The Sims 3
On starting up The Sims 3, I did what any self-respecting, narcissistic twenty-something would do and set about creating a near-perfect rendition of myself and my housemates. It's all been a bit hectic since then, and right now we're all suffering from a low mood after spending the last few days working to some nasty deadlines. If I don't get to play some video games soon I'm probably going to be irrevocably scarred. Plus my housemate kept me up last night by playing the guitar. Oh, and we also live next door to a Mafia den.
The Sims is still suitably ridiculous, then, but it's in the anecdotal moments - where everything becomes an odd echo of reality - that it really shines. A sims' overall contentment is now handled by 'moodlets', a little series of happiness/unhappiness status symbols that reflect their personality traits. They're all pretty straightforward: clean sims, for instance, will pick up a negative moodlet when presented with grime; workaholic sims are happy after a solid promotion; flirtatious sims get a buzz from a good kiss. It's a slightly more complex system than the arbitrary mood bar from previous games, but it allows for a far more engaging experience. I often sit and watch the, slightly thinner than in reality, sim version of myself go about his daily business, tapping out articles, going to work and having a massive fit if he has to miss a meal. The whole illusion of life becomes progressively more eerie when seeing him slack off to watch the telly far more than he should.
At the same time, your sims have wishes: they pop up on the screen and you can choose to go about them if you wish. Some are as simple as scratching a consumerist itch, others become slightly more complicated. They all play second fiddle to a sims' lifetime ambition, but these little wishes provide a daily/weekly target, and they all contribute to overall accomplishment. It also makes it so that you're constantly achieving something, endlessly hearing satisfying victory jingles and being congratulated whilst forever edging closer towards the lifetime goal. It's addictive.
It's in this careful juggling of moodlets, balancing traits and wishes to maintain happiness that the core of Sims 3 resides. It's a system clever enough to effectively simulate a characteur of people you know, which is no small feat. But it's also wish fulfilment, putting people into careers in a world where getting a promotion becomes as simplistic as working hard for a day or two, or where everyone becomes your best mate because you played the guitar, badly, in the park for a couple of hours. As a progression of an established series, The Sims 3 enables its creations to become more than just a continued repetition of events - wake up, eat, work, toilet, study, WooHoo, bed - followed by death. That lifestyle is still an option, though, if you want it to be.
It's hard not to have a soft spot for it, to be honest. The Sims has always been seen as a bit of a casual thing, but underneath the hood there exists a rather nuanced, technical engine that demands a degree of player awareness and education - it's loaded with all kinds of fancy symbols, interesting-looking buttons, and whizzy gadgets. The interface, the cumulative efforts of a nine-year old franchise, is as immediately recognisable as the game itself, and it's polished to the point that it never fails to push you in the right direction. In this case familiarity is very much a good thing.
But at the same time it's taken a leap towards advancement. No longer are your sims trapped in a series of non-connected static boxes, instead they've become residents of a mapped, traversable town. Driving, walking and socialising around the streets of Pleasantville and Riverview is now possible, and wherever you go there's always plenty of sims rambling about begging to be challenged to play a game, convinced to cough up some money for your campaign fund, or become an unwitting audience to your forever-lowly guitar skills. The openness of the towns now allows for a far greater chance of madcap random incidents, and breathes a further degree of simulated life into the game. Although I'm gutted to discover the Shakespeare-inspired town of Veronaville fails to make the leap from The Sims 2. Still, they've kept Don Lothario so they're partially forgiven.
What it lacks is the ability to see inside all of the buildings. You can watch your sim at work, for instance, but you'll spend your time staring at an immovable roof for the duration. Many buildings exist purely externally, with your sims being lost to their tasks as soon as they step inside. This is perhaps the game's greatest shame, with so many interesting locations being lost to the player in favour of a progress bar that ticks away at the top of the screen.
The tech specs might have gone up, and the personalities have become too eerily similar to people, but EA have made sure that everything on display is still a definite, ostentatious Sims experience. Animations, colours, and sounds all feel traditionally sims-ish, and the return of the simlish language itself continues to sound far too much like Danish to be a mere coincidence. Even the tutorial is incredibly short; trading on the assumption that everyone and their dog has played The Sims in the past. They're probably right. They've relaxed the difficulty and upped the autonomy, but it's still very much The Sims. Just heavily tweaked and refined. And you don't have to fret all day over bathroom breaks and mealtimes, which makes it all a lot better.
Fans of The Sims will be quick to notice that a lot of features are still left out. One obvious downside to starting out with The Sims 3 is that, with The Sims 2 having built up an exhaustive glut of content over the years, the customisation options are a little bit on the sparse side: The Sims 3 will look positively barren for anyone who owns the Sims 2 and a few of its many expansion packs. But it's hardly lacking content, and there are many creative opportunities afforded by subtle tweaks that sound rather boring on paper but in actuality prove to be super useful. The palette tool, for instance, allows you to modify the colours of almost anything. Perhaps one of the more significant changes, though, is the store, where you can quickly purchase all kinds of knick-knacks from an ever-expanding catalogue after converting boring, old sterling into exciting SimPoints - the game, handily, throwing you six quid's worth of points as a way to get you started. Which you'll probably spend on hairstyles, as there's simply not enough included with the game.
Then there's the Exchange, where player-created content can be uploaded, rated and shared. The items in the Exchange are limited somewhat by the game's engine itself - they haven't made it possible for user-made content to comfortably compete with the paid-for stuff - but the sheer fact that it exists opens up plenty of exciting opportunities for frequent players: your favourite sim can now be put on public display for all to see, and your more visually resplendent colour and design combinations can be shared with the rest of the community. It's all very suitable for the YouTube generation.
Of course, the jaded cynics will protest that EA are purposefully missing a few tricks - pets and university spring to mind - so that they can sell them as expansions later down the line. Which, to be fair, is probably partially true. The Sims 3 does, however, provide enough innovation and novelty to be worth the asking price. The relentless accumulation of minor additions ensures a major upgrade, and it's really chuffing addictive.