Spore Hands-on Preview: An Hour with the Civ Phase and Galactic End-game

It was somewhere between ordering my army of blue-blooded Max Reebo soldiers to crush an enemy civilization, and conquering the galaxy from the comfort of a spaceship that resembled a four post bed, when I realized they had pulled it off. Spore is great.

My primary concern with the game was that there simply wouldn't be enough to do--that the goals or missions provided would be too boring or infrequent to offer much outside of the game's sandbox creation. Don't get me wrong, the missions are often simple--but they are not boring. While the civilization level of the game is not as fully featured as a real RTS, it is nevertheless fun to play, and comes alive when taken in the context of the game. The galactic stage is a combination of elements, all tied together with a few photon torpedoes and close encounters.

But rather than wax on for a few dozen paragraphs, I'll simply attempt to relate what I encountered while playing the latter half of Spore for a full Earth hour.

I only had a limited amount of time at the EA demo station, so I quickly bypassed my handlers' attempts to stick me with a developer who would walk me through the game. I figured, as a long-time PC gamer, that if the game was any good I could figure it out faster than someone could explain it. The handlers gave me a queer look, warned me that the galactic stage was difficult, but largely left me be.

I began the civilization stage by picking a pre-made creature from the Sporepedia--in this case the Max Reebo species, fashioned after the blue-colored piano player from Star Wars, recreated perfectly in the game by some anonymous creature artist. I then had a choice to make my Reebos into militaristic, religious or economic powerhouses. The thought of war-like Max Reebos was too much to resist.

You begin the civilization phase with a simple view of your circular city, a town hall marking the center of your empty metro area. From there you can place buildings on hard-point locations within the city walls. Houses increase the population, factories churn out money, entertainment centers keep the villagers happy, and turrets defend them--it's all fairly self explanatory.

Piecing together your own buildings is exceedingly easy, and more fun than I expected. The ease of use that Maxis has built into its creation tools can not be stressed enough; the fact that you can put together a structure that could pass for a professionally textured game asset, all in under ten seconds, is astounding. The control you have over the placement and size of each piece means that people will also be spending far longer tweaking their masterpieces.

And while assembling buildings is almost as fun as designing creatures, crafting RTS units is more fun than either. A full assortment of tank treads and mech legs were available for the land crawlers, with a huge list of laser blasters and miniguns to place and size. I quickly created a walker that looked like a Goliath from StarCraft, only rather than being driven by a Terran, a top hat-donning Max Reebo was behind the controls. Spore is great.

Units and buildings can be redesigned at any time, allowing you to instantly change the look of your forces. I produced a few Goliaths, using the cash-flow from my factories, and assembled them on the field of battle. After changing my structures to look a bit more Orwellian, I set myself to burning down the world.

The goal of the Civ stage is to dominate enemy civilizations, either by buying their cities, influencing them, or crushing them old-school. Territory is marked on a mini-map just as in an RTS, colored lines marking boundaries and units and cities denoted with dots. The more cities you get, the further the stage progresses, a meter at the bottom keeping track of your civilization's progress.

At certain points your forces will progress in technology, moving on from seaborne to airborne forces, the final achievement being the construction of a spaceship, signifying the start of the galactic phase. Apparently Will Wright believes that a planet must be brought under unified control before we can move out and conquer the galaxy. Works for me.

With your units at the enemy gates, you have a few options. You can communicate with them, perhaps offering to buy the city out from under their feet, or form a lucrative trade route. You can give them a gift, improving intercontinental relations. Or, you can eradicate their defenses and capture the city for yourself.

After choosing the last option, an air raid siren immediately sounded off from behind the city walls. My mechs began to pulverize the city's buildings with some kind of missile, while the city's turrets and units returned fire. The combat isn't exactly riveting to watch--weapon effects are fairly simplistic. However, this also lends itself to establishing a clear picture of a battle. You always understand who is shooting who, how much more damage your units can take, and when to bring in reinforcements.

And though the combat itself is certainly RTS-lite, there are enough things to keep you busy and interested outside of it. Keeping your economy rolling on, managing diplomacy and trade routes, designing sea and air units--all the basic trappings of an RTS game are on hand. I even noticed a message reading, "ICBM--Requires six cities." Oh, how I wanted six cities.

