nderful, because The Sims 3 is finally the game the original aspired to be, a sprawling valley-sized slice of virtual reality that's yours to tinker with entirely, no longer hemmed in by invisible barriers or repetitious characters.

Intrepid, because The Sims 3's decked-out catalogue of deceptively mundane activities illustrates even better how a game where you "tinker with the uneventful" can be so much more eventful than others conventionally packed with explosions, aliens, and magic swords.

Surprisingly, EA didn't mess with core series values, but then, it didn't have to. When your premise hasn't changed ("strategic life simulation") the writing's on the wall: give your base an order of magnitude more to fiddle with, pretty it up, and make all that "extra" even easier to manipulate.

The Sims 3

Because it does, The Sims 3 represents a triumph of synthesis and style, an evolutionary leap rooted in progressive customisability, a gracefully architected interface, and several strikingly deep creative tools.

Want the year's most compulsively playable, demographically far flung PC game? You've found it - it's The Sims 3.

The Sims 3: Welcome to the Hood, Neighbour

After you choose a neighbourhood (The Sims 3 ships with a small-town-meets-uptown municipality, although a second is downloadable, gratis) the camera glides across a glinting lake toward a sunny, surreally verdant township, finally hovering, godlike, a quarter mile up.

You've been here before, of course, in games such as Enix's Actraiser (1990) and Lionhead's Black and White (2001), but this time there's an entire for virtually real town waiting below, one teeming with fully revisable Victorian cottages and cozy mission-style homes on up to costly modern McMansions.

The Sims 3

From here, you can either move into a household (you're allotted a small startup sum) with precreated Sims or mold a virtual up-and-comer of your own. Do you really want to use someone else's creation? Me neither.

Spending half an hour or so in the new "Create a Sim" body shop preening over a Sim's physiology and disposition is probably a must, not to mention a crucial first step toward assimilating the game's most salient new feature: Traits.

The Sims 3: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

If you've seen one character creation tool you've seen them all? Wrong.

From eye lid height to nasolabial folds and Joan Jett's raccoon-black eyeliner to tiger-striped costume makeup, The Sims 3 offers a cosmology of anatomical and cosmetic tweaks tucked neatly into five unassuming little buttons.

Just about anything can be pinched or twisted to your liking, while several advanced tools let you make fine adjustments to any facial feature. To give you an idea, you get 13 sliders to twiddle your Sim's eyes alone; another 11 for cheek, chin, and jaw.

In short, with enough patience and careful fussing, you can finally cook up a Sim that's a recognisable ringer for anyone, including yourself.

The Sims 3

From the neck down, your options are limited to lateral body size (why can't you change height, EA?), though whether you're thin, fit, or chubby, clothes now hang properly on your Sim's frame.

Sorry voyeurs, no stuffing bras or jockstraps - your sub-neckline options are relegated to clothing presets for different occasions, from everyday v-neck tees and fatigues to formal slacks, skirts, smoking jackets, blouses, wristbands, watches, and earrings. Even your Sim's audio cues have adjustable sliders. Want to change the pitch of your Sim's voice? Yep, you can.

The Sims 3: Gold-digger? Murderer? Mad Scientist? What Do You Want to be Today?

Arguably the most noticeable revision in The Sims 3 involves how personalities take shape. In order to craft a Sim's unique psyche, you select five out of 60 traits, each one influencing how you'll cope with the game's manifold social and economic pressures.

Are you good (helpful, charitable) or evil (delight in others misfortunes)? Bookish (quick reader) or athletic (an exercise maven)? Hydrophobic (no swimming for you!) or never nude (a whimsical nod to Arrested Development's Tobias)?

The Sims 3

Each trait has consequences - nothing's "just for fun" - and different combinations present unique challenges. How challenging depends on the number of paradoxes you're willing to juggle.

"Family-oriented" sims make great parents, but add "light sleepers," "hot-headed," and "neurotic" to their profile and they'll suffer debilitating mood swings and growly outbursts when the baby wakes them.

Ambitious sims are happier when advancing quickly in their careers, but click the "unlucky" and "loser" traits and they'll turn sullen when promotions taper off. Create a "hopeless romantic" but tag her as "inappropriate," "mean spirited," and "evil," then watch as she oscillates between craving and destroying the ones she loves.