fairly intense hype it is largely considered to be Wright’s Magnus opus.
And Mac gamers have got in on the act from day one, largely thanks to EA’s current support of the Mac format, which is in turn due to TransGaming’s Cider technology. Cider is a technology that enables PC games to be ‘wrapped’ in translation code that enables them to run on an Intel Mac. You, as a customer, don’t notice any difference. You put the CD in the drive and to intents and purposes it installs and acts like a native Mac application.
Cider is a double-edged sword, on the one hand it enables games – that would otherwise endure months, if not years, sitting in an underfunded Mac development hell – to arrive on the Mac at the same time as their PC counterparts. On the other hand, we notice that the Mac requirements are higher than the PC requirements, in particular the PC version will run on an Intel GMA 950 processor (the kind found in the early MacBooks) but the Mac version requires a dedicated graphics card. Consequently, early, MacBook users are out of luck unless they install the Windows version via Boot Camp.
The good news is that Spore isn’t as demanding as you’d believe and scales down to the higher end MacBooks quite well (although there is a bit of lag at times). The visuals look great on an iMac or Mac Pro.
Play the game
But what about the game itself? Spore is fairly mind-bending stuff; it pretty much defies any attempt to define it in traditional gaming terms. It’s a single-player game that is split into five main sections: Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization and Space; and through these you will create and evolve a creature from a single cell animal up to a space-faring master race.
You start off by moving your celled creature up, down, left and right amongst the primordial ooze eating plant life or bits of meat depending on whether you have Herbivore or Carnivore mandibles. Eating food moves you up the food chain and you can mate at any time, this takes you to the Creature Creator where you can attach bits to your blob and get it on the right path of Darwinian survival. You can stick on horns or develop electric shock for fighting; add more tails to swim faster or turn quicker; more eyes for better vision; and a wide variety of other bits and bobs. You can switch mouths and go from being a herbivore to a carnivore; and back again.
The start of the game is visually very appealing (you see big blurry creatures floating around in the background). One odd thing is that it’s all over remarkably quickly (around half an hour) and you’re ready to develop legs and walk on over to the Creature Stage.
The next section largely involves a similar sort of thing on land, although the creature creator becomes much more complex as you add legs, arms and other evolutionary traits. You can also expand your spine. Even though everything we made looked like a reject from a Nintendo sponsored nightmare, other examples from around the world show a surprising degree of ingenuity. You also interact with other creatures in the game, making natural friends and enemies and even forming a pack made of your fellow creatures, or other wandering animals you’ve befriended. Making friends involves dancing, singing and posing in time to other creatures; alternatively you can invest in some big jaws and spikes and send them on the path to extinction. Either way you end up with evolving. Again, this takes just a couple of hours before you move on to the Tribal and Civilization stages.
From here on it goes a bit weird for a while. You no longer have access to the Creature Creator (although you can add clothing to your creation – oddly all members of chosen race will dress the same). The Tribal Stage involves making friends by playing instruments to nearby races; or killing them as you evolve through fire, stone axes and spears; the Civilization stage sees your race of creatures populate the planet in cities. Here you get to design buildings and vehicles (land, sea and air) and get your chosen city to take over the world, either by force, economic means or religious battering.
The problem is that the Tribal and Civilization stages are incredibly lightweight and amount to little more than a child’s version of a “proper” strategy game (such as Age Of Empires III). This sits uncomfortably with the notion of playing Will Wright’s magnus opus that has been five years in development. After all, this is the man that gave us Sim City and The Sims; are we really expected to believe that this is his best? Somehow you can’t shake the feeling that you’re not quite playing as complex a game as you should be – and that feeling never really left us from that point on.
Another gripe is that Spore has no auto-save function, so if you mess up you may have to some way back. We found ourselves heading back and having to redo the Civilization Stage twice before we settled into the Space Stage. And there’s only the one save slot, so if you mess up there’s no back-peddling to an earlier part of the game.
Fortunately the Tribal and Civilization stages are quickly over and you then get into the meat of the game: the Space Stage. This part of the game owes a big debt to other space traders, such as Eve or Elite; and a large part of your time is spent shuttling different coloured Spice from one planet to another; upgrading your weapons and shooting down pirates. You also form allegiances with sentient life from other planets and can run a variety of missions (scan this; shoot that etc). There are some comic nods to science fiction here: you can abduct creatures and purchase devices to create crop circles, for example. Again, this is really basic stuff compared to other games on the market.
Fly me to the moon
The other – more intriguing – part of the game is spent terraforming planets. You can purchase items that affect atmospheric stability, transport plant life and creatures from one planet to another; build cities and – as time goes on – purchase items that let you sculpt entire planets.
It’s in the Space Stage that the overwhelming scope of the game hits you, and Spore’s somewhat basic gameplay can – perhaps – be overlooked. The galaxy consists of 500,000 planets to explore; some barren and awaiting your terraformation, but many filled with creatures to converse with; or life-forms to abduct and use in your own planetary creations.
Then there is the hardly insignificant matter of the social networking aspect of the game. Every creature you evolve, every building and vehicle will go up on the Sporepedia, where it will be shared with other gamers throughout the world. The universe you play in is currently populated by creatures created by Maxis, but over time will become almost entirely populated by creations from other gamers. You can make friends, create a blog and subscribe to RSS feeds. Just about anything you can think of (Sonic The Hedgehog, Flying Toasters, iPods have been turned into creatures). Predictably, the lowest common denominator of social networking is present and correct and there are already 1,006 penis monsters wandering the universe. But on the whole the Sporepedia shows a remarkable level of ingenuity; there are some really interesting life-forms out there.
It’s here that you see what Spore may be really about. It’s not really a strategy or space-trading game. It’s about social networking, it’s about getting thousands of people to fill a universe with millions of creatures, buildings and vehicles of their own imagining. In some ways, we can’t help feel that the game (such as it is) is merely a ploy to this end. And we can’t deny being awed by the prospect of flying round a universe of half a million planets, filled with creations from other gamers.
Opinion on the merit of Spore been very much divided. Electronic Arts has come in for considerable stick for its restrictive DRM policy (you can only install Spore on three computers) and a backlash on Amazon has ensured Spore is going to stay rated at one star for the foreseeable future. A site called Metacritic collates reviews from reputable sites and puts it in at a healthy – but hardly remarkable – 86 per cent. Many reputable sites, such as Wired (70 per cent) have been quite critical of Spore. And no matter how much we keep trying to like Spore, we can’t shake the feeling that some of the complaints we’re hearing are justified.
Spore is an astonishing feat; we’re just not convinced it’s a good game. Like other Will Wright efforts, how much you’ll get out of it will depend on the effort you put in, and much depends on how well the social networking aspect of Spore takes off. There’s no denying that it’s awe-inspiring; but after the sense of scale wears off it can become a tad dull. Mind you, we think it’s worth the £35 ticket price just to see how Spore develops, just don’t expect it to offer instant gratification.