How does a big tripla-A title like Spore, developed by Maxis (responsible for massive hits like the Sims and SimCity), and published (and promoted heavily) by EA, manage to be so easily forgotten? It has been several years since the game came out and more people remember it for the DRM shenanigans than its' gameplay. Which is pretty sad considering that the game actually allows you to construct your own species, play it, evolve it, give it a society and proper civilization, and then take it to the stars -with an idea like that, Spore should be one pretty big and fun game, but for most part, it just isn't. It is fun, it is entertaining, but anyone hoping for some massive Civilization-level kind of gameplay depth will certainly be disappointed.
What is Spore?
Spore is a game that puts players in control of a new living being on a completely new planet. You start out by creating your creature on the smallest cellular level (and you literally use the game's creator functions for that), and then play it in its small-as-a-bacteria form until you eventually show that you can survive long enough to evolve.
When you do evolve, you once again enter the creation mode to edit the look of your creature. Eventually, you take to the ground, and encounter other races and species who live in the same planet as you do and you then work towards creating a strong population that can survive by hunting food and defending yourself from potential predators. This process keeps continuing until you have proved to be superior enough to start a civilization.
Once you have a civilization, players control individual units of the species less and make decisions about the group as a whole. This will then later improve to researching technology, establishing new content and turning the game from a creature-simulator into a Civilization-like game where you manage an entire group of living things. Eventually, as other species also develop their own societies, the game adds in RTS elements that allows you to attack and defend. Eventually, you will be able to take control of the entire planet and be able to take your species into the stars.
Where it All Gets Strange
With all that Spore gives, there should be a lot of content to be found, but it actually has a lot of blank content in between. When you are still controlling the new species, you just move around some weakly designed environments. And while facing off against larger creatures on the planet adds some tension, there is not much to do except to keep getting food and not getting killed. Later, in the city-creation mode you do get the chance to designed your own buildings and structures (which is very fun), but once they are all made, there is not much to do except to build up resources and then attack the other cities.
Simply put, the graphics are a little stale and generic, the environments are not all that well detailed, and there is not much for players to appreciate outside of pursuing the game's core goals. At least the music is pretty decent and not tiring to listen to. And while this would have been okay for just one part of the game, it sadly applies from the time you are a cell all the way to the time you are building machines of war.
It is a game played in very unique stages but each one has been delivered in a very mundane way. This is where games like Sims and SimCity manage to be good while Spore does not: they can make the mundane feel fun and well polished. Spore's sandbox playstyle should have been a good thing, but instead, it creates the feeling that there is not really much to do in the game other than to focus on objectives.
Not that the game is without it's interesting bits. Seeing other creatures evolve alongside your own shows that the planets are alive. And if you connect online, you also get to see the creations of other players and see what others have made. While that is normally a good thing, do know that since a lot of folks cannot help but make creatures that look like genitalia, staying offline might be a better idea.
On the other hand, Spore still has good value as an educational tool (much to the dismay of creationists of course). While it does not specifically adhere to the rules of evolution (you can evolve your creature to look completely different in every single stage of development and it breaks a lot of rules with regards to mutation, natural selection and other similarfactors), it still helps explain a lot of important concepts in a very fun and interesting environment. As a creature, players learn the concept of what it means to be the new species in a biosphere -what it takes to learn the difference between a harmless species to a potential threat. When starting the community and making the steps towards civilization, the game teaches the importance of a strong social group and how it can exponentially speed up the growth of a single species.
The DRM Fiasco
While not directly tied up to the game, there is a lot of bias towards spore simply because of the fact that it launched with a severely user-unfriendly DRM (digital rights management) system. The anti-piracy tool limited access to the game and was considered by many as an unfair way for EA to publish games. This was made even worse by the fact that the SecuROM system used was not publicly stated in the game manual or in the packaging. While EA would eventually relent to the public backlash and release the game without DRM via Steam, there was no way to remove the stigma they created. Until this day, Spore remains as one of the most pirated games of all time as it was pirated mostly out of spite to the publisher. On Amazon, most of the game's reviews have only one star and cite the DRM as the sole reason for the rating.
Play it for Some Science or Try it for the Novelty
The most likely reason for anyone to get this game is to have a child play it -because compared to a lot of other 'educational' games out there, Spore has a lot of fun parts. And it helps a lot that the fun parts are where you get to experiment with creature designs. Restarting the game's early parts is quite fun and entertaining (though we still wish that body parts, like tails, have more functional value outside of sheer aesthetics), as you get to toy around with the creature creator and walk around the planet. In the end, the game has a lot of 'it could have been better' or 'what if' parts, which is a shame since it will be a long time before we get to see and play another title that has much ambition as this one.