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.
Pets are also vital for sniffing out clues in the new 'Mysteries' feature. These short narrative diversions are accessed from a mission-style menu, and can be followed throughout the game, picking up the trail to buried treasure or other revelations whenever you fancy.
Those playing on Xbox 360 get an even more interesting exclusive feature: Kinect support. Upon first seeing the Kinect sensor sitting beneath our demo screen, I'll admit that I flinched in anticipation of the horrors ahead. Trying to rotate the screen with hand gestures, fingers fluttering in mid-air as you try to place a wardrobe with some semblance of precision. Motion control and The Sims just didn't seem to go together. Thankfully, that's also the opinion at the studio, and that's why The Sims 3 Pets uses Kinect for its voice recognition, not its camera.
Initially, it feels more than a little gimmicky. In the pet creation screen, you can simply say the name of the breed you want to be taken directly to it. Cute, but hardly revolutionary, and sitting in the living room shouting "Dachsund!" at the TV doesn't seem like much of a brave new world.
In game proper, voice control makes a lot more sense - and subtly revolutionises gameplay mechanisms that have endured since the first Sims back in 2000. Switching between characters, regardless of where they are on the map, is a question of asking for "Sim 1" or "Sim 2", for example. Pets, of course, can be told to "sit' or "stay". But that's obvious, entry-level stuff.
If a Sim is too busy yakking with a neighbour when you want them to be improving one of their skills, you can literally tell them to "stop that". When those status bars begin to deplete, you can perk things with a simple "go to sleep" or "for God's sake, just have a poo". OK, that last one doesn't quite work, but the principle is impressive even if the syntax required is simple by necessity.
The commands also intersect with the Sims' own AI, so they'll take their environment into account. Rather than dictating their every move, you're offering suggestions that the Sim will then act upon. "Have fun" makes your Sim find something to amuse themselves based on what's nearby and what they like to do. "Eat something" sends them to the kitchen, or a nearby eatery, to satisfy their hunger in whatever manner they choose. Conversations can be steered with "be funny", "be friendly" or "be mean".
We're so used to pressing buttons, moving sticks and selecting icons that it almost feels like cheating to simply be able to tell characters what you want them to do. Yet it's also enormously liberating, especially as it sweeps away a huge part of what we presume a game must be.
Later, playing the game on a different demo pod with a normal controller, I'm already missing the simplicity. Such vocal short cuts clearly won't work in most games, but for something like The Sims, where the pleasure is in the payoff rather than the actions themselves, it feels a lot like a stroke of genius - cutting through the icons and menus and just letting you interact in the most clutter-free way possible.
Even though Pets stands alone as a console release, it's still very much part of the Sims 3 lineage and it's rare to find such potentially sweeping changes rolled out in what is, essentially, a spin-off. In terms of pure gameplay, it's shaping up to be another endearing invitation to Simville. In terms of technology and design, it may end up being a lot more influential than expected.