Acquire a limited-use rental license for $60 enabling you to play games that should be web-based.  And free.  And would still suck.

I really wanted to like this game, after the years of buildup, Will Wright’s history of innovative design, and the (in)famous GDC demo of Spore (look it up on YouTube if you want to see what I thought they were going to publish, from a tech demo years ago). What got delivered was a severely simplified collection of minigames slapped together with some overly cute animations, shallow play, badly thought-out and misbalanced endgame (space phase), with one of the worst and most personally offensive copy protection schemes wrapped around it. In interviews post-release, Wright has basically confirmed that what was wanted by the publisher (note: not by the customer) was a simple game for casual gamers that would have superior sales, e.g. Sims 2. Unfortunately what they wound up with was a game that’s too simple even for hardcore Sims fans in the early phases and perplexingly difficult in the last phase even for hardcore players, not because the game is actually more difficult, but because it’s very poorly thought out.

OK, DRM scheme first, since that’s where a lot of folks stop absorbing. This version of SecuROM limits you to 3 activations, after which you can maybe possibly get more if you call EA support (toll call with long wait times and poor response) with a convincing explanation, after which they may or may not honor your purchase. In many cases, the answer is not judging by previous titles that use this limited activations scheme (Bioshock, Mass Effect) and the customer nightmares that ensured. An activation by the way is not the same as an installation; installations are a subset. An activation includes a fresh OS install, major hardware change, MINOR hardware change such as plugging in a USB device… nobody can actually tell you what constitutes an activation.

Furthermore, SecuROM, while not as overtly offensive as Starforce, does in fact install registry entries and administrator-level monitoring software in your system without your knowledge, and it cannot be removed without either a drive wipe or a multistep command line process that I would not recommend to a casual user. It gets installed as soon as you start up Spore for the first time, and you don’t get told this.

The gameplay itself is charming and amusing… the first time you play it, I suppose. The first time I played it, not trying to powergame through, I made it to the space stage within a few hours, without even trying to. This was the point that I looked back at the gameplay and wanted to know, "Is that it?" And it pretty much was.

For those people who are offended by the idea that the game espouses evolution, don’t bother. There is no actual evolution in this game. There is absolutely no natural progression from one form to the next. As long as you have the parts available, you can change from a six-winged butterfly thingy to a gazelle with nine eyes to a landgoing slug that spits poison. Your environment doesn’t force any changes on you whatsoever.

The first four phases of the game (cell, animal, tribe, civilization) are incredibly simplistic versions of other genre games, and are over before you know it. At the end of each one, when I was suddenly winning without knowing how, it actually felt more like I had finished one phase of a tutorial for a bigger, more interesting game that I never got. In the cell game, it’s move, eat, avoid, win. In the animal game, it’s eat, attack (using the 1-4 keys), impress (also using the 1-4 keys), win. In tribal, well things get slightly more complex as you have to pick out clothing and huts, but it’s still get food, impress or kill, win. In civilization, you think FINALLY here’s where thingsget interesting, but only in that instead of fighting/impressing, you now have the choice of buying (with trade), killing (with military) or converting (with religious), combined with a mini-city builder game that plays more like Connect Four than Sim City.

The space phase is fairly difficult, but this is only because of logical inconsistencies and missing systems in the game. Without going too in-depth, here are some of the highlights: your empire can afford to terraform planets, bribe empires, and the like but can’t build a second ship to help you out. Your empire also cannot send out a few guys with guns to hunt down diseased animals, and have to commandeer your ship (its ONLY ship) to fly around the planet, zapping sick deer with a laser. Your cities have auto-defense turrets that don’t fire on the enemy. Your empire is incapable of setting up regular shipments of spice (apparently the only commodity anyone wants), and require you to move it around yourself, in between shooting sick deer, pirates unmolested by planetary defense turrets, and paying for city upgrades. What, don’t planets have tax bases to put up their own houses? No, apparently it’s up to you, the commander of the only ship in the empire, to put up condos for your hapless people.

I won’t even go into the bugs involved in basic installation of the game, authentication errors, buggy Sporepedia, C: drive overflow (even if you install in a different drive/partition, everything goes into the My Documents folder which is in C: by default), ONE ACCOUNT PER INSTALLATION (this was supposed to be allowed and even says so in the basic edition’s manual, but apparently they considered this to be a typo… even with the change account buttons present in the UI), and other numerous technical problems. You can go check the EA forums for some of those before they get deleted or locked down.

In conclusion, I have to say that you should not buy this product due to its poor shallow gameplay, insidious and anti-consumer DRM, and most of all 3-install limit. But the real question is not why would you NEED to install more than 3 times; we know the answers to that, and they are totally legitimate. The question is why you would WANT to install it even once.

Mu rating:  11/10, which rolls over to -32767/10.  That’s what happens when upcoming releases get so badly overrated.

One Response to “Spore Nano-Review”
  1. Jeff Gu says:

    I was torn between paying someone to yank my teeth out with a crude instrument and no anesthetic, or buying another EA game. I really wanted to go the more painless route. You’ve been a huge help. I’d stay and chat, but I’m late for a dentist appointment.

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