The hype machine behind Spore, the highly anticipated Electronic Arts Inc. game developed by Sims City creator Will Wright, was enough to make The Dark Knight seem like a small, art house film. Well, Spore hit the US today (it arrived in Europe late last week).

So was it worth the wait? Early critics note that the game raises interesting questions about intelligent design (or creationism) vs. evolution. "With both evolution and 'creator control,' the game has something for everyone, though looking at some of the designs people have built using the already-available Creature Creator raises the question of whether Intelligent Design exists here on Earth," writes the blog.

"Is this intelligent design or evolution?" Eric Gwinn, a Chicago Tribune reporter asks on The answer, he adds, is that the game makers are not weighing in, leaving it to the players (and critics) to "see the game as they want." One way to avoid the argument, Gwin offers, is to say that the game "lets you play the role of homeobox genes, the bosses of the genetic factory, which build body parts inside every organism, regardless of religious or philosophical leanings."

Spore follows the same basic principles of EA's successful Sims franchise—gamers must make crucial decisions that affect the entire world in which they operate, and must then deal with the consequences of their actions. Whereas the Sims series focuses on what happens in societies created by gamers, Spore also gives control over the evolution of an entire universe.

Players are able to create and evolve life through tribal and more developed phases right on up to the point where they're advanced enough to leave their home planet and explore other worlds throughout a simulated universe. One of the coolest aspects of the game, senior designer Alex Hutchinson told me at an EA event earlier this year, is the ability of gamers to see the crest of a planet in the sky of their world and know that you’re their creations will eventually be able venture out to explore those new worlds.

The amount of work that went into creating Spore is apparent from its initial phases, during which players create the creatures that will populate their world. Gamers have several hundred categories from which to select attributes for creations, including facial characteristics and body types. Life can also start at the cellular level, where there are about a dozen different categories of attributes to assign. The biggest challenge from a design standpoint, Hutchinson told me, was making all of these different part co-exist naturally to give the game a consistent look.

EA designers refer to this process as procedural animation, a process during which players control a sophisticated 3-D modeling system using nothing more than their mouse. Players can even comment on other players' creations—and use them to populate their own worlds.

(Images courtesy of Electronic Arts, Inc.)