Let's get something out of the way: Singles is very similar to The Sims. In fact, at a glance it's actually quite difficult to tell the two apart. The interface is very similar, everybody's jabbering away incomprehensibly, and most of your time is spent manoeuvring a camera through translucent walls in a spacious penthouse apartment, watching a pair of flatmates squabble over their silly little lives while you worry about whether they have enough televisions.
Germany to the rescue
It's also more or less exactly the same to control - selecting and moving your little simulated people with the left mouse button, queuing up tasks plucked from any given object's context-sensitive menu, rearranging the house with an Ikea catalogue knock-off and a wad of fifties, and of course pausing and/or fast-forwarding the action to compensate for tedious tasks, the hours your little people spend at work, or your increasingly unhinged attempts at feng shui.
Now, I don't really like The Sims any more. We've been over this. It's not just down to the endless lazy expansion packs, and it's not because it's a "casual" game either or anything blinkered and pathetic like that. It's because I get bored worrying about someone else's bladder. Endless worrying about comfort levels is a theme that runs throughout every Sims game Maxis has developed so far, and it saps my will to live (and makes me want to go to the toilet). All I really want to do is get on and build up an empire of useless crap in this quirky little world, and instead I seem to spend every waking hour desperately trying to master someone's wang. For the love of God, Maxis, if your game is going to focus on strategic manipulation of human genitalia, at least make it interesting!
No? Well that's fine by me, because the main thing that separates The Sims from Singles is German developer Rotobee's decision to focus on the more enjoyable applications for private parts, rather than their participation in human waste disposal. Your little singles are quite capable of going to the toilet, thanks, or brushing their teeth, tying their shoelaces - even deciding they want to go and watch TV. Gone are more or less all of the tedious daily rituals, leaving us free to worry about more pressing matters - like the continued existence of the human race.
Gangsters and chick flicks
Ya see, Singles is about relationships. At the start of the game you pick a pair of flatmates out of 13 male and female characters (mostly straight, although there's the possibility of single sex couples), who range from anarchists and cheesy Latin dancer types to catwalk models and salon stylists. You don't create these people, although you can encourage them to update their wardrobe, and even though you control both of them within the game's penthouse apartment setting, you can't just drag-select the pair and hit Ctrl-SEX. Each character is a fully rounded person with a back-story and strongly held beliefs, all of which is borne out very cleverly by a script that reacts to their conversations and activities, and they're no more interested in coitus when they first land atop the Prague-ish cityscape than they are in giving you power over their balls (or whatever).
However obviously the aim of the game (loose though it is) is to encourage relations. You can instruct your singles to talk to one another about their hobbies, or you can have them sit down and watch TV, or any of a hundred other things - and their reaction and how it affects their mutual friendship varies massively depending on what you do. Sit them down to watch TV, for example, and you could just chuck on a gangster flick or the latest headlines, but you're far more likely to get them in the right mood to chat if you stick on a chick flick.
And of course as we all know, making a relationship work is a difficult thing, not helped, it has to be said, by the natural attitude of the average guy. Take Enrique for example, who will happily stand around gawping while his female flatmate showers or bathes, suspiciously running into the bathroom to discuss "hobbies" while she's in her bath towel, but shirks away at the merest hint of cleaning up - quickly wandering off on his own to watch TV, unless you can hook him back in time and get him to lend a hand. It's really easy to throw a spanner in the works by just, well, being a guy. You're also rather hamstrung if you go for an "exotic" combination of characters - the increasingly different lifestyle of each potential flatmate is meant to provide for a sort of organic difficulty level, which is a nice touch.
The physical act of love
Obviously though there are lots of ways you can help build up the relationship too. Having done away with The Sims' basic list of "motives" - bladder control, etc - Rotobee has incorporated other concerns - Fun, Romance, Sensuality, etc - which go up or down depending on the sorts of things you get up to. It sounds the same, I know, but in reality it feels quite different. For a start, you can actually grasp what it is you might need to do here, rather than flailing around for a while before realising you ought to be reading a book about cookery or something if you want to make progress. And then of course there's the fact that with enough motivation, the average relationship quickly evolves beyond hugs and embarrassing phone conversations - and as you've probably guessed, Rotobee has no problem addressing the physical side of love...
In fact, chances are that that's all you know about Singles. Everyone's first impression when they see the shot of a blonde girl kneeling astride a handsome young gent (with the sheets pulled over her hips, mind) is - let's be honest - to click the X in the top right hand corner of the screen and mutter something about another pathetic attempt to make money out of procreation. However it's pretty clear when you see Singles in action, if you'll pardon the pun, that there's nothing voyeuristic or smutty about the sex. Ok, you can tell your singles to strip off and parade them around the house completely naked, but they soon realise what you're doing and run away to try and cover up their modesty. Indeed, although you'll see them snogging on the couch and, eventually, having sex in the bedroom, it's all presented in a very matter of fact way. There's no oral sex, no obscure positions, no revealing camera angles - it's just two people making love.
