As far as video games go, ambition doesn't get much bigger than attempting to simulate the entire process of genetic evolution. It's a goal so lofty that it almost beggars belief - but that's exactly what Will Wright and the Maxis team have set out to do. But then, you probably knew that already, didn't you? People have been desperate to get Spore on their hands for a long time now; the big question is this: did they pull it off?
The answer, as most people will be glad to hear, is mostly "yes". With its highly original concept, five distinct game modes and a potentially limitless degree of user customisation, Spore offers an invigoratingly unusual gaming experience. However, it is also important to understand that the game also carries quite a few flaws - some of them minor, some of them seriously aggravating. Most people will be able to overlook these hiccups and just enjoy the fun on offer, but it's also true that some of you are going to find your Egg of Expectation smashed upon the Kitchen Floor of Disappointment. In other words, it's important to get the lowdown and to think carefully before you fork out your hard-earned cash.
When you boot up Spore for the first time, you're given a choice of three options: Play, Create or Share. The second of these lets you play with the game's many content-building tools, while the third opens up the game's online community - more on this later. Taking the first option summons a map of the universe, a gateway to your saved games that operates much in the same way as the neighbourhood did in that previous Maxis hit, The Sims. Clicking on an "empty" planet allows you to give it a name, then it asks you to pick a stage of evolution. Eventually you'll be able to plunge straight into any one of Spore's six sections, but the first time you're forced to start at the very beginning of the evolutionary process.
You begin life as a tiny, amoeba-like organism. The action is viewed from a top-down perspective, with a simple control system to match: steer yourself with the keyboard, or just use the mouse to click where you want to go. As one of the first living creatures on your planet, your task is to swim (or wiggle) around the ocean, feeding yourself and growing in size. Depending on whether you opt to be a herbivore or a carnivore, you'll be seeking out plant cells or other creatures to eat - but either way you'll have to avoid the unwanted attentions of larger lifeforms. It's a blob-eat-blob world out there, but on the plus side, you essentially have infinite lives at this point in proceedings - so if your little chap gets eaten, you'll simply reappear as one of their many siblings. As you consume, you'll grow in size. Predators that formerly dominated your screen will suddenly appear no bigger than you, allowing for some serious primordial payback. Furthermore, eating and defeating your rivals earns you DNA points, which in turn introduces the most important of Spore's early concepts: evolution.
By clicking on the "call mate" icon, you'll summon another of your species. After a brief (and thankfully non-pornographic) cut scene, you'll be presented with the creature design toolkit - think of this as Pimp My Bacteria. Here you can mess around with the shape and colour of your wee beastie, and spend DNA points on features like additional eyes, tentacles and spikes. You have a limited budget, so it may be the case that you end up trading one organ for another. For example, perhaps you might swap your fins for an extra flagellum, reducing your manoeuvrability but boosting your speed. These restrictions force you to think about which features are important, and which are redundant; your creature is therefore defined by the body parts it uses the most - just as Darwin taught us.
The Creature Stage is a lot of fun. Will you make friends with other species, or kill them and eat their corpses?
The life aquatic is fairly fun to begin with, but there's really not that much to it. We certainly can't imagine that many people will choose to replay this section once they've unlocked the rest of the game. As soon as your little lifeform reaches the maximum size, you'll climb onto dry land and begin The Creature Stage. Here the perspective shifts into true 3D for the first time. As in the previous level, your aim here is to evolve - but this time it's just your brain, as opposed to your body, that grows. Experience is gathered by either killing off other species in combat, or by impressing them with some form of display. Interacting with other animals is simply a case of walking yourself up to them (again via keyboard or mouse-directed control) and selecting an option from your list of skills, which are divided into three groups: general, social and aggressive. To fight, you just choose a target and then repeatedly click on your attack skills. If you're more of a pacifist, you'll have to sing, dance, pose or charm in the presence of others. By mimicking the behaviour of the creature you're trying to impress, you'll gradually fill a bar that appears over your target's head - get this full, and they'll be a friend for life. Baby animals are easier to impress than full-grown adults, but you'll have to be careful you don't irritate their parents while cavorting about in front of them.
This stage of Spore feels much like a simplified, single-player MMORPG, possibly due to the fact that your quest is always "Kill/Impress X number of species Y". Theses missions are fairly repetitive and grind-like, but they remain fun due to the fact that you're constantly meeting strange new rivals while evolving your own race with a vastly expanded range of body parts and features - if you've already been playing around with the Spore Creature Creator, you'll know the kind of oddball monsters you're likely to encounter. As in the previous stage, you'll gain access to new anatomy by exploring your game world. This is very enjoyable, particularly when you earn the ability to recruit allies: soon you'll have a whole posse of weirdos tearing around the landscape, picking fights and generally getting into trouble.