I'm not sure what my highlight so far has been. It may have been having a guy die while making out with me, before immediately proceeding to call up his sister, have a little mourn, flirt, make out, ask out and then dump her, whilst standing over the grave of the brother. Or it may have been discovering the patriarch of the town has a daughter, who I end up going out with, only to dump brutally, before hearing the patriarch has died, chatting up the widow in the gym (I ask her if she's single - surprise, she is!), and flirting with her enough to go steady. All in front of a crowd, including the upset daughter. Before dumping the widow. Only to later, in my dotage, get back together with the daughter and move into their epic townhouse.
Ah, business is good. Or at least slutty.
After playing for a few weeks with this preview code, The Sims 3 is obviously the biggest renovation in the series since its initial appearance. The Sims 2 improved on the original in pretty much every way, but was still fundamentally based on the idea of individual lots - houses, shopping areas - requiring a loading pause to skip between. The Sims 3 throws all that away, and sets the game in an actual living town. People go off on their own daily routines, and you're free to move your Sims wherever. And, in fact, you can even change which sim in the city you're controlling. It was through this that I manipulated the move-in of my first sim to the rich family, thinking it ended the Machiavellian flirt-a-thon's life appropriately.
Fundamentally, setting The Sims 3 in a world just makes it all feel more real. While this is mainly a game about the non-work life - when you go to a job, after driving to its destination, you disappear "off the board" for the length of your shift - that whole life feels integrated and real. There's no longer any oddness like people going to another map, staying there for ages and then returning to their house to find they've aged and no-one else has. It lives. The town ages together. Or stays young, if you've changed the setting to avoid horrible things like death.
Which would be a shame, because Maxis has done lots of lovely things with the afterlife and ghosts and... I'm going to get distracted if I go too much into the details. There's lots of minor stuff to catch your eye and explore. For example, I mentioned disappearing off the board? Well, you don't have to do jobs in that standard way. For example, pump up your writing skill and try writing some novels from home, in various genres, with various success and... I'm getting distracted again.
Let's keep this to the main elements which change everything. Firstly, how the game picks up from the 'wants' of Sims 2. Fulfilling of your sims' transitory wants - everything from making the bed to making out with the neighbour - will earn you lifetime happiness points. Be generally happy, and you'll earn them. You'll earn serious amounts by completing your lifetime wish, the desire you select at character-creation (everything from becoming world leader to being a heartbreaker who's dated 10 people, which explains why I was being so determinedly horrible to the people I was making out with - at least to some extent).
When you have enough happiness points, you can spend them on new abilities for your character. You can become more attractive, better at throwing parties, or have a plentiful bladder with room for masses of urine. If you save enough, you can get some serious toys, like a machine which allows you to transform your body shape at will (body shape now alters depending on exercise and... distracted again!) or a teleportation machine.
This means that, more than ever, there's an actual reward system for success - and a variety of ways that that success can be defined. Separate from that, there are also other achievements to work towards with associated bonuses. Get enough friends and their affection for you will never decay even if you never see them. Jog over a threshold and your character will be blessed with a longer life. There are also sporadic life opportunities - like chess fairs or things happening in the office - which feel like quests. Linked to characters' new inventories, it feels more than a role-playing game than ever.
But segueing to the second main point, it's a role-playing game which understands that The Sims isn't necessarily about simple success. Look at character generation. As well as being able to tweak your appearance massively, your personality is defined by up to five traits you select. Rather than spend your points on making your sim active or lazy, fun-loving or serious, as in previous games, these are singular traits, each of which has an obvious, meaningful impact on the world. If you create a sim who's an absent-minded neurotic athletic angling snob, they'll act in an obviously different way to a flirty, friendly, green-thumbed, grumpy genius. The key thing to note is that traits, whether they're helpful or not, are treated as equivalent to one another. You can create a sim whose nature obviously points at success, or a sim whose nature obviously points at alienating everyone they ever meet.
My reservations really are minor. While the ability to apply all the textures to all the clothes means a mass of variety from every single item - which deserves a paragraph of its own, but will wait for the review - there don't seem to be as many hair pieces as I'd expect. Also on the visual side, The Sims 3 is probably less attractive than you'd expect for a new game, with one eye clearly on the most accessible system specs possible.
The developers spoke about reducing the focus on maintaining bodily functions, and while this does appear to be true, I suspect it won't be enough for some. While most of the game introduces its concepts elegantly, there are still some obfuscatory moments where it's trickier than it should be to work out what's blocking the direction you want to go. For example, controlling the aforementioned terribly slutty sim, I found it hard to get an option to ask someone out. Eventually I realised it was because I was already going out with someone, and you have to go and dump them before you can ask someone else. But that's not explained, and surely you could just ask someone out and automatically dump the other one, and have them turn up angrily and have a go. And I want to be a bigamist.
In terms of stuff I haven't had a chance to explore, I haven't examined the video-editing tools, but they do look nifty. The biggest reservation is that this is relatively twitchy preview code rather than the final game, with the occasional (and entirely usual for preview code) crash forcing me to reboot and replay. That I was happy to do that says much about how much I've enjoyed my time with The Sims 3 so far.
In short: enormously promising. I just don't know if it will be enough to convert those who fill comment threads whining about the stream of add-on packs, and that's a shame. Without losing any of the construction and personalisation elements which have attracted the huge casual audience for The Sims, this is as gamer-centric as the series has ever been. Unless something goes drastically wrong in the next two weeks, I really can't see this not being the best yet.
The Sims 3 is due out for PC on 5th June and will be reviewed shortly before that.