Project Spark has long been one of the most quietly ambitious projects out there. Billed as a game creator that lets your imagination run riot, a free client that lets you create and share your own games while enjoying numerous exciting creations from the community, is now out of beta and ready for prime time on Xbox One and PC.
Meaning, of course, that it's fair game for criticism. Reviewing this crazy thing is going to be incredibly difficult, but since I've been on-board since the beta and logged a fair few hours since launch, I'd like to share my major initial impressions of Project Spark -- both in terms of praise, constructive criticism and some potential concerns.
This list is by no means complete and may be subject to change, I'm only human after all, but for now here are my burning observations.
Creating content is fantastic, fun and powerful...
Playing through the 'Crossroads' mode and the first episode of the campaign is fleeting fun for fans of third-person action adventures, but the real joy of Project Spark is its creation suite. It's magnificent. You're given an enormous flat plane to turn into your own wondrous creation. Map tools allow you to raise hills, carve out rivers and paint them to your specifications, creating majestic island networks, towns, mazes and platforms out of thin air. You can choose the time of day, the angle of the sun and the camera. You'll then sprinkle your creation with assets, objects, characters and NPCs, all of which can be assigned different sizes and behaviours using a pleasingly robust logic system.
Known as 'Kode,' this system allows you to create cause-and-effect relationships ("when" and "do" commands) to govern how any object, character or creature works. For example, after plonking down an enormous squirrel the size of a house (no, not Conker!), I told the Project Spark that when I move the thumbstick, the monolithic woodland creature should move. When I press the A button, it should jump. It's a brilliant and deceptively deep setup with numerous options, AI behaviours and sensors up for grabs.
For my next trick, I created a rock and told it to follow my squirrel around, because every hero needs a sidekick. It's that simple.
You're able to test your creation at any time, iterating and constantly tweaking as you go, or even remixing other user-created levels and incorporating their designs into your own creations with permission. Even better, you can invite your friends to create content with you, which is a zen and relaxing piece of interactive collaborative art in and of itself. Put simply, Project Spark's creation system can be absolutely magical, even when the end result is a hopeless mess that no-one should ever play. Don't expect to see the Squirrelzilla Chronicles up on the servers any time soon.
Unfortunately, now I have to do some serious bitching.
...once you master the frustrating controls...
As a new IP built from the ground-up, Project Spark had the opportunity to deliver a level editor that's more accessible and intuitive than LittleBigPlanet or Disney Infinity, in order to introduce a new audience to the thrill of creating videogames. An opportunity that has been annoyingly squandered.
The issue boils down to horribly counter-intuitive controls that resemble literally nothing else on the market, with basic camera inputs feeling like a half-baked console RTS and tools buried beneath a huge number of aggravatingly clunky menus and panels. Even Halo's Forge mode was more instantly accessible. It bothers me that Kinect voice commands haven't been used to any great extent either, as it could let us effortlessly hop between different tools.
I haven't tested the PC version, which is potentially much easier to control thanks to the added precision of a mouse and keyboard, but I can't help but feel that keeping things as simple and streamlined as possible should have been the mission statement from the start.
...and so long as it's a Fable clone
I'm going to get some flack for this one, but I have to call it how I see it. Despite being billed as a multi-genre game creation suite, Project Spark seems to be primarily focused on third-person action adventures above anything else. Everything from the cartoony Fantasy and Sci-Fi assets to tutorials, Crossroads mode, episodic campaign and even the raw mechanics themselves all hinge around Fable-lite experiences, but creating and playing anything else has been compromised as a result.
You absolutely can create games in other genres. Just a quick dip into the user-generated content reveals brave attempts at top-down shooters, first-person experiences and even simulators (a helicopter attack sim is a real highlight). But by the same token (and I honestly mean no disrespect, since I have nothing but admiration for their creators!) these attempts usually feel simplistic, floaty and awkward to play compared to even the most basic full games in their specific genre, since the way the game handles and the underlying mechanics aren't really intended to support them.
Creating them, meanwhile, feels like you're actively working against Project Spark and finding next-best workarounds, even exploits, as opposed to working with a versatile editor designed for multiple genres.
The userbase will become more experienced with time, but in the short term, I'd urge Team Dakota to release a slew of playable levels to demonstrate what else Project Spark is capable of (beyond the handful already on the marketplace). Last year they claimed that they'd remade X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. To that I'd say: prove it.
The pricing model is objectively fair...
Project Spark can be downloaded for free. You can create and share your own content for free. You can play any player-created level for free. You can play Crossroads mode for free. Doing so slowly grants you credits and levels to unlock more content to use in creation mode, while shortcut DLC and the Starter Edition is on hand if you want to hit the ground running or access specific content sooner.
So... there. Project Spark is a very fair example of the free-to-play model in purely objective terms, but there's a problem. Games aren't purely objective things, are they?
...but it feels absolutely horrible
I contend that the way a game feels is just as important as what it does. Case in point: if I want to blow off steam with some mindless grinding, I'll go straight for Diablo III's adventure mode rather than Destiny because it feels more satisfying and rewarding, even if its moment-to-moment gameplay is technically less involving.
Project Spark runs afoul of this because, as a free player or even a starter set buyer, it feels like your imagination is constantly being held to ransom and you're continually being asked to pay out. Want to put a Knight or scarecrow into your world? Pay up and buy the barracks pack! Want to remix a friend's level but don't own the exact same content? Pay up! Want to play through more than a couple of minutes of the campaign, which ought to be a free demonstration of Project Spark? Pay up! Pay up! Worse, some items even seem to be level-locked, forcing you to put your imagination on hold until you've ground long enough... or pay up. Whether you grind or reach for the credit card, you'll pay the price.
This feels absolutely horrible, and even if you buy the retail game, more varied assets beyond generic fantasy and Sci-Fi are likely to cost you down the line. It's difficult to know what to suggest here, since the beta has locked Project Spark into this pricing model and I absolutely don't have anything against developers earning money for their work, but for me, it's a constant source of aggravation. Even though it's fair on paper, it feels like we've been given a sandpit but have to keep paying out for the toys every few minutes.
We're just getting started!
Despite all this moaning, though, I'm still incredibly upbeat about the potential for Project Spark. So long as Microsoft continues to support it and Team Dakota continues to release template content to show us the ropes, this could well be the start of something great.
Mind you, whether Microsoft's Minecraft acquisition is a boon or a premature death knell is also a subject for debate, not to mention a future article. For now, I'm going to attempt to create and share something truly worthwhile, before returning for a full review down the line. If you've got something to share, let us know in the comments!