This review originally appeared in E82, March 2000.
The Sim City 3000 saga taught the developer a valuable lesson: restraint. It saw Maxis abort several years work on a detailed, man-in-the-street city simulator for, effectively, a prettier Sim City 2000.
Maxis surely hasn’t abandoned the dream of a fully realised metropolis, but now it’s tackling the problem from both directions. A better, faster and more 3D Sim City is in the works. The Sims approaches the other end of the scale with citizens and their suburban castles. The result is brilliant.
By concentrating on simulating real people with their family feuds and television sets rather than the outlandish beasts of Seaman, Creatures and Tamagotchi, this artificial life game is effortlessly empathetic. But there’s also a potential snag. Just as Final Fantasy VIII’s characters proved not quite realistic enough to justify abandoning the cute route, flaws in ostensibly real people are more easily spotted than in some genetically modified space gibbon. (It took a decade of innovation for the FPS genre to move from the fantasies of Doom to the realism of Kingpin and Hidden & Dangerous.)
But The Sims succeeds by keeping the simulation’s scope reigned in. Sims don’t talk. They burble with Theme Park-style pictorial bubbles. You don’t see them at work. The game doesn’t over reach itself in trying to create a computerised ‘Brookside’. What you’ve got is an infinitely versatile house construction kit which in itself devours hours, plus a neat representation of the daily lives of whoever you put in there.
You focus on the environment, building Sims’ houses and buying things with their wages. You can order them about, but if you’re not on their wavelength they’ll usually refuse, looking straight at you and shaking their heads with a plaintive ‘uh-uh’.
That wavelength is down to a Sim’s personality. With just a few statistics and a star sign, reasonable differentiation between the citizens is achieved. And while Sims have the attention span of Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rainman’, they’ve got the social skills of Tom Cruise. Watching their encounters is highly engrossing.
Great technology makes it all possible. Top-drawer game AI motivates The Sims. Brilliant animation and a masterclass in the use of sound smoothes over any loose edges. Recall the stupid routes your units take in even the most recent RTS games and you’ll why realise Maxis’ path-finding AI is a huge achievement. Here’s a game where you can build a house of any shape, fill it with bric-a-brac and then call half a dozen sims around to party and they can still negotiate each other to get a beer from the fridge. The odd stand-off in a kitchen doorway is the exception, proving the rules work.
Actual interaction between Sims and their world is slightly less accomplished, although still the best yet. The AI’s trick is to have nearby objects (televisions, computers, beds, etc) all bidding to attract a Sim’s attention, with success largely depending on their current mood. The Sims live in a here-and-now world, demanding constant stimulation.
It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with children or the Teletubbies that they tend to do the same things again and again – an expensive bookshelf or piano will not be seen as more appealing than the TV without your intervention. Still, compared to most A-life denizens, The Sims has renaissance men.
Theoretically – although it’s not apparent for many hours – The Sims is actually somewhat limited. Maxis has played it too straight with the body types and personalities, while the toys run out sooner than you’d expect. The Sims’ Web site will help, offering hundreds of downloadable objects and new Sims, plus the tools to create them, though that’s not much comfort to PC users without access to the Internet.
But perhaps any gripes can be put down to the old ‘Oliver Twist’ syndrome – you can always ask for more. All things considered, it’s better to see The Sims out a year after its E3 debut. It is undoubtedly one of the freshest experiences available on any platform. It’s fun to play and it’s instructive.
Other developers should get out their notepads, too, for Maxis has unearthed a host of design gems in this, its most essential release since the original Sim City.