Review: Spore Galactic Adventures

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Evolving my race into space was a threshold moment in Spore for me until I discovered that instead of a galaxy of fun, there was little to do once I had actually gotten there. Arriving at the center of the galaxy proved to be a temporary injection of excitement because afterwards, I found myself back to running the same spice routes and while drawing from the same, tiny glass of mind numbing activities.

So it was with some anticipation that I loaded up the expansion pack, Galactic Adventures, hoping to see if it could help reinvent what could have been the best part of the game. The good news is that it adds a fun wrinkle to the daily grind of spice running and planet hopping while allowing you to run wild with your own ideas. The bad news is that it also has a few holes in its heat shield..

A word of warning: if you’ve purchased the downloadable version of Spore from EA which doesn’t require a CD but pick up Galactic Adventures from retail, you’ll need Adventures’ CD in the drive to run the game. It’s a bizarre DRM decision because I also have Red Alert 3, also from EA and on DVD, yet after authenticating it online, I no longer needed it to fight Tim Curry. So why not do the same with Galactic Adventures, especially given its heavy emphasis on online connectivity?

One of Galactic Adventures’ biggest changes to the game is the captain. With the captain, you can beam into adventures and engage in a variety of activities whether it is to solve puzzles or fight monsters. The captain is essentially you, your avatar from which you will experience the galaxy at large, so if you’ve missed walking around on the surface, you’ll get to do it again and do more than run away from enemy tribes or epic creatures. With new toys in place, now you can fire pulse blasts and wield electrified blades to make the most out of the future once your captain proves capable enough.

Galactic Adventures starts you off with a question of who or what will be your acting captain. You can pick from any species available in your game, or create your own, name them, and then head off on an introductory adventure that welcomes you into the expansion with plenty of confetti-filled fanfare. If you haven’t unlocked the Space Stage yet, you can opt to play adventures from the Quick Play menu instead. If you have managed to reach the stars in the main game, you can participate in adventures there while expanding your empire by visiting other aliens and asking to do missions for them.

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Your first few adventures will start you off with a few tips on what you can do and expect, most of which will only require you to talk to NPCs, fight a few bad guys, fetch some objects, or defend certain objectives. Much like the rest of the game, Galactic Adventures keeps many things simple in order to keep things easily accessible and on average, most of these adventures can only take a few minutes to play through. Online leaderboards linked to these missions also provide some competitive feedback, but that connectivity also provides the ability for the game to add to the small number of official adventures released by Maxis thanks to its user tools.

That means that at one point, you might find discover someone else’s idea of fun.

The Adventure Creator toolset that comes with the expansion allows anyone to build as many Spore-flavored adventures as they want. While some expecting it to have the complex nuances found in other editors such as EA’s original Adventure Game Construction set, Oblivion’s toolset, or even an old school Wolfenstein editor like WolfEdit, may feel hamstrung by its limited options such as being unable to change the base attributes on particular body parts or rewards. If you’re looking to remake the Black Hole scene for scene or build an adventure that takes place aboard a starship for a little space piracy, don’t hold your breath. Everything takes place on terra firma with a little creative license.

On the other hand, the easygoing nature of the tools can make the building process almost ridiculously easy despite losing some of that technical depth. This is a game that prides itself on its simplified approach, a point made even more clear after playing through an adventure written entirely in German without having to understand a word.

A checklist tutorial takes you through the exercise of putting together your first adventure, starting first with a planet type and then going down into all of the gritty details. Just as in the original game, nearly anything can be put together thanks to all of the editing tools already in place, now alongside being able to shape planets and build areas where your quests will take place.

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The somewhat glitchy tutorial isn’t needed to help build out an adventure, but for players that are just getting their feet wet with this, it can be frustrating to stumble around the control panel trying to find out what it wants you to do when it suddenly stops telling you. There are also a few control issues with the camera which can make it frustrating to work with. For example, when I wanted to zoom in on something high in the sky as opposed to something on the ground, it would often fly past what I want to focus on forcing me to become as creative in manipulating it as I had to be with the toolset.

