Spore

Spore is a lousy game about evolution, and a clever game about life out in the stars. The evolution comes first: You build a creature from a single cell to a world-dominating species, tweaking its DNA and adjusting its culture until you're commanding the spitting hammer-tailed lizard thing of your dreams. The first four stages of the game are short and disjointed, and as far as the science, Spore keeps ducking hard questions by changing the subject. Anyone hoping to watch the survival of the fittest may puzzle over the whole "singing and dancing" thing.

But these stages are really just a personality test for stage five, where you launch into space—and into a real-time strategy game that pits you against randomly generated galactic empires. The skills you picked up on your home planet—diplomacy, militancy, evangelical fervor—give you certain advantages as you decide whether to work with or eviscerate your neighbors, but survival depends entirely on how you use a few basic strategies. Meanwhile, you'll gawk over creatures created by your fellow players, and you can also build your colonies with user-made houses and factories. But none of the content offers game-changing advantages. You can admire all the pretty slug-cows and their mushroom-shaped domiciles, but they're mostly interesting for their own sake, not because they affect the task at hand.

Once you settle into the flow of the game, the creative possibilities expand just as the actual gameplay becomes limiting. The user-generated content could have added meaningful complexity—what if you could trade user-generated goods, instead of the game's generic "spice"?† But instead, it never gets past a "gee whiz" factor. Surveying an entire galaxy, full of content from the entire world, makes you glimpse the possibilities of the universe. But having evolved from survival to self-actualization, you'll have nothing left to do but admire it.

Beyond the game: While the style is often cute and jokey to a fault, the vividly colored worlds and dramatic terraforming effects make up for it.

Worth playing for: Surprises litter each stage, like the epic-sized cousins of your creations, or the Sim City-descended urban-planning challenge.

Frustration sets in when: The manual is too skimpy for such a complex game and such a wonky interface.

Final judgment: One awe-striking, genre-changing vision would've been enough.

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