This is where the game really scores. The lifetime achievements, career paths and short-term goals give The Sims 3 a strong and rewarding structure, and there is a system of events and opportunities - basically, small scale or long-term missions - to keep the gameplay fresh beyond the point where it should get repetitive. But beyond all this there are the simple pleasures of sending a rude Sim out on the streets to hurl abuse at strangers and see what happens, or of throwing a party in a house so full of rank dishes and uncleaned toilets that the guests can barely stand the stench. It's also a game where themes develop almost without you noticing. My writer, for example, was an incorrigible womaniser before marriage, and even now, with a wife and child at home, he can't stop himself chatting up the pretty girl playing chess in the park, then following her back to her place and laying on the charm. Will his wife catch him out? What will she do when she does? Can he resist the lure of an old flame round the corner? There's only one way to find out, and that's to keep playing.
There are still flaws. The new house building and design tools are really very good, but they're not quite as simple, intuitive and idiot-proof as the creation tools in Spore were. There are still times when the game gets bogged down in mundane repetition and, the more Sims you have to manage, the more the game slows down and the more possible it becomes to lose the bigger picture. Whatever anyone tells you, there will be periods when you start to wonder ‘is that it?', until some new aspect, opportunity or challenge rears its head. The absence of pets at the moment also makes me suspect that a huge line of expansion packs is already being prepped for release.
All the same, this is a hugely engaging and addictive game, and the sort of thing that obsessions are made of. There are whole chunks of the game I've barely glimpsed or touched on, and it's telling that other reviewers have encountered challenges or strange occurrences that I have - so far - been unable to trigger. That's the thing: like a big MMORPG or grand-scale strategy game, your experience of The Sims 3 will inevitably be similar to mine in some respects, but unique in ways I can't imagine. That's also a huge part of its appeal, and whether you play it for quick laughs or for rich drama, it's incredibly compelling. If the very idea of The Sims is anathema to you, then avoid this sequel. There are still hundreds of great FPS, RTS, racing, strategy and RPG games out there, and many more to come in the next few months. But if any of the above sounds appealing, take a deep breath and dive in. If you like it half as much as I did, you won't want to come out for some time.
The Sims used to be the game for people who didn't like games. With this threequel, it becomes the game that people who like games like as well. Huge, deep and enthralling, it's a game that most of us won't want to miss.