Expansions for The Sims have become so regular and so familiar that they've rather appropriately become part of the gaming furniture. Rarely do they make headlines or arouse much interest beyond the (enormous) niche audience that is Sims addicts. So when the invitation arrives from EA for a special press day for The Sims 3 Pets, it's hard not to do a double take. Really? A whole press event? For pets?
The first thing we learn is that Sims 3 Pets is really two related, yet different products sheltering under a common banner. For PC players, it's an expansion in the traditional sense. For console players, it's a complete standalone game in its own right. Each has its own unique and exclusive wrinkles, and together they do add up to a substantial addition to the Sims canon, worthy of a moment in the spotlight.
There have been pet expansions for the previous two Sims games, but this time the pets are more than mobile accessories. These are fully customisable animal Sims, as much a member of the family as your human creations. Console players get to create cats and dogs, while the PC also adds horses to the mix. Not only do you get to pick their breed, from a list of over 100 for each pet type, but you can then tweak and customise their appearance to your heart's content.
Being a mature type, I immediately create a green dog with a giant deformed face and a rainbow-coloured horse, and am gratified to discover that the game considers these to be legitimate creatures for use in the game and not an unholy abomination against nature.
But such Dawkins-baiting madness only goes skin deep. As with human Sims, you have a whole suite of personality traits to mix and match in the hunt for the perfect pooch or puss. Loyalty, intelligence and boisterousness are among the animal-specific settings available, and these are matched on the sapien side of the equation with new pet-based traits for human Sims. Designating someone as a 'cat person' or 'dog person' is an obvious inclusion, while the introduction of pet allergies is sure to entertain those who view the game as a hideous suburban torture chamber.
Pets also have their own needs and ambitions, which must be satisfied to keep life on an even keel. Cats must scratch while dogs love to dig and chew. Fail to provide a harmless outlet for these compulsions and your soft furnishings will suffer. Cats and small dogs can even climb on top of surfaces, perhaps to gobble up those leftovers that have been mouldering for three days.
Almost anything a human Sim can do, the Pets can follow - including careers. Dogs can join the police and rise to crime-busting Scooby status. Cats, naturally, can become supervillains and plot to take over the world. The Sims team claims that it's entirely possible to play the game solely as an animal, forcing the Sims around you to cater to your needs, and that certainly seems plausible.
At the core of the game is the need to build a relationship with your pets. Well-loved pets will sit on your lap or sleep on your bed. They can also help human Sims achieve their goals, perhaps by helping a lonely owner find love. Those playing the PC version, with its horses and stables, get an extra incentive here. Set in a rural Texan-style ranch town, rather than the coastal New England setting of the console game, training horses and taking part in equestrian competitions is a now a major gameplay strand and a legitimate way to earn money and happiness. Even if your horse is rainbow-coloured.
It's also refreshing to see that the weird surreal streak that has run through the series, even dating back to the original Sim City, remains undimmed. Cats have the ability to hunt ghosts, while zombie bears, time travel and telekinesis all pull silly faces in the margins of the game. You'll even be able to transform pets into people and vice versa, which should make the game a hit with the Furry community.