- Review Price: £29.99
If you’d asked me one month ago to describe The Sims phenomenon, here are a few words and phrases I might have used: dull, repetitive, cash-machine, would-be interior designers, perfect game for people who feel Neighbours might be too dramatic. To be honest, I’ve never really found the time, the inclination or the energy to really get into the first two games, and even when I have played them for a few hours, it has been more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I never enjoyed nor particularly hated the experience, much as I can’t say I have ever enjoyed or hated watching Countdown or Bargain Hunt. After all, how much toilet training does one man want to get involved with?
So why am I now thinking of The Sims 3 in terms of fascinating, addictive, fun and absorbing? Why have I not minded the hours I’ve put into playing it when I have games like inFamous, Prototype and Red Faction: Guerrilla sitting on my desk? The answer is simple. With The Sims 3, the development team at Maxis has finally transformed The Sims from a love it/hate it software toy into a vastly enjoyable game. I nearly said ‘that anyone can enjoy’, but on reflection that’s not true. If you would rather spend time firing bullets or burning rubber than building relationships and chasing dreams, and if the thought of choosing furniture makes you break out in an angry rash, then The Sims 3 still won’t be for you. In fact, it’s such a time consuming game that it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. However, there are key things Maxis has done here that will make The Sims 3 even more appealing to an even broader audience.
The first is that The Sims 3 sees the series moving even further from a focus on your Sims’ daily needs to a focus on their short-term and long-term wishes. At the start of a new game you can assign your initial Sim a lifetime goal – whether they want to become a leading surgeon or a local rock god, it’s up to you to achieve it. It’s all about taking baby steps: get them in the right career, help them get involved in the right activities, take the right classes and meet the right people and your chances improve. By constantly chasing relevant short-term goals, which appear for approval in your Sim’s wishes panel, you take them one step further on their journey. As my budding writer, for instance, made his way up the Journalist career ladder and began earning big royalties from a number of salacious novels it’s hard not to feel a sense of achievement. What’s that you say? Put to Stud is selling even more than Between Satin Sheets? It all makes those late nights worthwhile.
Of course, as with real life a lot of the pleasure comes not from following a single path, but from the sidetracks you find along the way. The Sims 3 is packed with so much stuff to do that it would be foolish to even try and cover it all – and I suspect that after several solid days of play I’m still just scratching the surface. Needless to say, a lot of the action revolves around relationships, from finding a group of mates you can hang out with, to finding a significant other, to having kids and raising a family of new Sims who might one day take over from your main Sim in the game.
The conversation system, which works using a simple selection of subjects (e.g. friendly, funny, mean, romantic) and topics (e.g ask about day, tell funny story, insult, compliment), is incredibly efficient, and, though your Sims all speak a nonsense language known as Simglish, it’s easy to get a gist of what’s going on from onscreen thought balloons and status displays and simple pitch, tone and body language. The Sims has never felt closer to a fully interactive soap opera. Or maybe reality TV, with a few characters you can push in the right direction in the hope of comedy or drama.
That point of comparison seems all the more appropriate when you realise something else about The Sims 3. The first game restricted you to one household, and though subsequent expansion packs and sequels have thrown in neighbourhoods, parties, clubs and colleges, the game has never really made you feel that your Sims were existing in a living, breathing world. The Sims 3 achieves that. Your house is now part of a small town, complete with parks, beaches, beauty spots, businesses, shops, theatres, schools, hospitals and other civic buildings. You can walk anywhere you want or take taxis point to point, and the whole place is thriving with other Sims you can interact with, shops you can buy from and houses you can visit.
The illusion breaks down at certain points – it’s impossible to see what’s going on while your Sim is inside the supermarket, visiting the art gallery or taking a guitar class – but for the most part it works. Even the firefighters, the police or the repo men seem to have a life beyond just dealing with you, and it’s in the incidental encounters between Sims that the game frequently shines. The greatest pleasure of The Sims 3 is that you feel like you’re improvising a story piece by piece, bringing in a new character here, trying out a new plotline there. Play it straight or play it silly, but it’s always easy to have a good time.
And the really good news is that there’s more time to concentrate on your personal narrative, because The Sims has become a lot less demanding in terms of micro-management. OK, so you still have to make sure Sims have meals, shower regularly, clean the house and get their beauty sleep, but you can leave things like getting up and going to work or using the toilet pretty much up to them. Of course, things change should you bring an infant into your happy throng – the littl’uns need changing, feeding and cuddling if you want to avoid a nasty visit from Sim social services – but isn’t that just part of life’s rich pageant?
It also helps that your Sims now have more personality, and I mean something that goes beyond a silly name, a whacky shirt and some exaggerated tics. The upgraded Create a Sim feature makes it easy to create a Sim who looks like you want him or her to look (or like you or the people you know if you like that sort of thing). Sims can also be assigned traits, ranging from clumsy to brave to ambitious to flirty to slob to downright evil. All Sims have them, and even while you’re telling them where to go and what to do they’ll exercise their traits, getting themselves into trouble, causing grief for other Sims or generally making things that little bit more interesting. In short, the Sims seem to be evolving from the rather dull digital puppets of the original into more convincing and engaging virtual actors, and The Sims 3 is a major leap in the right direction.
In terms of community features, The Sims 3 seems to be taking some ideas from Maxis’ work on Spore, with more of an emphasis on users creating and sharing their own content this time around, whether it’s a new hairstyle, new clothes or a new piece of furniture. You’re even free to upload your own screenshots and videos, which can be edited using the Web-based ‘Create a Movie’ facility. There’s already a huge selection of stuff to download from The Exchange, while Maxis created alternatives can be purchased from the Store for Sim Points. You get £6 worth with the game, and can buy more should you want to later on.
Graphically, Maxis has clearly leaned towards accessibility more than visual excellence; The Sims 3 looks cute and colourful and there’s a fair amount of detail to the Sims and their environments. While the models have been kept deliberately simple, there’s some great use of lighting and surface effects to add richness and lustre. However, the style is very much more cartoon than gritty realism, and you won’t have any problem playing the game on a fairly modest PC. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The Sims 3 doesn’t need Crysis-style photorealism to drag you in; it simply needs interesting personalities, entertaining activities and storyline hooks to keep you involved, and really, it’s up to you to provide these yourself. The great thing is that this won’t be a challenge.
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.