Spore Review
6.0our score

Spore is one of those games which is incredibly difficult to sum up in one genre. In a nutshell, Spore allows the player to experience the evolution of a species from its beginnings as a microscopic organism, all the way to an interstellar empire. Spore was an incredibly ambitious undertaking – and was one of the most highly anticipated games of 2008. So looking back 2 years later, has Spore delivered?

Gameplay

Obviously there is a fairly large difference between being a microscopic organism and an intelligent life form controlling a vast stellar empire. In order to handle this difference, Spore is split into 5 distinct stages, each of which can be considered a game in its own right. Each stage is a step on the evolutionary ladder and has a major impact on not only the looks of your species, but also its abilities.

There is no time limit in any stage, which is nice for players who like exploring and playing around. You can easily finish the first 4 stages in a couple of hours if you go through them rapidly but it can also take as long as 15 hours if you take your time and enjoy the game. The final stage is by far the longest – but we’ll get to that later.

The stages your species will go through are;

  1. Cell Stage
  2. Creature Stage
  3. Tribal Stage
  4. Civilization Stage
  5. Space Stage

We’ll cover each in more detail as we explore the evolution of the Mana Poolonians, providing a real example of Spore in action. It’s worth noting that Spore can pull in user generated content, depending on your settings. There are hundreds of thousands of creations, ensuring you never meet the same creature twice.

Cell Stage

Spore Review - Cell Stage 1

The 'fearsome' Mana Poolonian Species

A long time ago, a meteor raced past the sun in a galaxy far, far away. Its course: direct collision with the planet Mana Pool. If anyone had been around to witness the spectacle, they would have observed an object racing through the sky, crashing into the ocean and creating the biggest Tsunami in the history of the planet. Upon impact, the meteor broke apart, revealing a single-celled organism. And so it was that the Mana Poolonians started their journey on the path to evolution.

It is worth noting that you can choose whether your creature is an herbivore or a carnivore prior to starting the cell stage. This has a fairly major impact on how your species interacts with other organisms and how it evolves, so choose wisely. Anticipating a life of aggression and hunting vegetarians, I decide to pick carnivore.

The idea in the Cell Stage in Spore is to eat pieces of food, which will provide your species with DNA points. You control your organism and can move in all directions. Eating is done by hitting pieces of matter with your ‘mouth’. Herbivores target the green plant matter, and carnivores hunt weaker cells. Destroying a weaker cell spawns several pieces of red matter, representing the remains of other cells.

Spore Review - Cell Stage 2

The creature editor. More mouths! Moar!

Once you’ve acquired a reasonable amount of DNA points, you can call for a mate – which opens up the creature editor for the first time. Here you can mold your creature into any shape or form your creativity allows, and you can add and remove parts that you’ve unlocked. Removing parts fully refunds them, allowing you try out new abilities throughout the evolution of your species. You can also apply textures and paint jobs to your species, further customising its look.

Acquiring new parts is really your major goal in this stage, as better parts make a huge difference you your species both now and in the future. Parts include spikes, mouths, poison, electric bladders and propulsion methods. You acquire parts by finding meteor parts, or by defeating other organisms which possess parts which your organism doesn’t have yet.

As you eat, your creature periodically grows. When this happens, organisms which previously formed the background of the game are drawn to the foreground giving you a real sense of progression as you compete with larger and larger organisms. It’s also fairly amusing to see that huge threat from a moment ago shrink before your eyes and becoming easy prey. Once you fill the entire DNA bar, you are ready to progress to the next stage.

Spore Review - Cell Stage 3

In the land of micro organisms, 4-eye is king.

For millions of years the Mana Poolonian organism terrorized the tide pool. Filled with herbivores, the Mana Poolonians were in their element, preying on other organisms without discrimination. There were times when the species met its equal and long conflicts erupted – but ultimately the Mana Poolonians would assimilate all species and add their distinct biological advantages to their own. Resistance was truly futile.

Until one day, the ocean was no longer enough. The species evolved and learned how to walk on land – ready to assimilate anything in its path.

Creature Stage

A little confused at first, the Mana Poolonians stretch their newfound legs. It was an extremely sudden evolution, but a welcome one nonetheless. Besides growing legs and showing very birdlike features, the evolution dramatically changes the way the Mana Poolonians reproduce. Eggs are the new rage, and they quickly build a nest. The coming millennia will show the planet just how dangerous and territorial the Mana Poolonians really are…

Spore Review - Creature Stage 1Spore Review - Creature Stage 2

Zomg! Legs! Now how do we acquire some wings? – Hrm, possibly like this :-)

The creature stage is pretty simple and a little awkward at first. I had very mixed feelings here. It’s quite exciting in terms of the evolution of your species, as it undergoes absolutely huge changes during this stage. However, in terms of gameplay this stage is a bit dull. It is great fun for a short while, after which you find out that actually, you’ve already seen everything there is to see about the stage.

