Previews

Spore

Preview: Interspecies relations break down

At each of Spore's five stages, from the microbiotic to the intergalactic, there is
an eternal choice: kill or... don't. When you start, as a microbe with teeth, it's kill or be vegetarian. When you evolve enough to crawl from the primordial soup to dry land, it's kill or sing little songs to befriend things.

Once your species forms a society and decides what buildings to have in its first village, it's kill or bring plates of oranges to appease semi-sentient tangles of legs and mouths. At the civilisation level, it's build killing-machines or maraca-factories. Maracas, of course, help when you're doing a little dance to befriend a bristling heap of fanged mouths.

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Two things surprised me about the nonviolent side of Spore once I got to play it: firstly, I really enjoyed it. Much more than the killing, which is generally just a matter of clicking on the creature you want to bite to death. I enjoyed dancing for a bag of eyes to make it my bitch. I enjoyed trying to copy a many-fanged bipedal lizard when he played dead for my amusement, to demonstrate that we weren't so different, he and I. I never managed to kit out my army with maracas, but I'm willing to bet I would have enjoyed that too.

The other surprising thing is that I sucked at it. I like to think of myself as a master of diplomacy, and yet somehow my first attempt to impress the Pugzli race ended with me throwing the picked-clean skull of one of their children into their chieftain's face.
Wait, I can explain. See, first I tried killing them. No, wait, I can explain that too. That wasn't to impress them. I just wanted to try the combat before I tried the socialising. I figured they weren't smart, they wouldn't spot that I'd just killed and eaten two of their kin. Or that I'd picked up both their skulls and was now wearing them as gloves.

I didn't know you could do that. I also didn't know that, even in 'social' mode, the default action when clicking another creature and holding something is to throw the thing at that creature, friend or foe. But what really offended the Pugzli was that, when their chieftain recovered from the posthumous flying headbutt, he performed a complicated stomping dance that I wasn't able to repeat. We could never be friends.

Spore's five sub-games are all simple but addictive, each the Diablo of its respective genre. Click to kill, find a steady stream of cool new stuff. Only rather than swords, it's body parts. I found out how to evolve a new beak by inspecting a skeleton on the beach. Eating a feral blue kangaroo taught me how to electrify my body. Almost every kill, or befriending, gives you a DNA point to put towards mutation.

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Mutation is easy, and ridiculous fun. It's the centrepiece of Spore - the sub-games wouldn't stand well on their own if they were populated by identical creatures. If you're anything like me, you'll start by designing the most demented creature you can think of just to see if the game can animate it. It can. It can make it walk, fight, eat, dance and mate, and it's about then that you'll start to regret making a platform of beaks with nine-foot legs, electric knees and an eye inside its mouth. It's appalling.

It gets more interesting when you earn a few DNA points, find a few new limb types and start thinking about how to make your beast more effective. Electric elbows? A poison-spitting mouth with an eye in it? Twelve-foot legs? You're going to end up creating a lot of species this way - it's as addictive as starting new characters in WoW. But the game won't forget about your old ones. Sometimes you'll encounter them as AI-controlled species.

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