Frankly, the last thing I expected to be thinking about this morning was my Sim and her gross approximation of a life, but despite my crunchy and delicious outer shell of Cajun blackened cynicism that strange talking avatar and her adorable pucker of a smile have made an impression.
The world of The Sims 3 is a clinical utopia, like a child’s dream of what it must be like to be an adult. To call The Sims a life simulator is to basically miss the point. If I were forced to compare it to anything it would be tending a bonsai tree or a Japanese rock garden. While EA continues to implement new dynamics into their prized franchise, for me The Sims is a mode of washing away stress, unfocusing my eyes and letting my brain wander, if briefly, through the sunny park of pleasant tedium.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t sell much product to describe it in such fashion, and my magic 8-ball suggests that the potential for future box quote placement is Doubtful. The thing is that more than in previous Sims games, I’m having decidedly potent morsels of fun with the latest version. It seems like a reasonable, if well tempered, conclusion to say that The Sims 3 may be the best yet of the series, with all the baggage that such a statement carries.
It would be remarkably easy here to say that if you haven’t liked previous Sims games then this one won’t change your mind. It’s the kind of statement that seems to be insightful on the surface, but comes directly from the Big Book of Review Fallback Positions. It’s also not true. It would be much more reasonable to say that if you have been open to the basic idea and structure of The Sims in the past, but been left wanting by earlier implementations, then this may be worth a considerable look.
On the other hand if the idea of spending any part of your life tending to the hygiene needs of little computer people — congratulations to those of you who get the reference — seems like the sort of enhanced techniques that need to be addressed by the Geneva conventions, then you are free to go.
This is a polished product that practically gleams from the first splash screen. I suspect that if anything gritty managed to worm its way into the game, resident happiness-enforcement programs would immediately dispatch pleasant faced scrubbers to efficiently wipe away the offending pixels. Even when things get dirty in the sims, they get dirty in an adorably pristine fashion that wouldn’t be out of place in an old episode of the Brady Bunch.
This is a simulator in the same way that a game like Madden realistically recreates what it feels like to be an NFL player. As you can never have your Madden players accidentally get caught packing heat at a nightclub or choking fighting dogs to death, The Sims never find themselves homeless and sleeping in the park because their job at the bookstore was downsized and they were upside down in a mortgage that the lender refused to restructure. This is not a game about choice and consequences; this is a game about seeing if you can create a super-hot, criminal-mastermind, charismatic, bi-sexual femme fatale.
Yes. You. Can.
EA has done an excellent job of creating a game that never steps on its own toes. The technology is highly polished and runs with nary a hitch on mid-range systems. The interface is smooth and refined. The mechanics are instantly familiar and enhanced in ways that evolve the fundamental game without ever running the risk of reinvention. There, we got that annoying reviewery junk out of the way. Consider yourself bullet point informed!
That’s not to say that there’s nothing new under the sun. The Sims 3 offers a seamless town to explore at your leisure. Unlike previous Sims you can direct your avatar to jog out of the house, run down for a barbecue and fishing at the beach, a quick drink at a local restaurant, a late night show with a "friend" and then back to your place for a little bouncy-bouncy, and all without a single loading screen. The sense of being a part of an active community, rather than living a tragic isolation on some detatched suburban island is a boon for the game.
Your character is never without at least the opportunity for direction. As part of character creation, along with creating a digital doll that you can stand to look at for a few dozen hours, you also select overarching traits that help define your Sim's personality and ambitions a la Fallout perks but without the blood. These help build the foundation of your Sims desires, and in conjunction with choices you make during the actual game you are given frequent wishes you can choose to fulfill. Along with the occasional random opportunity, again based on how you develop your character, there are real rewards for meeting goals that can dramatically affect your character instantaneously and over the long haul.
The sense, or at least illusion, of real direction is a needed boost for a game that at times can otherwise seem adrift and unfocused.
On the flip side of the coin, there are large swaths of The Sims 3 where you get the distinct feeling of being on the outside looking in. It’s great to be able to take your Sim to see a sports game or theater performance, but far less great to watch as they enter the building while you wait alone staring at the sidewalk for what seems a tiny eternity like Fry's dog Seymour from Futurama. While some buildings are open for you to interact in, like the art gallery or the gym, many others are simply a façade into which your tiny person goes to have a presumably fantastic time while you watch a progress bar in the corner of the screen make its tedious way from left to right. If you've ever listened dutifully while a friend explains a particularly amazing night that you were conveniently not invited to attend, then the echoes of that sense of abandonment will crop up at surprising moments.
Further, EA is clearly capitalizing on their premiere franchise by integrating a store interface directly into the game’s launch window. While there is certain to be plenty of user created content, EA has also devised its own version of Microsoft Space Bucks so that you can add developer content like new towns, new furniture, new hairstyles and other consumerist crap just waiting to wreak havoc on tiny economies. If you suspect that the game's default offerings seem a little scaled back as a result, then you, sir, are not alone in that conclusion.
I realize that it seems like I have nicely balanced the positives and the negatives in a very objectively constructed artificial review style. It was not intentional or formulaic. The truth is that when I can slip into the world and identify both with my Sim's needs and desires in a strangely empathic way, then I am having a terrific and easy-going time. When I “program” my Sim to clean the kitchen, use the bathroom, go to sleep and take a shower, then wander away from the computer for the few minutes it takes to execute those needs, I recognize the fundamental flaws that continue to plague the basic nature of the game.
What conclusion I can draw is that The Sims team stuck firmly with the safety of what they knew had established their franchise while building on many of the existing framework’s shortcomings. It’s not nearly as annoyingly short-sighted and iterative as one year’s Madden vs the next, but there is a shared philosophy that exists somewhere among the two. While The Sims 3 is a generational leap, it’s not a groundbreaking one, and again I have to conclude that enjoying the game requires a fundamental buy-in to The Sims model. Shame on you if you were surprised and expected something else.