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Spore

Finally in stores this week — after seven years in development and a handful of missed deadlines — is Spore, the latest creation from Will Wright, the acclaimed designer of groundbreaking titles like SimCity (1989) and The Sims (2000). To say Spore ups the ante would be something of an understatement: With this game, Wright wanted to present nothing less than a history of life — in fact, he originally called his project SimEverything. As one of perhaps millions of fans impatiently waiting for this day to arrive, I tore open the box and jammed the disc into my computer…

Your millennia-spanning journey begins in the cell stage, as as a single-cell organism swimming in the primordial broth of a young Earth. This is survival in its most basic form. To better their chances, players can select to add various parts or appendages: a pointy protuberance to spear prey, for example, or a tail-like flagellum to better elude hungry neighbors. Even before you can begin such modifications, players must decide on one of two paths: carnivore or herbivore. It’s a fairly significant decision that will have some long-term impact on the evolution of your species. (Thinking, I chose what I can only assume will be the more bellicose tendencies of a meat eater.) After collecting enough DNA to produce a (very) little bundle of joy — for which you’ll have to engage in a loveless encounter with a fellow soup dweller — your simple organism is ready to emerge from the waters and take its first tentative breaths on land.

Congratulations — you’ve now entered the creature stage. And your first order of business is to design a species smart and tough enough to move up the evolutionary ladder. This, it should be said, is done from scratch: Every aspect of the design must spring forth from your imagination. As in the previous stage, your god-like work is accomplished via a series of creator editors: An elegant system of menus and several powerful mouse-controlled tools. Having built the perfect beast, you can ”paint” your critter using an impressive palette of colors, textures, and patterns. Finally, a preview feature lets you observe your creation displaying a variety of emotions — even listen to what they might sound like. It’s great fun: Watching my creature — let’s call him, um, ”Sausage Head” — convey anger and sadness and (most hilariously) befuddlement was nearly worth the price of the game.

I was proud of ol? Sausage Head — that is, until I spent some time looking at the Sporepedia: an online gallery filled with the creations of other players. Next to some wonderfully sculpted figures that wouldn’t look out of place in a Pixar movie and amazing likenesses of many familiar characters (including both Calvin and Hobbes), Sausage Head looked ugly and woefully underdeveloped. Too late for regrets, I told myself, it was time to get to the grim and deadly business of…evolving.

Sausage Head, at least as I played him, was a scrapper. His woeful visage (and ungainly body) notwithstanding, he learned to tame his environment, deal with other species (including some taken from the Sporepedia), and even find time to love. From here, I progressed through the next two stages: tribal and civilization. The first moves you from mere day-to-day survival to the long-term viability of your species. Success here requires you to conquer other tribes — I quickly discovered it’s a Sausage Head-eat-Fat Slug With Eight Eyes world out there! — vanquish five tribes and you’re onto the civilization stage. This part of Spore plays out like a very basic version of a turn-based strategy game: a largely uninspiring blend of empire building and resource management (only made palatable by an equally engaging building- and-vehicle creator — which showed me that my greatest architectural influence is probably Dr. Seuss).

Finally, I got my race of Sausage Heads to the level of technology that begins the fifth and final stage: space. Easily the deepest and most complex stage, it opens up tens of thousands of worlds for you to explore. Or colonize. Or develop alliances with. Or exploit for economic gain. Heady stuff: Even after visiting more than two dozen distant systems, I still felt the giddy frisson of discovery as I approached yet another new world. Of course, there is no end to this game — like Wright’s previous efforts, it’s over only when you decide it is. That said, I think I?m good for another few hundred planets….

So is Spore the breakthrough game that fans have long waited for? Probably not — the gameplay seems too fractured and only gives tantalizing glimpses of its intended scope and scale. (And just imagine what kind of online multiplayer experiences the game might offer!) But Spore must also be considered for what it does right: the beautiful levels, the perfect music, the wonderfully intuitive creator tools — the list goes on. If nothing else, this game ultimately affirms Will Wright’s much-discussed genius: Even as it illustrates the process of evolution, Spore offers overwhelming evidence of intelligent design.

WHAT WE LIKED:
· Deep level of customization
· Abundant humor and charm
· Incredible design, awesome music (courtesy of Brian Eno)
· Shallow learning curve — casual gamers will love it

WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE:
·The single-player experience
· Shallow learning curve — hardcore gamers might get bored

GRADE: B+

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