Spore Review - Creature Stage 3

Slowly evolving into something unpleasant.

There are some odd moments of amusement however, especially when you encounter the equivalent of a T-Rex, stomping through your species like they don’t exist. If you are ‘lucky’ you will also encounter an UFO flying around abducting various creatures around you.

You find yourself on land, in a nest together with other members of your species. Besides needing food, either acquired by gathering, or hunting other species, you will also need to interact with others. This is done through abilities granted by various parts, and which parts you choose depends entirely on the type of species you wish to develop. For the Mana Poolonians, this involved parts that increased combat effectiveness.

Spore Review - Creature Stage 4

Eureka! It's… a stick… Fear us!

A few generations and extinct species later, the Mana Poolonians evolved into what could best be described as the kind of insect you would not want to encounter during an exotic holiday. Besides being able to jump and glide effectively, they obtained powerful charge ability, combined with immense bite and strike attacks.

The Mana Poolonians encountered a few setbacks, usually related to attacking species which were a little too large for them. This didn’t discourage the creatures one bit – if anything it made them more ruthless and vicious. A great many species of the planet Mana Pool became extinct during this time span, which later became known as the Age of Frenzy. Until one day, the worst nightmare of all surviving species on the planet became reality: The Mana Poolonians discovered fire.

Tribal Stage

Ah, fire. It is such a wonderous and useful tool to have at your disposal. And let’s not forget destructive, for it was the destructive nature of fire that truly motivated the Mana Poolonians. The creatures bonded into a tribe, working together towards a common goal: the extinction of every other species on planet Mana Pool.

Spore Review - Tribal Stage 1Spore Review - Tribal Stage 2

The tribal stage in Spore is pretty much your classic RTS, but then heavily dumbed down. You can no longer change your creature itself, but rather give it pieces of clothing and equipment – which provide it statistics in social, gathering, military and health. You now control your whole tribe rather than just one creature, to a maximum of 12 creatures when you advance far enough in this stage.

Spore Review - Tribal Stage 3

We have a scary mask! Kneel!

You can also upgrade your tribe, through the use of 6 different building slots which each give your tribe access to different tools. This includes weapons, musical instruments, fishing tools and healing rods. Again your choices depend completely on your play style, but this stage can see a little more conflict than the previous ones, if your species is peaceful. Needless to say this wasn’t the case for our species.

You do have a few special abilities during the tribal stage which directly came from your choices in the earlier stages. For the Mana Poolonians this included the ability to set traps, and the ability to use fire bombs. The latter is a fairly awesome area of effect ability which stuns opponents briefly. It came in mighty handy during our conquests.

Food in this stage allows you to spawn eggs to replenish your tribe, and also enables you to purchase new buildings. Food is obtained through various means, including fishing and hunting. The map still contains species you encountered in the previous stage but which have not yet evolved, and you can hunt them to your liking in this stage if you desire.

Spore Review - Tribal Stage 4

Combat is pretty basic RTS stuff. And then even simpler.

The objective is to conquer or ally with the various other tribes on the map, which adds their totem to your own and grows your tribe’s influence. To finish the stage, you need to grow your totem to its maximum size. The manner in which you deal with the other tribes determines what abilities your species obtains from this stage, which is worth bearing in mind.

At first the Mana Poolonians hunted all ‘wild’ species in the direct surroundings – finishing off the work they started before their discovery of tools and fire. Until one day, fishermen from a rival tribe walked by loaded with their catch. Puzzled by the odd behaviour of the other tribe, the Mana Poolonians observed them remotely until the visitors were gone. Running back to their tribe, they explained what they saw and showed the tribal chief how to fish.

Spore Review - Tribal Stage 5

Our totem is larger than yours. We win.

This discovery was of limited importance, as the tribal chief would have none of it. Ridiculous, wasting hours of your time fishing when you could just hunt other species to extinction *and* steal the fish of the rival tribes fishermen. And thus it came that the fishermen of the Cyan tribe walked into an ambush the next day – the Mana Poolonians all the richer.

