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    Project Spark: Inspiration comes at a cost

    Do you fancy yourself as a player of games,a creator of worlds or a bit of both? Invariably, the answer to this question will determine how much you’re going to derive from Project Spark, Microsoft Studios and Team Dakota’s UGC fuelled sandbox, but not in the way that you might expect. Despite the title’s primary allure being the promise of empowerment and the opportunity to create, the most obvious place to start is with Play mode. Here, you can begin to explore the core mechanics and get a taste for how worlds are built before diving into Create mode yourself. Those coming to this by way of the free to play download have access to a raft of user generated experiments, while those that opt for the Starter Pack also have episode one of Team Dakota’s Champions Quest to jump into.

    Champions Quest serves as Project Spark’s primary Play experience and one of the few cohesive game world’s amidst a raft of bite sized novelty projects. Sadly, its whimsical adventure and gentle introduction to wider creation tools and build logic are undermined by a host of technical shortcomings. Poor camera work, some horrendous slow down and a lack of direction on how best to complete challenges to earn the currency required to access new content packs get Project Spark off to an uninspiring start.
    “The good news is that Create mode is single handedly keeping Project Spark afloat, right now”
    Should you play through the couple of hours required to complete Champions Quest, you'll have earned yourself several thousand credits with which to unlock content to bolster your creation tools. However, with even the basic items of individual level furniture costing upwards of 500 credits each, you shouldn't expect to earn anything spectacular too soon. Purchasing the Spark Premium membership one month of which comes included in the Starter Pack doubles the rate at which you earn Creation Credits but this membership is most readily available in exchange for Tokens purchased with real cash, making each month of Spark Premium membership equate to around £8. However, even when earning 200% of credits available, there’s still an extraordinary level of dedication required to earn enough to buy any one of the top content packs, making the economy system too miserly to be constructive.

    The good news is that Create mode is single handedly keeping Project Spark a float, right now. With a decent number of starting tools and a reasonably sound tutorial, you can get building without too much fuss and experience an incredibly detailed set of systems, you can also choose to create in local co-op mode to help speed things along. Each build tool has two opposite functions controlled by the left and right triggers, so while you expand landscape with one squeeze you can erode it with another, allowing the creation of an inhabitable environment in a relatively short space of time. The area affected by the changes you command is determined by a 3D cursor of a size and shape of your choosing, while object behaviour is controlled by an intuitive system of switch commands. It’s here that you feel like you’re genuinely coding behaviour and breathing life into your world. By jumping into your creation using the test system to discover what works and what requires further tinkering and then, finally, you start to unearth some of the initial buzz of excitement that Project Spark has been promising.

    Recognising that starting from scratch might be intimidating for many, Team Dakota has also included two additional build options. The first is the ability play a Crossroads game, in which a few basic landscape choices put you on the path of creating a playable third person adventure. The second option is to remix existing levels by using them as a template and adjusting various parameters, character behaviour or even just landscape aesthetic. Both serve as useful educational experiences but both also come with various characteristics that have a tell-tale currency signs attached to them, which lets you know that at least one purchase will be required for you to fully participate. This frequent occurrence of negative reinforcement consistently frustrates, leaving you with the dull feeling of inferiority for not having the necessary content packs rather than revelling in a celebration of the tools that you do have. It's a cheap ploy and one that ultimately damages Project Spark’s appeal.

    As Project Spark stands right now, it’s far better to be a creator than a player for while the former boasts elements of empowerment, the latter is a largely a dissatisfying collection of novelty experiences and me too clones. Create mode is also being held back, though, due to a punitive economy system that dishes out too little reward for even daily play. What’s left is a project with strong potential being undermined by the majority of its component parts and an occasionally obtuse UI with uncomfortably small text.

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