It's been years since Sims creator Will Wright first announced their ambitious game Spore, and now that it's finally in stores, it's easy to look back on this game's hype and be at least a little disappointed. But to be perfectly honest, Spore wasn't really made for people who have been following its development for years - it was made for casual players who want a little more out of their games and are looking for something just a little geeky and goofy. If you have found yourself anticipating this game, then you're likely a hardcore gamer, and frankly, this latest creation by Maxis and its simplistic early gameplay are likely to turn you off.
But if you stick with it, Spore will grow on you as well. Casual gamers will enjoy that they're led by the hand from the most basic of point-and-click games up through an interesting play on space strategy and trade through five distinct mini-games, and hardcore players will likely really get into the game's social aspect of creating new goofy creatures, buildings, and vehicles, and having the game's online features automatically place their friends' creations into their own games. No, Spore is not a multiplayer game, but the creatures you encounter are other people's designs - and yours can show up in their games, as well, all through the online Sporepedia system which works from directly in the game.
Spore is one of the most creative games that still has a tight focus on advancing and playing like a conventional video game does. Sure, you're still working your race from a single cell up through getting onto dry land, building a civilization and taking to the stars, but the vast amount of art (made by both Maxis and by players) and sound that go into it is amazing. Not just in its own right, but that it is integrated so well into the way you play. From the ability to add those powerful new horns onto your creature's head in the second stage to placing guns on your powerful new tank in the fourth stage, you'll love being able to make your own stuff.
For some, the delayed gratification of turning your ocean-dwelling mud-cruncher into a planet-conquering force is just asking too much. It will take quite a few hours to get from the start to starting the final stage (which is where most of the game's depth does lie), but sticking with it is worth it. At the very least, those who only want to do the space stuff will have to suffer through the first four stages just once; once you get to a new stage, any new game you start allows you to jump in directly on that stage.
The classic strategy game elements of Spore in the third and fourth stages are rather lacking compared to games like Supreme Commander or Company of Heroes; those parts are really set up more as primers for the final space stage rather than as experiences that can stand on their own. In some way, that might be Spore's biggest failing, in that the first four stages don't have that complexity locked away that the fifth has. But the overall experience is one that will bring in plenty of people to play the fifth stage that wouldn't ever touch a game like Galactic Civilizations II or the like, so Maxis and EA have at least made a triumph there.
Don't get me wrong, as there are a number of ways of finishing each stage. I chose the most simple way, which was to load up the most damaging spikes, fangs, feet, and horns and kill everything I saw, and it worked all the way until the final stage when I decided to try a bit of trading instead of mindless killing. One can go a mostly peaceful route, befriending nearby tribes and having them do most of the killing when you run together, eventually flying around spreading religious propaganda all over their towns to convert them to your cause. (I preferred to drop bombs instead.) But it's still a little shallow for those who have been playing RTS titles for years, so in this case I recommend those players to just breeze through it and make it to the final stage to take on a whole galaxy.
Spore's biggest achievement is not in the procedurally-generated art or its fusion of different games all into one, but its exciting online features that make a single player game something that's still deeply rooted in the community and in the creativity of the people both inside and outside your friends list. It was a great move, too, especially considering that The Sims 2 had tens of thousands of new plug-in content made by its users, and now it's integrated directly into the game in a way that everyone can get involved in, not just the few who know how to use third-party editing tools. Maxis has successfully put together some of the best community tools in gaming to integrate them directly into Spore, and while I personally did expect more of the game's first few hours, the last stage does finally offer that depth once you really dig into it.
In the end, hardcore gamers will find something to love in Spore, even if it's not really what they were expecting. Casual gamers will love it, too, as the accessibility and smooth learning curve will motivate them to get into exploring space and trading the spice - something that a "serious" strategy game would rarely succeed in doing. The game couldn't possibly have lived up to every expectation of serious gamers, but the happy medium between accessibility and the depth of the endgame has been carefully achieved, and the creative tools elevate the whole experience to something really special that will keep Spore - and the inevitable dozen-plus expansions EA surely has already planned - going for years.