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Platforms: PC & Apple Mac - PC version reviewed.
If you've been looking forward to Spore, there will be points at which it threatens to underwhelm or disappoint. For all the obvious ambition of Will Wright's new game, and all the hype that preceded it, there's always been something so nebulous about the concept that you couldn't help worrying that the game underneath might not be much cop.
Some of this fear dissipates pretty much as soon as the game kicks off, but even as you work your way through the game's five phases, there will be moments where you wonder "is this it?" or conclude that, when it comes down to it, Spore might, just might, be a sequence of simplified action/strategy games glued together with a load of pseudo-scientific guff.
Don't worry. It won't last. Every time such thoughts have entered my head, Spore has defeated my cynicism with another display of intelligence or imagination. Spore can seem deceptively simple at times, but there's always something interesting going on beneath the surface. It's accessible, yet it's also rich and epic. Be warned: a small proportion of hardcore gamers will give it a go and get bored with it fairly quickly before denouncing it as so much casual tosh. At the same time, it has the potential, like The Sims before it, to obsess the kind of people who don't normally play games, and more than a few who do.
For those of you that don't know, Spore tracks the evolution of a species from its beginnings as a cellular organism floating in the primal soup to its destiny as a technologically advanced race capable of interstellar exploration. The trick is that you effectively create the creature and mould it throughout its journey, guiding its evolution, building its culture, defining the style of its civilisation and its history. At the start your creature is just a blob with basic locomotion, a mouth and a pair of googly eyes. By the end, it will be building cities, handling the complexities of trade or war and flying spacecraft from solar system to solar system. That's a pretty long trip, and Spore handles it with ease.
It does so by dividing it up into five phases, each taking on a different game style. The first, the Cell phase, is a fairly basic arcade game where you hunt for food (animal or vegetable according to preference) and avoid becoming it, the twist being that you can spend points earned by your munching on new bits of anatomy that will make you faster, tougher or a more effective hunter. The second phase, the Creature phase, picks up once you've wriggled onto dry land.
Oddly reminiscent of World of Warcraft, it has you searching for DNA carrying fossils which unlock new body upgrades while either befriending or eliminating rival creatures for food and points. As you progress you'll find yourself tuning your creature for combat or diplomacy or a mixture of the two, with combat relying on a simple set of hotkey enabled moves (as in WoW) while impressing potential allies is a matter of following their moves (singing, dancing, charming, posing) with moves of your own.