Version tested: PC
No, no - I can't go out tonight. I have to finish writing this article. Even though I'm too tired and bored, and keep getting distracted by playing videogames. Yes, I know it's sad. I won't be doing this kind of thing forever though - honestly, I'm working on that novel. It's just taking so long, and there always seems to be something better to do with my time.
I can't think of any game I've ever played that's made me feel worse about myself than The Sims 3. Its inevitable but expert extension of goals, activities, employment and personality traits over the first two games means sims are no longer vague simulacrums of people you know - they now behave like people you know too. I made me, as every good little egomaniac does in a Sims game - and he ended up behaving like me, living the life I lead. The game's jumped from the abstract wish-fulfilment dollhouse of the past into a strange, sprawling thing of character-simulation/assassination, the out-and-out fantastical (sim-me eventually escalated from jaded hack to best-selling author, before expiring and then haunting his old house), and community-created content.
For all the changes, it's definitely The Sims. You'd never mistake it for anything else - the way the characters move, talk, wet themselves, their crazed pinging between joy and despair... You'll spend your time trying to increase their skills, their income and their relationships - tiny numbers slowly growing. This is no break with tradition, and yet some of the tiniest changes prove the most profound. Crucially, adjustment of the various happiness factors means your sims aren't trapped in quite so rapid a plunge towards misery and discomfort. They now have the time to make much more of the day than working, eating, sleeping and ablution. And even if cooking pancakes does still mysteriously take an hour, at least you can grab a taxi to work and turn up late.
Which brings up the major change to the game - that it's now set in an open world, rather than every location being an isolated cell you teleport between. Wherever you go, you'll find other sims bimbling along, ready for a chat, scrap or impromptu game of chess. It's all a little too neat to feel truly like a living world - those sims remain very much simulations - but it allows for so much more anecdote-fuelling randomness. I also found it a useful way to indulge more sociopathic tendencies - a grumpy itch could be scratched by harassing some poor pensioner in the park, rather than upsetting an existing sim-relationship.
Of course, depending on how high you've set the autonomy option (on a scale of stand-around-usefully to repeatedly-order-pizza-even-though-the-fridge-is-fully-stocked), your sims might fall out anyway. Personality traits rather than arbitrary likes/dislikes define their behaviour - so a sim with the Mean-Spirited trait will be prone to insulting people for no reason, or writing poisonous invective on the internet to pass the time. Interestingly, picking a slew of negative traits doesn't trap a sim in the emotional cul-de-sac you might expect. It's always possible to charm another sim, or keep a lid on their public freak-outs - this is a forgiving game, the many options for mischief or cruelty there as optional entertainment rather than crippling handicaps. They're also there to better parody your friends and loved-ones, of course - tag a chum as insane or a kleptomaniac, wind 'em up and watch 'em go.
It is an incredibly hard game to become bored by. There's always some new torture to inflict, some new place to visit, someone new to pester or romance. And yet, it is still very much The Sims, only now heaving with extra optional toys. For all the improvements - primarily the relaxation of the pressures upon your sims, so you don't have to plan every day around bathroom breaks anymore - it isn't going to convince anyone with a dislike of the previous games to relax their contempt. Even those that have embraced the series will find a few aspects unsatisfying, like all these places you can send your sims to, yet for the most part their actions there are hidden.
Workplaces, cinemas, sports stadiums, even spooky crypts are visible as buildings in the town, but their interiors aren't shown - the joy of seeing your carefully-designed sim dropped into a new situation is denied in favour of watching a floating bar gradually fill as they perform their invisible tasks. Possibly it's a necessary sacrifice in making a world without loading screens, or possibly these are gaps to be filled in by the inevitable slew of expansion packs - but certainly, it's a shame that so many conceptually fun locations prove so meatless.
It's also perhaps a shame that the roster of content in the game - clothes, items, wallpapers - is relatively thin. EA has elected to push community-built content front and centre, a pre-game launcher app offering a raft of player-made goodies to download. Despite knee-jerk grumbles that there are only three types of hi-fi to choose from, realistically this is a good thing. It'll quickly make the game far more visually diverse than it could be just with hired EA monkeys constantly churning out new curtains and tables. It's borrowed a big old page from Spore's book, leveraging the community to push the game far beyond its out-of-the-box limits.
Clearly, that stuff isn't available in our review code, however, resulting in a game that perhaps looks a little more austere than (hopefully) it ultimately will. What is in our code is the Style tool, with which you can dramatically alter item colours, then save them as a new object you can yourself upload to the shared servers. It may not sound especially profound, but it's incredibly straightforward.
It's the raft of minor additions like that which mean, despite a few pulled punches, that The Sims 3 is a broad and ridiculously charming game that manages to significantly expand upon its critical formula without ever becoming overwhelming. It's that much closer to what a Sims player has always wanted from The Sims: to create themselves, and their friends, and then set them loose upon the world. It's both more of a role-playing game than it's ever been before, and more of a design game than it's ever been before. It may suffer a few glaring compromises, but it's an essential play for anyone with an interest in what videogames can achieve outside of a targeting reticule.
8 / 10