(Not one, but two premiere game reviews on TiPb today. If you haven't already checked out the review of The Force Unleashed for the iPhone, go get your Star Wars on)
Given all the hype these past couple of weeks -- heck, these past couple of years -- you probably don't need much introduction to Spore, so we'll keep it quick. Spore is a game about evolution that works via a little intelligent design: you start out as a helpless, single-cell organism and work your way up the food chain. On the console and PC versions of the game, this eventually leads you to intergalactic conquest.
In Spore Origins for the iPhone ($9.99 at iTunes), that process is scaled back quite a bit. Over the course of 30 levels you stay pretty much at the single-cell level, adding various eyeballs, feelers, spikes, and the like as you tilt your way through the primordial sea, gobbling up smaller creatures and avoiding the larger ones.
We at TiPb have been waiting for Spore ever since it was announced. Heck, we were hoping it would come to the iPhone well before that. Does it live up to our expectations? Read on...
The main setup in spore is the "Evolution" game mode, and you really do begin as little more than a blob. You begin the game with a quick tutorial on control -- this being the iPhone, you move your creature around by tilting the device.
Nearly every stage has essentially the same goal: eat the creatures smaller than you by running over them, avoid the creatures larger than you (and their attacks!), and try to fill up your "DNA Bar" to finish the level. Early on it's pretty simple as you get used to the mechanics of the game. One nice touch is a calibration option for re-centering the accelerometer if you want to set a different angle to "not moving."
As the levels progress it becomes increasingly difficult to get to your food as larger, nastier, and / or weirder creatures and obstacles stand in your way. Luckily, on most levels that introduce a new aspect to the game, there are tutorials at the bottom of the screen to give you hints about what you need to do to survive.
Of course, this being Spore, you have other ways of surviving the advanced levels, both related to evolution. The first is the ability to add little widgets to your creature like eyes, teeth, and so on in the Creature Creator (more on that below). The second is that as you eat creatures within a level, you actually begin to grow as your life-meter increases. Take a hit, though, and you get smaller. If get large enough, creatures you formerly weren't able to gobble up suddenly get little circles around them indicating that the annoying snapper that used to kick your amoebic butt is suddenly your inferior. This is very satisfying.
There are also little power-ups called "symbiotes" scattered throughout the levels that give you quick abilities like Poison and Shield.
Every 5 levels or so the game stops being about just eating as much as possible and instead becomes a "navigate through the tunnels" type of level, which is actually a nice break. There are hidden chambers to find (hint: blow up the blobby-eye-creature), achievement bubbles to grab, and new creatures here too as well.
All in all, the Evolution portion of the gameplay is pretty fun but not very deep (insert shallow-tide-pool joke here). The real challenge is to rack up combo points by eating several creatures in a row in short succession (my record is ten). There's also a trick to earning "Evolution Points" that actually allow you to add pieces and parts to your creature -- though what exactly that trick is and how to pull it off is beyond the abilities of this reviewer to discover. Suffice to say that through casual gameplay you will manage to pick enough of them up to keep adding spikes to your creature.
What can I say? I'm still impressed with the iPhone's capabilities. Graphics are as you see in the screen shots: very darn good. The game sound is also pretty quality, though the music does get a little repetitive at times -- however it fits the mood of the game perfectly with some light-hearted drums and an "aquatic" feel (yes, I suck at describing music).
What you can't see in the screen shots is that the game performs with no jitters, freezes, or anything else that might throw you out of the game. The only issue I've run into is that the screen will occasionally dim if I haven't tapped it in awhile (as though the accelerometer and the game aren't able to let the iPhone's OS know that it's being actively used).
I will say I'm pretty happy with the look and feel of the game. In a great article on the science behind Spore at Seed Magazine, you can read a bit about how the "hard science" people behind the game had to give in to the "cute" people. The game is definitely "cute" but not in a treacly way, just in a way that helps make it more approachable and fun. (As a side note, if you're interested in how all these evolutionist designers feel about releasing a game with intelligent design overtones, definitely go take a look at that article).
The Creature Creator in Spore Origins is just a ton of fun. As you gain evolution points you're able to add new features to your creature, including:
Modifying your creature is easy and fun -- on the main screen you can pinch and spread your fingers to adjust the size of your body. When you do, the creatures skeleton appears to give you an idea of what you're messing with. There are plenty of colors and patterns to choose from. Or you can go with another option: pulling a photo from your Photo Gallery (or taking a picture) and using it as the main 'color' on your creature.
As you pick up evolution points, you can load up with darn near as many little evolutionary tools as you like (as above) without any real impediment to game play. As you climb the chain you can also add "super tools" which you activate by tapping the screen.
I'll definitely be coming back to Spore after I've defeated it. You can have multiple creatures -- and though there's no ability to share them or get other people's creatures over the network, it's still fun to create them.
There's also a "survival mode" to the game where the screen is static instead of infinitely scrolling as you swim. Your goal there is to pick up food pellets while avoiding the bad guys, but there are different (and cooler) power-ups.
There's also decent achievement tracking so you can try to ratchet up your combo points and, trophies, and the like.
Spore Origins also does a great job with stability and saving your place. When you quit and then re-enter the game, you're always placed back where you left off. The only real downside is that with the included intro video you're looking at around 25 seconds from tapping the icon to playing the game, a long time for a casual game like this. The video can be skipped, but hitting that skip button tends to make the game grind for about the same time the video takes anyway.
Although, as I said, I'll still keep coming back to Spore for awhile, it's not quite deep enough or fun enough to make it a long-term go-to game for me. Barring some future updates like the social creature sharing of the full version, I expect I'll find myself not playing Spore Origins in a couple of months simply because I've done everything that there is to be done. There's actually a compliment in there -- Spore is engaging enough that you'll want to explore all its nooks and crannies.