Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spore: Galactic Adventures

Spore: Galactic Adventures PC DVD Game Cover

Build your own adventure.

There's a moment in Spore: Galactic Adventures that almost seems Simpson-esque. Among all the many different adventures that you can participate in, from defending against alien invasion to stealth action infiltration of an alien work camp, there's a great little mission called How a Bill Becomes a Law, which reminded me of The Simpsons' episode that featured the hilarious Schoolhouse Rock spoof. It's a humorous (and somewhat cynical) take of the American lawmaking system, complete with hooking up lobbyists to senators and a walking, talking bill. It's charming, creative, and a perfect example of what's possible in this expansion to last year's Spore. At the same time, it also highlights what was missing in the core game.

Now Spore itself has a mixed reputation. Maxis' one-of-a-kind game about life in the universe amazed many with its sheer number of editors that allow users to create everything from creatures to vehicles; the developers like to note that there are many more user-designed creatures in Spore than there are species on the planet. And it's true, Spore redefined what we think when it comes to user-designed content, and how to distribute it. At the same time, the gameplay itself didn't quite live up to the user-design side. Sure, you could create all manners of creature and vehicles and buildings, but there wasn't a whole lot of variety in the gameplay itself.

Galactic Adventures in a way solves that, but only for the space stage, the final stage of the game. The expansion introduces the idea of adventures, which are planetary-based missions that you can pursue with your Space Captain, basically your avatar. If you're playing the Space stage, these adventures integrate into the existing campaign, so you'll fly around the galaxy in your starship, and every now and then you can beam down to the planet to conduct a mission. Or you can just jump play adventures in a stand-alone fashion by calling up the adventure gallery in the Sporepedia. Maxis has seen fit to populate the expansion pack with dozens of pre-made adventures, but this being Spore a big component of the expansion is the introduction of an adventure editor that lets users create and share their own adventures.

The Maxis-made adventures serve as sort of an example of what's possible. There's stealth action where you might have to infiltrate an enemy camp by avoiding the guards on patrol. There's adventures based on mythology, such as helping Perseus arm himself for battle against the evil Medusa. There are pitched battles with starships swooping down and blasting apart combatants on the battlefield. This kind of stuff is not only challenging and interesting, but it offers a much-needed change of pace to the space stage gameplay where all you did previously was just fly around the galaxy in your starship with no real way of ever getting out to smell the roses. It also adds a sense of role-playing, as your Space Captain levels up over time and gains access to more powerful weapons and equipment.

There are some adventures that don't work as well as others, and some feel just like weird test beds. For instance, you can give some counting sheep numbers and they'll run off and return with an answer; that's it! Or there's a mission set on a planet with ferocious rainstorms that turn the screen into an almost blinding display of particle effects and colors.

Keeping in mind that Spore is aimed at a wide range of gamers and ages, the missions turn out to be challenging without being overly difficult, save for those rare examples where you get stuck for various reasons. Sometimes the game seems to throw you in missions you're not ready for, such as battling a particularly difficult foe while you lack any decent gear. In others, you might lack the right social interactions needed to succeed. While some of this is on purpose (you have to design a Spore Captain capable of accomplishing the mission), other times it feels arbitrary and awkward. And speaking of the difficulty, there's no way to save in mid-mission. This can be wearisome if your Space Captain is killed during some of the more lengthy adventures, forcing you to start the entire thing from scratch.

Adventure editing isn't going to be for everyone, though. The tools are designed to be user friendly, so you don't need to be a programming whiz to piece together an adventure. And these are the same tools that the designers used, so everything they can do you could possible do. But as you'd imagine, it's considerably more involving than just create a single creature or building, but the results can be impressive if you put the work into it. Then again, traditionally you only need a small percentage of the community to churn out plenty of good value content for a game, and it'll be interesting to see what Spore fans can come up with. If Maxis can create an adventure out of old Schoolhouse Rock episodes imagine what users could do?

One downside to using any of the editing tools though is the difficulty in searching for content in the online Sporepedia now. There's so much user-made content that conducting searches feels sluggish, and worst, you have to really narrow down your search parameters or you get thousands (or tens of thousands) of results for some items.

Galactic Adventures won't upgrade Spore's graphics or art design, but it does offer a fresh perspective by being able to explore modern and futuristic settings (or at least, Spore-style modern and futuristic settings) up close. After the Tribal stage of Spore the game moved away from focusing on individual creatures and more on the larger societies as a whole; Civilization focused on cities and Space on planets. Now you can get down and dirty on a planetary surface, and some of the things you'll see can wow you. Meanwhile, the aliens encounter still speak in their mix of Spore and Simlish (the random language of The Sims), but if there's one audio cue that I love it's the use of 60s pop themes for victory dances upon completing a mission.

Closing Comments
With the addition of Galactic Adventures the space stage feels much more complete; it was already the largest section of the game, but now it has more variety and stuff to do. At the same time, Galactic Adventures doesn't really boost Spore's other stages, and that's where there's definitely room for improvement. The Civilization stage still feels relatively cut-and-dry, and the Tribal stage resembles a rudimentary real-time strategy game. Still, Galactic Adventures does what it sets out to do in allowing for the creation and sharing of imaginative adventures. In that regards, it's a welcome addition to Spore.

©2009-06-23, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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