Sony's EyePet is more or less a direct descendent of all those Catz and Dogz games (or should that be gamez?) that surfaced in the mid nineties. Both series were massively popular with gamers who were either unable or unwilling to deal with the expense, responsibility or omnipresent faeces that accompanies real-world pet ownership. In essence, the player used their mouse to interact with a cartoon mutt or feline as they pranced around their computer screen. You fed the animal, groomed it, and teased it with toys. As an overall experience it was somewhat lacking in gameplay, but this had little impact on the kids who flocked to stores in their millions.
Now, some fifteen years later, SCE London Studios has returned to the formula, but this time using "augmented reality" - a term that may mean nothing to you if you're not one of the cool kids (kidz?). In a nutshell, you set up a web cam in front of your TV so that you're watching a live feed of your living room floor - but when you look at the screen, you'll suddenly find you've got a new visitor charging about the room: The EyePet. He's a furry little four-legged creature, a sort of monkey-cat hybrid with the playfulness of a puppy. It's almost as if a market research group isolated all the cutest aspects of normal pets and then used them to design the ultimate lovable furball.
Rather than being a fully-fledged game, the EyePet is really an AI-driven toy that you play with via your television. You clear a large space in front of your TV, sit on the floor and then start to fool about with your new friend: you can lean over and "stroke" him, wiggle your fingers to get his attention, or call him over by tapping the ground. You might feel a bit daft at first, running your fingers through thin air, but before long everything feels totally natural. You learn to watch the screen and not your empty room, and soon you'll be totally absorbed in whatever your Pet is up to. The technology behind this project is hugely impressive: the creature's movements are detailed and extremely well-animated, and whatever he's doing it always looks as if he's actually moving across your floor. As a result, it's easy to believe that there's actually something there - a crucial achievement that guarantees the product's overall success.
If you're reading this review there's a good chance that you're considering buying the EyePet for a child. If this is the case, it's important to note that it takes a bit of setting up. The game walks you through everything you need to do with a clear step-by-step guide, but younger kids may still need adult supervision with setting up the camera and clearing enough room to play. In the long term children should be able to run most of the EyePet's activities themselves, but at the start a bit of supervision will be required while they're learning what to do. Almost all of the game's actions are governed using simple motion controls, but there are a few things that require the use of a joypad - notably the options for customising your Pet's look. If the child in question is already a PS3 user they'll be fine, but if not they'll definitely need a hand with this.
On the plus side, the EyePet is so much fun that most adults will probably want to play along anyway. Sony has made a massive effort with the presentation, using comical videos to lead the player at every step. All these instructions are relayed by The Professor - the friendly boffin who runs the EyePet centre. He's got a big white lab coat, silly glasses and crazy hair - and he's played by a very decent character actor. On the whole, the videos are extremely well done, and you certainly won't mind sitting through them.