By Erik Wolpaw
Updated February 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Microsoft’s newest strategy game starts with a great idea: Instead of building an army from an arsenal of tanks, spaceships, or warrior elves, Impossible Creatures lets armchair mad scientists design their own troops by combining parts from a menagerie of more than 50 real-world animals. Mix a baboon with a lobster, and out pops a hairy, pinching Baboster. Or graft eel heads onto whale bodies to create an army of British Invasion-sounding Electric Sperm Eels. During that first heady hour in the creature lab, Creatures is one of the coolest games ever devised.

Then you realize that out of roughly 40,000 creature combinations, about 39,990 look suspiciously alike. And while all the standard components of a real-time strategy game are accounted for, each has been stripped to its bare essentials, making Creatures less engaging than any strategy game in recent memory. A pity, since the interface, graphics, sound effects, and music are top-notch.

Stick with the single-player campaigns: The online matches against real opponents are simply about building as many of your best creatures as fast as possible and having them charge your enemy. If most real-time strategy titles are elaborate versions of rock, paper, scissors, Impossible Creatures is the world’s most sophisticated game of rock.