These events lead to an all-out war between all tribes which lasted a long time. Or so it seemed to the Mana Poolonians, who were opposed to all forms of effort by now. Each rival tribe fell in turn to the onslaught the frenzied bugs brought to the planet. Using their abilities to fly and spit poison, combined with advanced weaponry, the Mana Poolonians slaughtered every tribe in their path. When done, the tribe gathered and discussed the future. After all, what is a Mana Poolonian without an enemy?

Civilization Stage

The following years brought the most radical changes to the Mana Poolonian society. Sod axes, sod spears, sod healing rods! The industrious Mana Poolonians pooled all their talent and went straight for a battle tank. (Bit of a leap in evolution there but alas!) As if that wasn’t enough, they decided to erect a huge metropolis with skyscrapers and enormous factories, preparing themselves for what would surely be an onslaught.

Spore Review - Civilization Stage 1

From sticks to nukes. Our ambition knows no limits.

The civilization stage is by far my least favourite of all stages. Quite frankly it is outright boring. The creature designer is awesome, but the building designer is just a bit too much for me. I don’t really feel like spending hours designing buildings I barely look at, so off I go using stock buildings. (Thank God it allows you to do that!)

This stage can be completed extremely quickly if you are even remotely familiar with the RTS genre. Luckily you still see your designs once you hit the space age, so those players who spent a little longer on designing their buildings and vehicles are somewhat rewarded.

In the civilization stage you start with a city and 1 land vehicle. The basic goal is the same as all other stages: eliminate the competition through conquest or diplomacy. In this case the competition is your own race, which evolved from tribal stage to a fully fledged civilization. This is including the fact that they don’t get along very well with each other.

Spore Review - Civilization Stage 2

Resistance is futile. Prepare to be assimilated.

You need income to purchase new buildings and turrets in your cities, which in turn increases your income and well, you get it. Classic RTS gameplay but as usual heavily dumbed down. The civilization stage in Spore is so dumbed down in fact, that I found it outright boring. Capture ‘spice’ geysers, build more cities, zerg your opponents and win.

Luckily the aggressive nature of the Mana Poolonians enabled me to finish this stage incredibly quickly.

The Mana Poolonians under the banner of Evil Tactician were not happy. They were not happy because other cities refused to join their cause and submit to their will. Plan A was put in motion and heavily modified stealth bombers with precision lasers deployed. In less than one cycle of the planet, the whole continent fell before the might of the aggressors.

Spore Review - Civilization Stage 3

These guys tried to resist. We got bored.

But this didn’t satisfy their blood lust in the slightest. Having evolved into a species that essentially preys upon the weak and always takes the path of least resistance, they developed an almighty solution to the refusal of the inhabitants of Mana Pool to unite: the ICBM. Launching their new weapon at all enemy cities simultaneously, the final remnants of resistance were removed. Finally, the planet was united under one species, one banner.

Ever hungry for more conflict – the council met to discuss the future. Several days later they returned and announced their grand plans to the entire of Mana Pool: A great spaceship would be built. The Mana Poolonians would explore the galaxy and then, the universe. May all who stand in their path cower in fear and prepare to be assimilated. Resistance, as always, will be futile!

Space Stage

“Space – - – - the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship, Manaprise. Its ongoing mission: to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and eat entire civilizations, to boldly attack where no Mana Poolonian has assimilated before.”

We are the Mana Poolonians. You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.

Spore Review - Space Stage 1Spore Review - Space Stage 2

If only the Space Stage was even as remotely as cool as the two opening statements above. Unfortunately this stage falls short in every single aspect. I originally bought Spore in the hope that we had a true classic at our hands. Designing our own units, forming an interstellar empire, this sounded like the next Master of Orion 2 to me. But then with the advantage of being able to design your race from the ground up, something I always dreamt of doing when playing Moo2.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You control one spaceship and start by receiving some missions from your home planet. It’s amusing at first, but gets boring very quickly indeed. One of the biggest frustrations in the space stage, in my opinion, is the UI and the controls. Scrolling your mouse wheel in order to break orbit, and enter the galaxy and universe screens works brilliantly in Sins of a Solar Empire, but not at all in Spore. It’s clunky and not very responsive.

Spore Review - Space Stage 3

Starship Manaprise, prepare to be disappointed!

After the very creative and occasionally funny stages at the beginning, the game goes massively downhill. Some casual players might find enjoyment in the space stage, but the 4x sci-fi genre is VERY high on my list of preferred games and Spore in this regard simply does not deliver.

