What with fly on the wall live-ins like Big Brother and late night flesh markets like Ibiza Uncovered, basking in the spectacle of caged, drunk or holiday making weirdos has become something of a national pastime. So it's no surprise really that The Sims - which allows us to direct the lives of a group of virtual people - is the most popular PC game ever invented, and that its regular 'expansions' sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the UK alone.
However, it is perhaps surprising that it's taken this long - nearly three years since the original was released - for publisher EA to pack the franchise off to a console audience. The good news for eager PS 2 owners is that Maxis and Edge of Reality have handled the transition masterfully, leaving us with, at face value at least, an almost perfect replica of the PC version, and a fairly unique attraction for the console scene. Apart from Animal Crossing on the Cube, we can't think of another title which adequately competes.
Sim of a sim
As a conversion of a very mouse-oriented PC product, The Sims on PS 2 is very intelligently put together. The control scheme uses both sticks, the left one moving a cursor like selection circle around the floor and the right stick rotating and zooming. It takes a few seconds to get used to and it's a surprisingly competent replacement for the arguably more intuitive mouse system.
Meanwhile, you can switch between individual Sims with the L2 and R2 buttons, and use the D-pad to bring up menus showing their various mood attributes - letting you know when they need anything from food or sleep to fun or exercise. These menus also let you keep track of your relationships with other Sims, your job status and social behaviour, and even the state of your personality.
Graphically the whole thing has been deflated to the PS 2's native resolution, losing some of the detail that high end PCs can push around Simsville, but the game still has a very clean, polished look to it. As you rotate the screen, walls and obstructions vanish to let you keep track of your Sims, and this can cause a little jerking, but it's very slight, particularly compared to how The Sims originally ran on our PCs...
The 'game' itself has a lengthy story mode, which places you in control of specific Sims as they go about their daily lives in a variety of houses, districts and family arrangements. Having created a Sim (our most successful effort has been an afro-toting, Ali G look-alike called Harold Monkington), you start off in a very basic, hands-free tutorial which simply involves navigating your Sim into the hot tub of a dream mansion with an attractive member of the opposite sex.
Since he or she miraculously appears in front of you and starts chewing your tongue off, the only object is to click on the tub and hop in. As an EA made reviewer's guide points out, "this is to ensure that players at least know how to move the cursor over an object, open the object menu, and press X to activate the object. If they can do that, then they can play the rest of the game." And not only is it very easy to control The Sims, as the above suggests, but unless you've played the PC version to death it will be very hard not to 'play the rest of the game'.
But beyond this lewd introduction and a few symptoms of the conversion process, nothing much has changed from the PC version. You still go about your little fellows' lives attempting to complete tasks on the goal sheet (like borrowing a total of 800 Simoleons from your Mum, cooking the dinner without starting a fire and repairing the TV), and for doing so you're rewarded with new options in the Buy/Build menu to update your home - things like a vanity mirror for fixing the TV or a treadmill for getting a job. And while you're doing this, you have to maintain your Sims' various 'motives', essentially a matter of pampering them through their days without letting their bladders fill, their hygiene dip too much or their bellies rumble for too long.
Preaching about the converted
EA has clearly decided that the previously open-ended PC title deserves a bit of direction though, because instead of a blank canvas, the story mode is fairly structured, moving you between various homes and tasks. It's a bit like a scenario mode in RTS/simulation titles, which has you starting in various situations which require rectification, and it's a good scheme. The PS 2 version rewards you with new toys incessantly, and also clearly rewards you with new 'levels'. It's a nice idea, and it makes The Sims on PS 2 feel a lot less like one of Maxis' fabled "software toys" and more like an actual game.
At the end of the day, when our Sims are fed, watered, relaxed and tucked into bed, the PS 2 version of The Sims is excellent. We don't have the final version just yet, but the preview code we've been tinkering with is very solid, with most of everything in place. Our only complaint so far is that the text selection colour is very similar to the white of all the other menu options, and we did on occasion have difficulty with it - particularly when trying to type out Harold's surname!
Based on this pre-release version of The Sims, it's tempting to say that Maxis/Edge of Reality have done a bang up job of the conversion. Everything's here, with a tweaked, intuitive Dual Shock based control scheme, a nicely thought out single player 'story' mode and the same curiously addictive gameplay we found so alluring three years ago. If your PS 2 is groaning under the weight of derivative platform and FPS titles, perhaps it's time to give it a bit of a social workout. Or as Harold might put it, ooga booga gabbo blibby blah!