There’s bound to be some disappointment among Sims fans this month as players expecting the kind of dramatic leap they witnessed between The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 are left wanting. There is a great deal of evolution in The Sims 4 however, it’s just not where some might expect to find it.
For those unfamiliar with the decade old household sandbox game, and that’s truly an impressive degree of commitment to video game ignorance by the way, The Sims is a series of games that allow you to play house with a collection of simulated residence. Through a series of strategic mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts, it’s the players job to guide their Sims through life. This could include anything from navigating through the potholes of a career in astrophysics to making sure they get to the toilet before it’s too late. It’s your job to look after your Sims, or not. It’s pretty much all up to you.
There’s never been much in the way of direct objectives in the Sims games and although potential goals have slowly edged their way into the series, The Sims 4 allows players just as much freedom as ever. If you want your Sims to flourish, you can guide them through a successful career and aid them in creating bonds with other Sims, thus building their very own family unit. But if you’re feeling a little more malevolent, you’re free to keep your Sims’ bladders full and their stomachs empty.
EA Maxis’ new direction for the Sims is clear from the outset. Gone are the option filled menus of yesteryear, replaced with a simple interface designed to get you playing as soon as possible. Likewise the town map which was once a fully modelled 3D town, a breakthrough feature in the The Sims 3, has been replaced by the outlines of a small collection of facilities and residences. This results in the basic representation of the romable landscape.
Streamlining seems to be the word of the day here, and in most cases it’s successful. The character creation segment, in which players are free to obsess over the smallest details of their Sim’s appearance and personality, has mostly moved away from sliders and tickboxes in favor of a more tactile system in which body parts can be stretched and shaped by simply dragging them with a mouse. It feels significantly less precise as you might expect, but the learning curve is also far gentler for new players. This instantly makes the dynamic a must have feature for any casual game.
It wouldn’t be the Sims without the opportunity to construct your dream home, and it’s The Sims 4’s build mode that’s seen the most tangible improvement. In tune with the rest of the game, there’s plenty to make a new player’s first experience easier. Most notably, the option to place fully formed and even fully furnished rooms drastically reduces the time between empty plots and mini mansions.
It’s a more powerful engine too, with added options to control the height of walls, the exact placement of pictures and windows on walls and dozens of other minute details. What’s most surprising is how the movement towards simplicity works in tandem with the depthy mechanics, ensuring that dropping a room into an already made house automatically adjusts the prebuilt walls. Moving a window up and/or down a wall is no different from the usual click to drop mechanic. At some point however, there comes a time to hang the last strip of wallpaper, finalize your choice of hairstyle and start living your (Sim’s) life, and it’s here that the real challenge begins.
It’s never been easy maintaining the dynamic relationship between your Sims’ short and long term goals, and their six basic, Maslovian needs. Keeping your ward happy and on track requires patience, planning and most importantly excellent time management. Keeping a Sim energized, clean, fed and motivated is far more time consuming than you’d think.
It’s into this finely tuned balancing act that EA Maxis brings their new emotion system and with it a new layer of AI determined by a Sim’s mood. From these emotions spring new contextual actions, and whether that means a particularly energized Sim drops to the floor to do some sit ups, or a miserable Sim cries out their feelings in the fetal position, it certainly makes things more interesting. Moreover, a Sim’s short term aspirations will also change with their mood, giving players a genuine impetus to respond to their Sim’s ever changing emotions.
It all adds to creating more interesting stories, a feature at the very heart of The Sims. The poster child for emergent narratives, The Sims 4 is full of life and the consequences of actions are always interesting and exciting. The UI may have been put on a diet, but there’s still plenty of depth for players to delve into as their Sims’ seem more alert and willful.
That’s not to say the AI is perfect however, there are still issues over the realism of the pseudo-social elements. Visiting Sims continue to overstay their welcome in your home, regardless of the fact that your Sim has been asleep for three hours and that they have a child waiting for them at home. What’s more, progression is still too often a grind. Supervising a Sim on the writer career path as he or she spends an inordinate amount of time sitting at a computer is mind numbing. Even watching artistic Sims work at an easel can become dull given enough repetition.
Visually, improvements are noticeable but far from dramatic. There are refinements across the board and the liberal application of soft focus helps with some of the rough edges, but those who remember The Sims 3 with a hint of nostalgia won’t be blown away with the improvements. Keeping a simple cartoony style is undoubtedly the right decision for a casual franchise however, because it means hardware demands are kept to a bare minimum. This is an important feature to have when a developer aims to target players beyond the hardcore.
While some new features fall flat, the new multitasking feature usually amounts to my Sim sitting down while watching TV. The Sims 4’s greatest problem is going to amount to whether or not players see enough evolution from The Sims 3 to warrant the upgrade. Enhancements are less conspicuous than they could have been and while a subtle refinement of the core mechanics is great for players, it might not be enough to drive potential players wild with desire.
After fourteen years of courting the length and breadth of the game playing public, EA Maxis knows exactly how they managed to bottle lighting all those years ago. They know they’re audience and it shows not only in their game design, but in the witty phrases of every product description and the tongue in cheek actions your Sim performs. Everything down to the tiniest animation, has been designed to make you fall in love with the world and it’s inhabitants. You’ll never want to leave and although no Sims game is complete without buckets of expansion packs (read DLC if you must), there’s plenty here to keep you going for a good long while.
The Sims 4 is available now for $49.99, exclusively on the PC.
This review was based on a digital copy of The Sims 4 provided by EA Maxis.