PC Review

Sims Online

Nick fashions his green mullet and relinquishes all personal hygiene in assessing EA’s latest cash-cow.

As a rule, I don’t really have much to do with the anti-Starbucks crowd. Smashing up McDonalds and sporting a blue mullet is not my vision of a utopian paradise. But sometimes, even smelly hippies can get things right – companies can occasionally take things too far. The Sims, in my opinion, is one such example.

Finally, after years of expansion packs and ports to new systems, some accountant at EA decided it was time to bring together two of the big successes of gaming in the last few years – namely persistent online gaming, and The Sims itself. Note: the following account is entirely fictitious, any similarity to real persons or events is purely coincidental. But it was probably just like this…

EA Exec (on phone) – I don’t care if they’re whining, I will not loosen the chains on their ankles. Lousy programmers. Cancel their annual day off. (slams down phone).
Marketing Exec enters
EA Exec – ah, Caruthers. Good to see you, was just having some problems with the ‘help’. Honestly, to hear those programmers go on you’d think they were vital to the games industry. Anyway, lets hear the good news, Caruthers.
Caruthers – Well, sir, everything seems to be going swimmingly. Sales of Obscure American Sport 2006 are way ahead of the curve, sir.
EA Exec – Excellent, Caruthers, excellent. What else?
Caruthers - Well sir, the marketing department has just completed its annual justify-your-job study. I’m afraid to report, sir, that the technical department failed to provide a power point presentation this year – they submitted a text file. Said something about ‘cross-platform compatibility’. So naturally we let them go.
EA Exec – Good work Caruthers. No slackers while you’re around, eh?
Caruthers – Indeed not, sir. In fact, if I may be so bold, might I suggest an idea I had recently?
EA Exec – Bleed more money from the plebs, eh Caruthers? Man, you’re ruthless, remind me not to turn my back while you’re around!
Caruthers – Very droll, sir. You are a man of rare wit. Anyway, I would like to further extend our Sims line to trap that most wondrous of commodities – the online player, possessed of a credit card.
EA Exec – Hah! Brilliant, Caruthers, brilliant! I’ll get them working on that in the basement right away (reaches for phone). Squash later, Caruthers?
Caruthers – Usual time and place, sir.

So now here we are, and the Sims Online is a reality. The original game was, and still is of course, a veritable cash cow for Maxis and then EA. And I’m also sure that everyone reading this has played it in some form, or at least knows someone who has. I’ll therefore keep the preliminary preamble to a minimum.

The Sims, to over-zealous thinkers, could almost be said to be a metaphorical extension of real life. You start off with the basics. A house. A bed. Maybe a T.V. and a couch. Life is a hassle – you must control every action of your avatar, down to the last bowel evacuation. You think to yourself ‘If only I had a better bed, then my sleep requirement would be fulfilled more easily, then everything would be better’. And that’s how it starts! That’s how the uber-capitalists at EA/Maxis trap you! Don’t you people see the irony? It’s the consumer culture gone mad – online! It’s not even real, and we’re trying desperately to acquire that new whirlpool Jacuzzi! My god, the commies were right all along! Capitalism IS evil! Arrrrghhh!

The Sims Online works in a fairly similar fashion to most other online games. After installation and updates, you pick your avatar and away you go. After choosing which town to settle in, the first port of call in a normal offline game would be to construct your house. In the Sims Online, however, this is probably not the best option. The starting cash is limited, and since its possible to simply live in someone else’s room, it’s probably better to save some cash for later on.

The initial goal for many players will be to make as much money as soon as possible. This, unlike many online games, is actually relatively easy to do right from the beginning in the Sims Online. The only problem is that it’s also a task bereft of even the slightest bit of enjoyment. The most efficient method involves upgrading one of your characters skills (from logic, charisma, creativity etc.) that applies to a particular job tool – a chemistry set or a pizza machine for example. The game encourages group activities from the outset by making group jobs much more rewarding than individual job tasks. This is a common theme in online games, but it would be better served if there was not such a massive disparity in the relative rewards between individual and group jobs – this game does not merely encourage group play (which is laudable), it actively punishes individual play (which is, frankly, annoying). This repetitive skill treadmill is such an obvious pitfall for online games that it’s a little surprising that EA did not at least attempt a solution – it’s simply a part of the game. This might be remedied, however, as more content is released, and more varied and interesting ways of making money and spending your time become available. Content for the Sims offline is in such abundance that the Online version seems the poor cousin.

Another problem with the game is the constraints imposed by playing with other people. Personally, I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that I’m a selfish git. I like to be king of my world, so to speak. Unfortunately the politics of ‘now play nice, kids’ has become infused in the Sims Online, and it makes it difficult to get your own way. It is impractical to build a sizeable house without obtaining roommates first, and once they’re onboard they must be consulted about additions to the layout. It is now impossible to wall off people you don’t like – and I don’t care what the play testers said, that’s a bad thing. For those gamers out there who enjoy collective responsibility this will obviously not be a problem. But it should be said that if you’re expecting the Sims Online to be the same as the offline version, with the addition of real neighbours, then you’ll be disappointed. Group interaction is a necessity, and group cooperation is vital. Virtual hermits, steer clear.

Such social interaction is aided by the chat system, which involves speech as well as the emotes and gestures familiar from earlier games. The Sims Online does offer some nice chat features, and new unlock-able gestures that round out what would be a great little chat program. There are a few annoying niggles, however. Since there is no chat bar, speech bubbles that you miss simply fade away, leaving no record. In a crowded room this can lead to confusion, particularly when some of the conversation is coming from off-screen avatars. The Sims Online also constitutes one of the most demanding chat-rooms ever devised – there are constant interruptions to socialising, as you cater for your avatars hunger and sanitary needs.

I must admit a sense of ambivalence about the Sims Online. On paper it would almost seem an ideal game to make the transition online, but it doesn’t quite come off. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll probably take the view that the foundations of a great game have been put in place – this is probably true. Most of the game’s faults can be attributed to a lack of content. Put simply, there’s not enough variety to satisfy the Sims fans who’ve been fed on a diet of expansion after expansion. Hopefully, however, EA has its code monkey pulling triple shifts to remedy the situation. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Capitalism ventures online, but loses some sheen on the way.

E3 Trailer