Since The Sims and all its sequel editions add up to the most successful PC game franchise ever, it’s no surprise that the publisher, Electronic Arts, has major plans to keep the series fresh. You may have sniffed at recent releases such as the Ikea add-on pack, but the newest additions promise originality and fun.

British-born Rod Humble is now in charge of The Sims empire and has come up with ideas to lead the games in a new direction. These are more than a holding pattern until next year’s release of Sims 3 and have a greater focus on consoles, especially the Wii. Console Sims games have had mixed success, though the MySims spin-off released last year on Wii and DS have captured the imagination with their anime-styled characters and greater emphasis on tasks and rewards.

The latest in this series, MySims Kingdom, is based around themes of fairytales and to be frank it all looks a bit too jolly for my tastes, but there we are. It’s available later in the year.

More interesting, by a long way, is Sim Animals, where there are no humans on view and where you can play as a raccoon, rabbit, owl or a bear. Let’s face it, you’re going to be the bear. He’s cute, big and powerful – a recipe for success in life as well as games, surely.

Animals are initially wary of the hand icon you use to interact with the game, but can be slowly encouraged to trust you. Of course, you can later betray this trust by smacking the animals, but please don’t, it’s traumatising. Mind you, as Rod Humble exclusively told us, "There is pushback – although we want you to create a happy environment, you could craft a horrible place if you want". You just won’t progress to the next stages until the animals are happy.

The creatures can play together, scrap, and even have babies, though there are no inter-species relationships, before you try. There are 25 species of animals and 50 plants and trees which you can use to sculpt the environment. So you can provide something for a squirrel to climb to avoid a fox, say.

What’s interesting is the style EA has plumped for, steering a steady and successful course between realistic and Disney-cute. The game has a great look to it, and in a rare backstage tour of the game, we saw why. The designers had plenty of sources to inspire them, and although they were reluctant to expand on them we saw notes revealing how crucial certain films had been. So Bambi, Open Season and even Peter Pan had played their part - the last used to show how colour and contrast can be used to make characters stand out against backgrounds, for instance.

We played it on the Wii and it looked great, its charming style making the most of the Wii’s limited graphical capabilities. The controls are subtle – approach a wary animal too fast and he’ll run away, but tempt him with berries and he’ll soon look contented when you pick him up (if he’s not happy, you won’t be able to get close enough to pick him up).

Sound effects included a wide range of calls and grunts for different species and matched the not-photo-real but not-cutesy-cartoon either middle of the road graphics. The look was simpler, of course, on the DS version which made good use of the handheld’s innovative interaction mechanisms. But it’s the console version, for Wii only, that will capture the attention.

This game is due out early next year, and is the most exciting Sims title in production. If you can’t wait for it for your virtual animals fix, though, handheld gamers can look forward to The Sims 2 Apartment Pets for the DS, which arrives next month. Story-wise, you’ve inherited an apartment and pets grooming parlour by your uncle (is it unusual for a videogame to begin with death?), and it’s your job to run the parlour. Wash a pet by wiggling your stylus crazily over it and see how the dog, cat or snake (yes, snake) loves it.

First Impressions

The Sims worlds have explored many different genres but Sim Animals looks potentially the most fun, and certainly the most adorable, yet.