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Hands-on with 'Spore'

A look at EA's Spore.

The Hungarian Mountain Shoggoth
The Hungarian Mountain Shoggoth, designed in Spore in just a few minutes.

Electronic Arts held a large preview event in New York yesterday. Among the various other titles EA has planned for the next several months, Spore stood out. The Sims and Sim City creator Will Wright's brainchild attempts to tackle the scope of the entire universe, from microscopic life to interstellar travel. On every level of the game, you can design exactly how you want your world to be, from microbes to animals to buildings to space ships. While there wasn't enough time to get a broad view of the entire game and all of its aspects, I managed to spend some quality time on the title's creature and space ship editors.

The editors are almost entirely drag and drop. When building a creature, you start with a simple body that looks like a lump of dough with a spine. You can lengthen, shorten, curve, or straighten that spine to change the shape of the body and give it whatever neck or tail or beefy torso you want it to possess. Once your main body is designed, you can start popping on parts. Spore uses a simple, tab-based browser that organizes its different parts by type, putting all the legs on one page, the eyes on another, the horns on another, and so on. Every body part has at least a dozen different versions, so you can make your creature as fearsome or adorable as you want. Eyes range from humanoid to beady shrimp-like eyes to alien eye clusters. Hands range from grasping fingers to wicked-looking sickles. You can give your creature fins, horns, pincers, or even bony buzz-saw arms, all by dragging them from their tabs to the creature's body. If that's not enough, you can then rotate and scale each part.

It's sort of like playing with an endlessly variable Mr. Potato Head doll. Any body part can go anywhere on any body you design. You can put eyes on the front, a nose on the top, legs out the sides and teeth on the end of its tail, then wipe it all clean and make an entirely different creature in just a few minutes. My experimental creature, the Hungarian Mountain Shoggoth, is a bipedal monstrosity with four grasping hands, two buzz-saw horns, insect pincers, tail-mounted sensor pods, and a pair of beady eyes that make it look strangely adorable.

Once you put together your creature, you can take it out for a spin on one of several different test fields. This is where Spore really impresses on a technical level. The game automatically figures out exactly how the creature walks, senses, communicates, and interacts with environments, regardless of how messed up you design it. My monstrosity instantly figured out how to trundle along on its tiny back legs, stomp around like a sumo wrestler, and roar with its pincer mouth. Regardless of how awkward and many-limbed your creature might be, Spore automatically develops a set of animations that let it move naturally through its environment.

Behold, the W.S.S. Dubious Endeavor! It's an all-land, all-space party ship with rave spotlights, wicked tank treads, and a cockpit big enough for a jacuzzi.

After you play through the creature phase of Spore and develop your humble creations into a bustling civilization, you can send them out into space. That involves another editor that lets you create your own spaceship, giving it as campy or futuristic a look as you want. Instead of using a blob with a spine for a body, you choose a variety of hulls and then just heap on the different components. You can add cockpits, lights, weapons, engines, and even propellers and tank treads to make it look any way you want. While the animation technology didn't seem quite as impressive as the creature editor, it still seems like yet another aspect of the game you could pour hours and hours of time into without even noticing.

All of these creations, from creatures to ships, will be sharable between Spore players online. The flora and fauna of the game's worlds, and indeed the worlds themselves, will be downloaded from other Spore players' games, who in turn download your creations and incorporate them into their games. It's one of the game's more ambitious aspects, and unfortunately the short demo offered last night didn't give much opportunity to test drive it.

Spore comes out in September, and it looks promising. Will Wright might just hit the same gold with his new massively customizable life game that he did eight years ago with the original The Sims. The ambitious scope of the game presents more than a few technical hurdles for EA to overcome, but if the company can pull it off, it will be an impressive, entertaining game.