Version tested: PlayStation 2
We've been here before. Back in the dim and distant days of the original The Sims, EA released a version of the game where you could give your Sims pets, and gave it the quite pun-tastic title of "Unleashed". And since no-one has ever accused EA of letting go of a sellable idea when they could release it again and again and again (and again, but with nicer textures), we get the rather more prosaically named "Pets", this time based on The Sims 2.
Now, if this were the PC version of the game we'd just be concerning ourselves with those of you out there who already own The Sims 2 (which, judging by the sales figures, is most of you). However, this is the PS2 version, and thus is an entirely different kettle of, er, pet fish. The console versions aren't expansion packs, but rather full games. Thus, there are two different groups being targeted here: those who have never played The Sims 2, and those who own the original. Should either of you pick up this version? To which the definitive answer is (look away if you don't want the ending spoiled for you) probably, and maybe.
The Sims 2 Pets tries to make things easier for the newcomers right from the off. Rather than having to design and build your characters and houses from scratch, you can move into a pre-existing house, with the option of kicking out the existing residents, or turning up and moving in with them like some sort of often-mentioned but never seen relative in an Australian soap opera. It's a nice option, although we suspect that people who go for the easy route will end up quitting after a while and creating their own Sims anyway. The game is, after all, much more fun when it's populated by hideous caricatures of people you know. Watching a Johnny Random set himself on fire and then pee all over the kitchen floor just isn't the same as seeing your ex-girlfriend do it. And in the game as well.
The customisation features for the humans are their usual excellent selves, but they're slightly more of a mixed (pet-food) bag for the pets. If you're a dog or cat lover, then you'll find a range of options to rival those that the humans get, but other animals only get a small number of pre-set looks to choose from. But then, how much fun can you get out of watching a bird in a cage? No, the dogs and cats are the real fun pets, as in real life. You can teach them tricks, take them for walks, and they can even get jobs, just like your human Sims. After all, someone has to be the next TV star, and why can't your dog be the one to inform others that Timmy has, once again, fallen down the well?
Giving your dog some much needed exercise doesn't just involve walking up and down the street outside your home, hoping that someone will walk past, think you are cool and interesting and want to be your friend (although at least that happens more in the game than in real life). There's a local town centre, which is a great place to make friends and meet new pets, and it also has shops for every one of your needs, providing those needs are along the lines of wanting a bigger dog bowl. In a nice touch, the more you spend at a shop the bigger it gets, which also increases the variety of items that it stocks.
As in the original, you don't control your pets directly. Whether you view this as adding a nice layer of abstract clever-cleverness (you control your Sims, your Sims control their pets), or making you feel slightly removed from the process possibly depends on how you feel about pets themselves. Making them directly controllable would go against the point of having pets in the Sims in the first place, rather than just more humans. But in something like Nintendogs, you personally are the one interacting with the titular animals, not some digital representation of your best mate who you've made comically fat. In Nintendogs teaching your animals tricks involves speaking to them, stroking them, but here you're just selecting menu options. It fits in with the Sims style of doing things, but as a game, it's perhaps less satisfying than the other pet-based options.
The control system doesn't really help matters either, as getting your Sims to actually do what you want them to is often overly tricky, as commands get queued accidentally and you struggle to delete them. Having to hold down a button to pause while you make commands, rather than have it be a toggle, is also a slightly stupid decision. But then, The Sims is a game that's never been fully at home on a console. The control system always feels forced compared to using a mouse. First-person shooters and other genres have made great strides towards conquering the console market, but The Sims is a game that has always felt best on a PC.
So, a tricky one then, with our recommendation varying depending on several factors. If you haven't bought a Sims game yet and for some reason are incapable of playing it on your PC, then this is the best version to go for. It's the most accessible and has the most features. If you already have the Sims 2 on PS2, it depends on how much you want to buy the same game again, but with dogs and cats. If you're after a purely pet-based game, then something like Nintendogs would serve you far better. And if you've been woken up several nights in a row by dogs in the house opposite barking at three in the morning, then the game's lack of options to drown animals will just leave you feeling disappointed. Trust me.
6 / 10