Review: The Sims 3

Review: The Sims 3

Platform: PC, Mac
Release: June 2 (US), June 5 (EU)
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Redwood Shores

After years of trying to expand its universe despite an engine limited to single lots, The Sims has finally done it. Though the household is still the centre, it’s now surrounded by a map its residents can explore at leisure, without fear of jumps in space and time. They jog, play guitar in the park, eat apples in the library and read books outside the grocery store. They take taxi rides to criminal hideouts and drive getaway cars to their friends. They hit the treadmill at night and sleep during the day. Or they don’t. For a game that’s always been about slavery, be it to the bladder, the stomach, or the almighty dollar, it sounds an awful lot like freedom.

Of the many achievements in The Sims 3, the greatest is how it solves this paradox. Much of the work has been done already, the eight expansions to The Sims 2 adding personal inventories, downtown venues, gardening and mobile phones. But never on this scale, without a loading screen in sight, with the clarity of a point release.

The secret to the open world is that it’s really just a larger version of your usual house, making the same demands and offering the same solutions. Select any spot on the map, from the beach to the nearby space centre, and if you don’t have a car a taxi will give you a free ride. Just grab a snack from your rucksack or the store to keep the hunger pangs at bay. If you break a sweat in the gym, the showers are downstairs. Don’t fancy television? Try the movies. Feel dumb? Visit the library for a book and a concentration bonus. The more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.

There are more options, of course, which explains why much of the game has been simplified. The Needs gauges now have an alert system called ‘Moodlets’ – small icons that tell you which states of being are affecting your stats. The ‘free will’ AI can be switched between degrees of autonomy, but can still autopilot through everything bar paying the bills and seizing opportunities. The UI is a masterpiece, actually more intuitive than it was before, still built upon the precepts that, first, its users know more about office apps than videogames, and, second, that they don’t take kindly to pointless cosmetic change.

But is the centre of the Sims universe really the household, or is it actually the house? For those who see little in its Life mode beyond a thinly veiled game of task scheduling and resource management, the Build and Buy modes are where it’s at. In The Sims 3, both have bloomed to fire the imagination like never before, the diagonal placement of walls and objects putting a whole new slant on its user-generated content. Add to that a 32bit Create-A-Style palette of textures and colours applicable to almost every surface and you have something you’d sooner expect in Trackmania than in a monetised colossus like The Sims. Yes, there’s still the suspicion that you’re a few micropayments short of the complete package, but there’s enough in the box for a few Sim lifetimes, at least.

Animations upon animations, events within events, and countless contexts for the same basic actions: The Sims is still a master of the well-endowed grind. Granted, its Lifetime Goals are more diverse than the paths leading up to them, and the crux of the social game is still the learning of just a few basic skills. But the presentation is always changing, and as in all good Sim games, progress gradually shifts the balance from work towards play. Only a true zealot, though, will go knocking on doors purely to swap cooking tips in gibberish and ‘play’ virtual Burnout, fun though it is to act like John Belushi in that Saturday Night Live sketch The Thing That Would Not Leave.

The Sims is still not, unfortunately, a master of storytelling, and while it lets you deviate from your goals and even change them entirely, its claims of showing life in all its colour amount to little more than daytime soap. You want it to lift the rock of American suburbia and find something more interesting, but it always acts like it’s being watched; there’s no shiver of voyeurism or revelation. It also fails to show your finest hours as more than just a change of costume and a rising number. Few of its workplaces let you see what’s inside, which leaves you staring at the roof while your Sim enjoys that life-defining gig or heroic touchdown. It’s a triumph of the game’s AI that life can go on without your involvement, but it’s a compromise to leave you blind to it.

If there’s one great story in The Sims 3, it’s of how the biggest game in the world continues to act like it, expanding in some respects, shrinking in others, but always evolving. And it’s about EA learning more and more how to act like the world’s biggest developer, the production values, build quality and feature set here being almost overwhelming. There’s much to say about its online support, which like Spore’s is welcomed into every corner and ranges from machinima to content sharing and blogs. And also the massively enriched character generator, and how it creates a world of different shapes and sizes, if not so much personalities. But with so much movement in a game that means so much to so many, the talking points seem endless. No wonder the Sims have so much to say.

This article originally appeared in E203.
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