Something Spore Origins is up against from the start is the obscure nature of its existence. Just like the bizarre virtual life forms springing up across the internet, on our consoles and in our mobile phones, the overall concept is a new and baffling entity.
It doesn't help that each version of the game seems to represent a different step on the virtual evolutionary ladder of the game's ecosystem. So the first task, it would seem, is in attempting to bend your mind around the entire scope of what Spore Origins is about, which is no small task from our unavoidably naïve perspective.
When the review copy of the mobile version landed, the concept was still very alien, but the review needed writing so jumping straight into the primordial ooze and thrashing about like a mutated tadpole about to venture onto dry land for the first time was the only option. As it turned out, this probably isn't a bad standpoint from which to begin deciphering the DNA of Spore Origins.
So before we get into the meat of gameplay, look at it like this: If you're interested by the mysterious fog surrounding Spore Origins, just go for it. Get into the organic mix of its inchoate life and thrash out an explorative, green existence in exactly the same way as your proteolytic creation will. If the hype hasn't grabbed you, wait until the murky water clears and look again.
Okay, on with creation. The mobile version of Spore Origins focuses on developing the most basic forms of life (quite literally a 'cell phone', I guess), while other versions on more sophisticated platforms will apparently evolve more complex forms of life. Presented with a primordial ooze filled with basic embryonic animals, you're pretty much at the bottom of the food chain as you swim around looking for ways to enhance your DNA.
In the simplest terms, this takes the form of a top-down gobble-'em-up, a kind of mazeless Pac-Man in which you have to steer your tiny spore in the direction of smaller organisms so that you can eat them.
Naturally there are spores further along than you are and looking for something a bit more substantial to eat, so a quick thumb is one of the first things you develop while discovering life in this new reality. Scoffing down the few smaller entities in this soup of life makes you grow not only literally, but in the Darwinian sense. Eating other creatures fills your DNA bar, and when it's full, you progress to the next stage of life.
This takes you to one of the better-explored aspects of the Spore universe - the creature editor. The mobile version packs in a reduced (though still suitably comprehensive) creature creator for you to customise the growth of your spore; changing the colour, shape, texture, speed, defences and all manner of evolutionary accoutrements to help it fight its way through life.
As you swim about, eating smaller animals and absorbing their DNA, your spore also grows in size. So an animal that only moments before was a dangerous predator can suddenly become an appetising main course, and risky waters become quite comfortable. Each new level introduces bigger and more perilous fish, however, so continued growth is always at the core of gameplay. The environments also evolve as you work through the levels, so there's never a dull moment while attempting to improve your single-celled lot.
Never dull, but never enthralling. Judged against traditional games, you could say the basic mechanic behind Spore Origins is a little repetitive, even a little flat if you were feeling harsh. But - and this is why Spore Origins is so difficult to score - it's simply not appropriate to judge this game against other games. The top-down action and the associated customisation are just part of what's happening.
The 18 levels contained in the mobile version are a crucible in which your creature is forged, preparing itself for unique life among the spores of the real world. Once it's been bred through the levels, the numerous additions made to the four attributes which shape the creature in the editor (Offensive, Defensive, Perception and Movement) will have created a unique beast out of 1.9 billion different possibilities. Essentially, after only 18 short levels, it's perfectly reasonable to say no two spores will ever be the same - a feat of mathematical magnificence, I'm sure you'll agree.
This forms a DNA code which can be sent to the Spore Origins website, which tells the system all the details of your unique animal, and allows you to pit it against other uploaded creatures in a non-interactive arena. Even here, the subtle variables such as environment and NPC inhabitants further add to the increasingly complex soup of these simple creatures' lives, and influence the outcome of the battle.
As if Spore Origins wasn't already impressive enough with the depths of its ingenuity, sending your creation to battle online uses as little as 300 bytes of transferred data – meaning network costs are extraordinarily negligible. You can just as easily watch the arena match on your mobile, as the outcome is determined not by an active battle but by the genetic disposition of each spore. Should you be unable to connect directly from the handset (or perhaps from the iPod version of the game, since the platform is inherently insulated from the internet), simply typing in the creature's DNA Code means your spore can live on in the online leader boards.
Just as it was when I first started dabbling with the arcade-esque gameplay of Spore Origins, the possibilities of crafting and battling your spores are mind bending. Yet the whole thing is based on such basic, fathomable principles - by all rights the Spore experience should be one of utter simplicity… which it is, only the lives of these creatures refuse to be confined to a primitive existence. It's as understandable as the most basic biology lesson, but as staggering in scope as the biology itself. Well, not quite, but close.
It's quite remarkable how familiar this brilliant representation of a rudimentary, biological existence feels. There's a lot of hype around Spore, and that can be off-putting to the best of us, and while I'm almost loath to admit it, it would seem it's all true. Spore Origins is the beginning of a new form of gaming life. If that doesn't grab your interest, it's probably time to stop playing video games.
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