Even now you're probably a bit sceptical, or possibly you're starting to worry that this sounds like an interactive biology lesson. Fear not though, because Singles does have a healthy sense of humour, although it wasn't always looking so good. Originally developed in Germany, Rotobee naturally made the game in German, and according to British publisher Deep Silver a lot of the text was quite dry and humourless ("Zis iz the choo-tor-eel"), and the jokes that did make it in didn't really work on this side of the channel. With this in mind, Deep Silver has played a central role in redeveloping the script for its new audience, hiring an established TV scriptwriter (with Emmerdale, Family Affairs and Byker Grove credits, apparently) to rework it and even redesigning a lot of the characters. "We wanted the game to be tongue-in-cheek and 'Ooh-err missus... don't titter', rather than taking itself too seriously," a spokesman said at the time.
With the script now mostly finished, it's clear that the effort was worthwhile, even if it must have added a new dimension to those oh-so-serious publisher-developer conversations. "Hi, Wolfgang? We need another couple of inches on that guy's pecker." The way the scripting works is quite simple really. By reacting to changes in your singles' comfort levels and other factors, it kicks off a particular interaction at a particular juncture. For example, when Enrique and his flatmate Amanda start joking about their hobbies, he reveals that he originally worried she was going to be the "does her hair all day" type gal, which prompts a heartfelt discussion - specific to those two characters at that particular point - that takes their relationship to the next level. Appreciably, of course, because as you'd expect this stuff is all tallied up statistically too (gather enough experience points in one area, by the way, and you earn a skill point which you can use to upgrade characteristics like Amanda's sense of humour).
From what I've seen so far the script seems pretty sharp, laced with childish innuendo of course, but in healthy amounts. It's a bit like Friends or EastEnders, or like watching a soap opera - full of larger than life personalities that clash in unexpected and enjoyable ways - only this time you control what goes on. There are some limits - there's obviously no domestic violence or anything distasteful along those lines, and if you piss your flatmate off too much he or she will happily walk out forcing you to fish for another one - but for the most part it's intended as a humorous simulation of governing a realistic relationship. Hardly the peepshow it's been accused of being.
Looking mighty fine
The emphasis, then, is firmly on your singles' relationship, but obviously you can't spend every waking hour trying to come up with a clever chat-up line. Your singles have to live their lives, too, and that involves going to work. Like The Sims, your singles earn promotions as they go along and this means more income, and when that happens you're expected to spend most of the day home alone finding new and intriguing ways to pad out the apartment. There are a wide variety of things to buy, and depending on the success of the game Deep Silver tells us there may even be the odd downloadable extra to look forward to in the future.
You can also expand the penthouse onto the rest of the rooftop, building up a roof garden, adding a gym and some more bedrooms - whatever. The landscaping is entirely at your disposal and assuming you have enough cash rolling in the sky is quite literally the limit - a link that tenuously drives us towards another of the game's successes, its lighting effects [groan -Rob]. Although ostensibly the same sort of thing as The Sims visually, this is more what The Sims would look like if Maxis actually bothered to update the engine.
Graphically it's not the be all and end all but characters are well and thoroughly animated, from their routines of affection down to basic everyday stuff like beating up a punching bag in the gym. Each character also behaves differently depending on their vital stats, and exercise-phobic Amanda doesn't look too hot on a treadmill as a result. But it's the lighting which really steals the show. It's very atmospheric, with every measure of mood reflected in lengthening shadows and a firelight style glow, and it's a nice contrast to the bland look of Maxis' ageing Sims engine. You can see for miles outside the windows, too.
Google, this isn't what you think
Not the game you were expecting? Nor me. Although Singles is relatively limited in its scope with just the one location, and it doesn't make a huge effort to build on The Sims' legacy, the relationships angle is well implemented and funny without resorting to Eurotrash levels of smut and debauchery - this is hardly Footballer's Wives the videogame - and it does seem to deliver the best things about The Sims without becoming boring.
What's more, Deep Silver recognises that this is more of a "software toy" (to rob something else from Maxis) than a true game, and acknowledges its relatively limited scope. Hence a price tag of £19.99. A hugely enthusiastic Deep Silver spokesperson couldn't help but hint at the endless possibilities for a potential follow-up yesterday, and, despite initial reservations, an audience with Singles has left me itching to tame highly strung socialites with Latino wannabe Enrique come the first week of April. He may be little more than Mike from Dudley, but, as Singles proves, appearances can be deceptive.