Version tested: Xbox 360
The Sims 3 invites you to "Play with Life", inferring an impulse towards creativity and imagination, but I've never met any Sims player who isn't immediately compelled to create themselves – and nobody really knows why. It's the first thing I did when I played the Sims for the first time in 2000, sitting in front of the family computer.
It really used to freak out my Dad when he walked past. "What are you doing?" he'd ask, horrified, taking in the frighteningly perfect miniatures of our family pottering about on the monitor I honestly couldn't tell him.
10 years later, I'm still doing it. There sits Sim-me, up at 3am playing videogames whilst the rest of the household is asleep and there are dishes to do, whilst I sit in my flat playing The Sims 3 on low volume at 3am and ignoring the mounting stack of plates. But when my Sim wandered over to the stereo in the middle of a Sunday afternoon and turned on a 22-20s song ten minutes after that exact same track popped up on my iTunes playlist in real life, it all got a bit weird and I had to turn it off.
The Sims has always been a gentle combination of life and fantasy. Sims might eat, sleep, wee, fall in love and waste hours on videogames like we do, but we generally don't get to become mad scientists or master thieves or world-renowned surgeons in the space of two weeks, or wrestle burglars to the ground whilst our housemates look on, clapping in glee (unless we live in certain bits of North London). Life takes Sims in more exciting and unpredictable directions than ever before in The Sims 3, and it's irresistibly compelling.
There are a few necessary compromises for the console versions. You can only control one household with a maximum of six Sims, so if you want to create yourself and your friends you all have to live in the same house, like an ill-advised sitcom. Everyone else in the world is a Maxis-made character – you can't populate the city with your own creations and have them run into each other at the beach or at each others' parties.
Loading times also verge on the ridiculous at times, though it helps a lot if you follow the game's advice and install it to your hard drive. Considering how much the game has to deal with, it's hardly surprising. The Sims 3 on consoles still has the full open world of the PC version, with a whole town full of cafés, museums, libraries and public swimming pools where Sims can go to socialise. It sometimes takes a few seconds for buildings and textures to load in, but these issues aren't any worse than they are on the average non-supercharged PC.
Incredibly, house-building and landscaping tools are as fully-featured as they were before, as are character creation, item customisation and pattern-making. The Sims 3 on consoles has all the customisation and sharing of the PC version built right into the character creation and item catalogue menus. And wow, people have no taste when it comes to redesigning household objects. There are abominations in there from inexpressibly hideous blue-and-white-striped toilets to duck-adorned, vomit-green acoustic guitars.
The Exchange, the hub for user-created content, can be accessed separately from the menu at any time and searched for specific items. Uploading things to The Exchange is easy, but browsing is naturally slower than it is on the PC, and you have to have a lot of patience to bother sorting through the orange televisions and 45 variations of Ugg boot to find something you want.
These customisation options come blissfully obligation-free. The Sims happily accommodates every level of player from can't-be-bothered dabbler through to OCD obsessive with blueprints for every room and item of furniture in their Sim dream home. If you just want to stick a few randomised Sims into a house and start prodding them about without so much as changing the wallpaper, no problem.
It's not a control nightmare either. It gets around the lack of mouse-cursor precision by not demanding it. Click your cursor near close-together objects and it simply asks which one you'd like to interact with. Comprehensive Sim stats – including their current needs, ambitions, relationships, personalities, the lot – are displayed in easy-to-read form in the bottom right of the screen, and in a detailed set of menus with the touch of a button. Switching between life mode, the town map, build and buy with the Back button is almost instant.
Challenges add a comforting sense of short-term reward for intimidated console gamers, as if the daily cycle of life, parties, work and wish-fulfilment wasn't absorbing enough. Practically everything that Sims achieve in life, from working out to snogging friends to fulfilling their desire for a big new TV, is rewarded with points that can be spent on new items or Karma Powers (supernatural occurrences like meteor showers and earthquakes that you can inflict upon your Sims).
It's worth remembering that this isn't just the first painless console port of a Sims game, it's a painless console port of the very best Sims game. Sims are complicated, loveable little clusters of needs, moodlets, personality traits and aspirations; the game is now a finely-tuned balance of control and observation rather than the mechanical sequence of seeing to their needs that it once was.
Things like free will and ageing are now fully adjustable. You can set the game up to order them around like little automatons, or gently usher circumstances into their favour whilst they go about their lives independently, picking their own friends and partners and hobbies. You can keep them suspended in eternal party-filled youth or watch them have kids and get old, feeling a twinge of sadness when they eventually die – until they return to haunt their remaining relatives.
The Sims lets you explore all of its depth and detail and scope exactly how you choose, never telling you what to do. It's a loveable, funny game whether you're guiding your Sims towards happy lives, tormenting maladjusted lunatics of your own creation with with an endless run of disasters, or just leaving them to do their own thing: watching them flirt and throw tantrums and play guitar in their underwear whilst everyone's out of the house.
You can't review a Sims game so much by its features as by the stories that you end up telling about it. On consoles, at heart, it's the same rewarding, anecdote-rich and very personal experience as it ever was. If you've got the option, then the PC version is still the one to go for, but in every significant way, this is just as good.
8 / 10
This review covers the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of The Sims 3, out now. The Wii version, out on November 12th, differs significantly. We reviewed the PC version last year.