I never got there. Realizing I would need plenty of time to explore the stars, I cheated ahead to the galactic stage.

Read on for more on Spore's galactic phase. _PAGE_BREAK_ As I was skipping ahead and starting a new civilization, I had the option of choosing a pre-set race and the design of its spaceship. I randomized both, which produced a harmless humanoid, and the wonderous Starship Four Poster, an interstellar four post bed. An EA rep who was watching nearby began to laugh, and proceeded to tell me that, while this rocket-bed was one of the better he's seen, the best was a flying school bus. I had to agree with that.

The galactic stage presents an interesting mish-mash of concepts and objectives. From the start, you simply take off in your civilization's new spaceship, rotating around the planet you recently conquered. That sense of slowly zooming out from the planetary microscope is definitely apparent--this game is about evolution, and the constant change in gameplay brilliantly drives this home. Once amongst the stars, the vast perspective is as awe-inspiring as Wright's first GDC demonstration.

Taking off from a planet or landing on one is as simple as zooming in or out with the mouse wheel. Flying the spaceship around is a lot of fun--the floaty momentum of it is reminiscent of a game like Asteroids. Just tooling around a planet and scanning plantlife is amusing. In space, traveling from one planet or system to another is as easy as zooming out and clicking on a destination.

My first mission lead me to a nearby planet. There I discovered some alien ruins, long abandoned. However, a few security drones were left behind from the ancient race, and I was forced to do combat. Shields up.

Immediately I noticed that the spaceship tools were incredibly extensive. Weapons, scanning, abduction--all of these tabs had dozens of empty ability slots just waiting to be unlocked. Gaining abilities is accomplished by abducting species and completing missions that are given out by the leader of your civilization.

Using a mix of a basic death ray and photon torpedoes, I managed to easily dispatch the antagonistic defenders. Combat in this phase seemed much more fun than I expected--burning down alien lifeforms with the death ray, like frying ants with a magnifying glass, was more fun than it should have been. Like the ICBMs in the civilization phase, the Death Star-like planet destroying weapon should serve as a fantastic incentive to complete missions for evil deviants such as myself.

More missions involved scanning the plant life on one planet, or making contact with an alien civilization. Missions are easily tracked with a World of Warcraft-style window in the upper left corner, check marks appearing on the quests you have recently completed. Each completed mission moved me slowly outward from my home planet, my warp drive being upgraded occasionally. The ultimate goal of the galactic stage is to reach the center of the universe, though what happens at that point is a mystery.

At one point I had to make contact with my first alien civilization. A dialogue window in the tradition of Civilization powers first contact situations. Usually you'll have one or two options, most of them clear cut.

A simple race of slugs, I took a heavy-handed approach, insulting them from the get-go. The slugs didn't take my stabs well, so in the tradition of Spock, I did the only logical thing and opened fire, zapping and abducting the citizens of their capitol city.

Guns blazing, Spaceship Four Poster put up a good fight, but I began taking heavy damage from the city's defenses. When enemy spaceships showed up, I knew I was about to find out what happens when you die. As it happens, you simply respawn on your home planet, ready to strike back out into the cosmos. But that was where my demo ended--it was time to move on and play other, less ambitious games.

I wanted to keep playing and unlock more weapons. I wanted to terraform planets, and discover more alien artifacts, and play around in the beautiful starscape that Maxis has created. The designers have put in just enough rules to hook you into playing more, while still leaving the game open enough to not feel like a linear experience.

Though I've always felt the game would turn out well, after years of hype, I certainly saw the potential for Black & White levels of disappointment. Any apprehension I once had is now gone, however. While I don't know yet if Spore will keep me interested for 20 hours or 200 hours, it is certainly shaping up to be something I'll want to devour come September.

And if you've read this far, you're clearly interested in the game as well. Leave a comment below, and you'll be entered in a mini-contest for a free copy of the full Spore Creature Creator. You too will have the power to create fully-featured phallic monstrosities in advance of the game's release.

Spore will be released September 7 on PC and Mac.