You'd be forgiven for thinking that Maxis' latest simulation extravaganza, Sim Life, looks almost exactly the same as Sim Earth. No-one could blame you either if, once you've caught a glimpse of the manual, you find yourself under the impression that it's even harder to get to grips with than its predecessor - if such a thing can be imagined. You would, however, be wrong on both counts.
To be fair, the two games do have a few common denominators. Like Sim Earth, Sim Life has no end point - you won't find a Game Over screen in this software. In keeping with their philosophy of creating software toys rather than games, Maxis have aimed to make the package as open ended as possible - you can literally do whatever you feel like.
That, however, is as far as the similarities go. In Sim Earth you had to build the world, but the aim was to keep the planet alive. Sim Life sums the whole equation on its head - once the world has been formed, forget about it and concentrate on the life forms. By cleverly evolving the beings you already have, and creating new, perhaps more suitable ones, you have to try and reach your chosen goal.
Upon loading, you are greeted by the main menu screen. Everything looks fine and dandy - there are half a dozen preset challenges, from turning a desert into a forest to keeping a species with a limited amount of males evolving, together with a tutorial and an experimentation mode. Remember, Sim Life has no specific end point - these scenarios are merely examples of the sort of goal you can set yourself.
From this point, things get a little complex. Two pages isn't a lot space to explain something that takes a 200-page manual to detail adequately, but I'll give it a go. Sim Life is based on an extensive set of biological rules concerning evolution and survival. Each lifeform is broken down to dozens of categories, from prototype genome, which dictates things like whether the animal can fly, how much energy is taken up by foraging for food and how many babies it has in a litter, to individual breakdowns which cover the sex of the animal, its various tolerance levels to hunger and thirst and the sort of things it likes to eat.
You don't just create animals either. You are also responsible for the evolution of plantlife, controlling such factors as how their seeds are spread, and the sorts of shrub they evolve into. Every creature is based on a prototype gene, but their surroundings and habitat dictate how each successive generation will mutate. It's this toying with the mutation that makes it so enjoyable.
Thankfully, you're not just thrown in al the deep end. A full on-screen tutorial takes you through the basics of the game, from building a world to understanding the reasons behind certain animal behavior. A box will appear on screen and ask you to do something, such as select an option or create a certain plant. Once you have done that, the tutorial steps forward to the next stage, all the time keeping you fully informed of what you have done and the effects your actions have had. This makes getting into the game far easier.
The game is windows-based, with information panels summoned via a menu bar al the top of the screen. Being ported directly from the Apple Mac, the mouse control is highly intuitive; pop-up menus and help panels are displayed by clicking on the appropriate icons, and it looks a treat on the A4000 and 1200. Every control panel and display window is in a completely different box, so the screen can be rearranged to your heart's content, which is just as well as it can get very cluttered al times. There are dozens of information panels to work through, and it isn't advisable to have more than three on screen al once, if you can help it.
If reading this review has made you think of a couple of things you would like to do, chances are you can. Designer Ken Karakotsios has made a superb job of the design, giving the user total freedom.
Sim Life does everything it claims to do, and although it's extremely technical, it never baffles the user with jargon. Its only real downfall is, of course, the fact that only a small percentage of users will fully appreciate what it can do.
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