It has all the ingredients to make a good game, but the utter lack of proper technological advancement, engaging diplomacy and most importantly: fleets of star ships and entertaining combat, just never happens. Whoever made the decision to limit the player to a single star ship is an absolute moron and has completely ruined what could have been a fantastic game.

Spore Review - Space Stage 4

We are not alone! Huzzah, moar food!

Let’s look at our evolution for a moment:

  1. Cell Stage – 1 Cell
  2. Creature Stage – Up to 4 creatures
  3. Tribal Stage – Up to 12 creatures
  4. Civilization Stage – An entire civilization
  5. Space Stage – One star ship, captain!

Wait? What? That’s a step backwards!

The space stage does have a few positives, though they are mostly related to things that amused me. Making crop circles on planets with less advanced civilizations, abducting primitive life, or destroying entire planets with a ‘planet buster’ are among your options. You are however, at all times limited to just your star ship and the interaction you make with other objects. In a galaxy that has 500,000 planets orbiting 100,000 stars, that is not particularly pleasant.

Spore Review - Space Stage 5

In a galaxy far, far away… zZzZz

The main drive in this sort of gameplay is to expand your empire, build new colonies, improve their eco system, etc, etc. In Spore this is tedious as you have to go and do things yourself, with your one little star ship. For me, this removed the biggest motivation from this type of game. A huge let down indeed!

I can’t really bring myself to spend a huge amount of time in this stage, as it gets dull and the motivation to keep playing wears off after a while. A big shame as this could potentially have been the best thing since sliced bread. The goal of the game is to reach the center of the galaxy. As always, you can keep playing if you desire so, and there are multiple routes to victory.

Conclusion

So is Spore worth buying? That depends entirely on how cheaply you can obtain it. It’s good fun in the earlier stages, and some players will probably enjoy the space age as well. (Just *don’t* expect a fully fledged 4x strategy game.) Spore is a fairly casual affair, mostly aimed at being creative with the creature designer.

For all Spore originally promised, personally I feel the game didn’t deliver. I bought it right after release and actually gave up in the civilization stage originally. I had to really push myself through that to go and see what the Space Stage is all about and to me it was a bit of a let down. The controls/UI are just not very good, the game play is incredibly clunky and managing your empire is just no fun if you can’t build more (and better) space ships. Essentially you are playing a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and there are games which do that much better as well.

That said, Spore is original – and the only limit in the earlier stages is really your imagination & creativity. If you can pick it up cheaply, it’s worth doing. But for the original price and the promises the developers made prior to release I still feel that Spore is one of the let downs of recent years. A pity as the game had absolutely massive potential. So now we just wait for someone who combines Spore’s Cell and Creature stages with Civilization and as final stage some new form of Master of Orion 2. I’d pay good money for that.

the author

Managing Editor of ManaPool, Peter lives in York, UK and is a great fan and master of turn-based strategy games. If he isn't playing one of those, you'll probably find him in a role-playing game instead. He's definitely not afraid to provide a straight up opinion on any game and has a strong like for indie developers. We all start small, after all.

  • http://www.manapool.co.uk Alratan

    I maintain that whilst there has been a proof of concept of a multi-stage game released called ‘Spore’, it remains true that there is no game with that moniker.

  • http://www.tjoonz.com/ Marc D

    Personally, I found this the biggest mis-purchase of my gaming life… I had anticipated as much as you did, and I still find the 6 you gave it rather rich! I quit in the civilization stage as the game had already been on it’s descend and there and then I just reached the tipping point.

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    The idea was awesome. The execution was flawed due to them dumbing down the concept to appeal to casual gamers. Pity, as it could have been a classic. Now it will just be known as a failed attempt at greatness.

  • James

    Evil Tactician, you nailed in the head so well.

    They promised a lot to consumers and early game ‘shows’ showing the game off, and they toke it all away.

    If i were to play Spore again, it would be for the first 3-4 stages, and i would just ignore the space stage completely. That end game was supposed to be great, but.. its.. bah, i want my money back.

  • Allan

    I never made it through the civilization phase either. I tried twice, but it always seems there are more fun things to do than play Spore. Wash the dishes, walk the dog, lick an ass. I am just glad you took one for the team and revealed that the space phase is no fun either.

  • Bhazo the Mad

    I woulda loved this game if it felt like your choices in the early stages had more effect in the later stages. Why did I spend so much DNA evolving a flying poison spitting critter if they didn’t fly nor really spit much poison during the tribal stages? Way to trivialize my choices.