Two hours is not a long time in gaming terms. Time enough for a tutorial, maybe, or a handful of cut-scenes - at most a quick blast through a first act of easy victories.
But that isn't always the case. Sometimes, two hours can be a lifetime - and for all the right reasons. In our preview session with Spore's forthcoming Creature Creator, two hours was ample time to build and discard entire ecologies, bringing ranks of species to life before mercilessly extinguishing them with a single click of the mouse. Most of these animals were quite horrible, some of them were frankly embarrassing, but all of them had one thing in common: each was entirely different.
How different? Our first creature, imaginatively entitled Eurogamer (it had been a long train ride to EA) was a disquieting combination of grasshopper and trout, a silver-fleshed limbfest, continually emitting a series of wet, slippery yelps and clicks. His spine was a loop, which may have explained why he looked so unhappy, and he had too many mandibles. We didn't miss him much when he was gone. Our next creation, Young Donlan, fared no better: a conceptual mess of mouths, eyes and strange coiled lumps of bone, he was simply too busy, with too much going on in all the wrong parts of his body.
Also, we mistakenly thought it would be funny to build him without a face, and the hooves we gave him in place of hands brought his long arms crashing to the ground, meaning that he had to punch with his elbows (brilliantly, when we then gave him another arm with two fists jutting out of his forehead, he automatically switched to attack with this). Young Donlan was clearly a mutational cul de sac on a par with chocolate-covered pretzels and Celebrity Wrestling.
It was only with the arrival of our third creature, the cosmopolitan Monsieur EuroG that we started to approach something likable. A fat sausage with an aardvark's snout, le Monsieur was certainly easy on the eyes, even if the ram's horns on his hind knees were an error, in retrospect. Making a sound like a seal barking, he was proof that twenty minutes had made us masters of the toolset.
Long in development and mutant heir to the Sims franchise, Spore remains EA's big hope, and the forthcoming release of the Creator on PC and Mac is crucial to selling what could otherwise be a dangerously complex proposition. You personally might be fine with it, but there are people out there who might feel that a game concerned with, y'know, creation of biological life in its entirety is a little daunting. As it happens, EA looked a little daunted themselves during our hands on session, with early password problems suggesting that we might have been granted two hours' exclusive access to the Windows XP log on screen. Happily, they couldn't have planned a more illustrative near-disaster - it turns out that Microsoft's operating system was by far the least intuitive piece of software we'd have to get to grips with all day.
Released on 17th June as a pre-order bonus (the pricing is still to be confirmed, but it's likely to be around five pounds) or available as a free download trimmed to twenty-five percent of the assets, the Creature Creator is not so much a demo as a chance to get used to one of Spore's central tools: an editor which allows you to spend in-game DNA points constructing creatures, which can then be uploaded to the Sporepedia for storage, and eventually imported into the full game.
Considering it takes you from a handful of vertebrae to a feature-complete, all-dancing, fin-wielding life form, the creator is staggeringly simple to use. Your starting point is the spine, which can be pulled into various shapes, all of which affect how the finished creature will stand and get about. Around the spine is a blob of chewing gum flesh, which can be squeezed or inflated before the body parts are selected and applied, Mister Potato Head-style. And Mister Potato Head would be proud at the range available: there's a comprehensive selection covering everything from eyes and mouths to weapons and special details such as gills. Every part can be fiddled with - resized, angled, repositioned - and a paint menu allows you to colour in the creature's skin, or select from a range of pre-made designs.
Forging the appearance of your creature is game enough in itself, but each addition is also shaping their attributes - altering a range of on-screen stats controlling everything from abilities and attacks to diet and socialising. From changing the body size using the scroll wheel, to dragging joints to stretch out the arms and legs, every tool in the Creature Creator works intuitively. The emphasis is on easy experimentation, and switching from Editor to Test Drive mode allows you quickly to see the creature in motion and demo everything from the way it walks and attacks to the sound of its mating call. The first time you click into Test Drive is a genuinely thrilling moment: your creature suddenly bursts into life in a way that manages to feel thoroughly unexpected but absolutely right at the same time.
It's a combination of the animation (comic yet convincing, and filled with one-off touches: one of our creatures examined with interest the arm we'd just given it) colliding with the behaviour attributes born out of your design choices, but it's also much more than the sum of its parts. It's shocking how independent their behaviour seems - you may have prodded them together, but they emerge into Test Drive palpably powered by their own intelligence.
It's also often slightly distressing to see the way your attributes have played out: if you haven't given your creature legs, it will wriggle about uncomfortably; if you've stretched its mouth to comical proportions, its voice will be weirdly distorted. Luckily, iteration in Spore is fast, and a single click can take you back to the editor to undo your damage. The quest for perfection quickly becomes all-consuming, and the ease with which you can start over - a creature can be built in well under a minute - means that you're driven to try again and again.
Showing off the finished product is a typically polished process: snapshots can be emailed, film clips can be directly upload to YouTube, and - both blessing and curse - Spore can export creatures in the forms of animated .gif files, suggesting that Lolcats and headswaps of Shigeru Miyamoto may soon have a new enemy in the battle for message board mindshare. The game's wider presentation, however, is often less perfect. Clipping as limbs pass through snouts or eyes is an understandable, but fairly common distraction, and textures are often slightly slow in making the leap from one part of the editor to another.
But details like this slightly miss the point. Like Spore itself, it's hard to describe the Creature Creator without simply reciting what you did with it, or devolving into a clinical list of its features, while the real breakthrough lies in the way these disparate and often complex elements fuse together to create something that seems coherent and simple.
We can't tell whether the finished game will retain this careful balance when it's released in September. Evolution is, after all, something of a mixed bag. It's given us opposable thumbs and Bill Murray, but it's also prematurely killed off the McRib and allowed the word "chillax" to flourish. Luckily, Will Wright and his development team seem to be well aware of this, and if you're looking to Spore to deliver a first class bolt of genuine natural selection, you're probably being unrealistic. If this June's unique demo is anything to go by, Spore is Evolution Lite. This is no criticism - after all, a true evolution game would buckle under the amount of control Spore is already handing over to its audience. The Creature Creator suggests that Spore isn't going to be about sitting around waiting to mutate, it will be about getting stuck in and frantically experimenting. Over the past few years, gamers have grown used to getting chemistry sets for Christmas: Wright may be about to deliver chemistry, physics and biology, all rolled into one.
Spore is due out on PC, Mac, DS and mobile on 5th September. The Creature Creator is due out on 17th June and will cost EUR 9.99 / USD 9.99 from Spore.com, and there's a free demo version too as noted above.