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Spore

"Spore" is a game about evolution that could use more intelligent design. A big launch seems assured given the hype and mainstream press coverage, but if EA wants a franchise, it will need to find more for all those crazy new species to do.

“Spore” is a game about evolution that could use more intelligent design. Originally referred to as “SimEverything,” this new property from “The Sims” creator Will Wright features a brilliantly intuitive creation tool that lets players make their own life forms, vehicles, buildings and even spaceships. Rather than match the freedom in the gameplay, however, “Spore” forces players to use their creations in a series of levels that are derivative and dull. A big launch seems assured given the hype and mainstream press coverage, but if EA wants a franchise, it will need to find more for all those crazy new species to do.

“Spore’s” creature creator has been available as a free download all summer and has spawned millions of new virtual life forms, from bizarre crossbreeds to multiheaded monstrosities to not-so-subtle sexual allusions. That’s no surprise, since by including a sizable, but not overwhelming, number of premade shapes, be they mouths and feet on a creature or doors and windows on a house, “Spore” gives even the most nonartistic player the feeling of being God on the first day.

Just as thrilling as creating, though, is exploring what others have done. Each time a new game of “Spore” starts, it’s populated with a random selection of species downloaded from the online “Sporepedia.” There’s no better way to simulate exploring the world and, eventually, the galaxy than finding something genuinely new every time.

If “Spore” stuck to a philosophy of creation and discovery, it could take “god games” like “The Sims” and “SimCity” to a new level. But unlike those past hits from Will Wright, which let players run their city or their lives however they see fit, “Spore” is deliberately structured. In each of five stages — “cell,” “creature,” “tribe,” “civilization,” and “space” — players have a specific set of challenges they have to beat in order to evolve.

Though “Spore’s” levels nicely mimic evolution, becoming more complex as they go, there’s no escaping the fact that each one is a mediocre knockoff of a game that already exists. Cell stage, for instance, is an almost direct copy of Sony’s downloadable game “flow” in which a tiny creature floats through the water competing for food to help it grow. Tribe and civilization are scaled down versions of the classic strategy franchise “Civilization,” while space is an open world game with a few similar missions that have to be repeated over and over.

In every level, evolution is constrained to a few simple options: Is the cell an herbivore, omnivore or carnivore? Is the civilization militaristic, economic or religious? The choices are so limited and the gameplay so simplistic that, despite its eight years in development, it sometimes seems like “Spore” was made in a rush.

No game could truly capture the intricacies of evolution, of course, but “Spore” rarely comes close. In the creature stage, players can mix and match parts at multiple points, rather than watching their species evolve in a natural way. Whether one is trading, attacking, or converting other nations, the focus in the civilization stage is on taking over the world, not on how a society becomes intensely devout or jingoistic and what the ramifications are.

Tech credits are solid given that “Spore” is playable on a broad range of computers, though the cheesy writing and music are much less sophisticated than a game about the evolution of life deserves.

Spore

Production: An Electronic Arts presentation of a game developed by Maxis for the Mac and PC. Rated E 10+. Reviewed on PC. $50

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