If you are hoping that the manual will help you in understanding the finer points of the tool, you’re also out of luck as most of the information that you will come to rely on will be on Spore’s forums or from fan sites dedicated to supporting potential creators which are thankfully more helpful once you find what you are looking for. Certain things, such as fine tuning the AI routines for your actors with specific targets, aren’t immediately obvious without a little poking around or advice from those that have already been there. But depending on what you want to create and how comfortable you are in getting around the toolset, you can easily hammer together and share an adventure in as many minutes as it can take to finish one.

If you allow Spore to download additional adventures without restriction, your time in space might never end making this is the strongest aspect of the expansion pack’s ability to deliver content. But like any other pool of creativity out there, you get a lot of good and bad in the same pot, making the term “adventure” extremely subjective. Some of these that were pulled into my game consisted of merely walking over and picking up one item. Most were in need of a spellchecker. But there were quite a few impressively polished adventures that made it worth the effort. The only downside is that the points that are awarded are based on factors beyond your control as an author.

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Points are “experience” for your captain allowing them to “level up” and earn a new title as well as a new piece of captain’s gear which, depending on how you want them to develop, can be anything from a weapon to a nice piece of protective armor. At this point, you might think “So why not create an adventure where earning points is easy?”. Remember that adventure I mentioned that only requires you to just grab an item? Yeah, there’s more where that came from.

The Maxis-made adventures, for example, can award your captain with a hundred points apiece…a huge sum in the game. However, a few player-made adventures only gave me a measly ten points making that climb to the next level feel even more distant. On one three fingered claw, it encourages the player to keep exploring the galaxy and find more adventures to try out. On the other, not all of these adventures feel like they’re worth the effort and only add to the feeling of a galactic grindfest as you flit from star to star in a quest for more of these special jobs since you can’t repeat any of those that you’ve finished out. This may change over time, but there’s no way to tell the game to sort between high and low value adventures so you’re stuck with whatever comes down the pipe.

Creators have no control over the points assigned to the adventures they churn out. Instead, as I discovered while making my own, they’re determined partly by how many players actually play them which is something of a bizarre design decision. Recreating the King Minos’ Labyrinth complete with an epic Minotaur dwelling beneath a Sporified version of the Palace of Knossos might be an incredible amount of content, but seeing it start out at ten points feels like something of a disservice to the creator.

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Granted, it might have been built into the toolset to prevent players from covering a planet with everything from the Sporepedia only to then create a one-task adventure loaded with points, but it can also be frustrating to authors that want to award players appropriately for spending time within their own personal invention. I didn’t want a player to only be awarded ten points for going through the story I’ve put together, but I had no choice but to hope enough players went into it to raise it.

After playing through a few adventures and spending more time out in the galaxy, the entire randomness of the approach to finding adventures also became something of a chore. After so many of these, I fell into a routine of asking for missions and just leaving if the contact didn’t offer one up, moving on to the next star as I just didn’t want to be bothered with anything else other than an adventure. This made me wish that there were an option in the dialogue asking if I wanted an adventure or a routine mission instead of blindly flying around to get one. This, along with the lame number of points that can often be awarded, did little to encourage me to fly halfway across the galaxy for what might amount to a lot of effort for little reward.

Still, anyone bored with the spice routes of Spore should find enough player created twists in Galactic Adventures to make things interesting again as long as they find the ideas more interesting than the points. If you don’t mind opening it up to everyone outside of your buddy list, prospective space captains should find enough quests to keep themselves busy as long as they’re willing to put up with some of the worst that it also has to offer, but with EA boasting over 100,000 adventures at the time of this review thanks to its active community of designers, the final frontier may not be the end to their imagination.

Spore Galactic Adventures
EA / Maxis
PC
Rated E for Everyone