Unbelievably, your faithful hound of a reviewer had never touched a Sims game before in his life. For some reason the idea of nurturing some sort of Tamagotchi human had lost its appeal around the time Activision tried the same trick back in 1986 with Little Computer People on the C64. The chances are, four and a half years ago, there were more appealing games around, and the moment passed. But then came the chart residency, the onslaught of expansion packs, the multi-million sales and even the console versions. Surely someone who plays games for a living should at least have played one of the best sellers of all time? Burying your head in the sand and saying "this just isn't my thing" is all well and good when you're a consumer; but as a professional that earns money from having opinions? You can't really get away with that attitude - not on a game of this cultural significance at least.
But despite the years of resigned indifference, somewhere along the line the prospect of The Sims 2 did provoke a genuine spark of interest. It did take a rather impressive EA demonstration of it a year or so back, admittedly, but suddenly there seemed so much more point to it now. Previous Sims just came across as little more than a glorified Doll's House, populated by easy to manipulate drones. The Sims 2 seemed much more like an advanced Alter Ego; a chance to create people in your own image; take people from birth to death and take them on all of life's little journeys, shaping their very personality along the way.
One of the cleverest ideas in this latest incarnation of The Sims 2 is the level of choice it gives to the player from the off. If you want to create your own Sims you can; to the point of being able to - potentially - recreate yourself, up to a point. For the purposes of the review we created the imaginary family unit, complete with a faithfully recreated girlfriend and with two young sprogs. Almost too weird, to be honest. We bought a functional pad in Pleasantville (one of the three neighbourhoods to choose from) and waited for the madness to occur, but more of that later.
Mr Tinker plays his fiddle
The beauty of the package, up to this point, is the sheer mind-boggling level of customisation. For those really into the process of creating everything down to the minutest details, it's all there, and even better, none of it is required for those who want to just jump in and play. The Create-A-Sim process on its own is superb fun, giving a huge amount of potential hilarity (down to being able to cross aliens with humans, oddly) and the online community provides an even greater degree of tinkering. Almost everything is adjustable, from nose size/shape to the type of underwear you'll be wearing at night. The only real sense of disappointment comes from the fact that Maxis does not allow users to vary height at all, and everyone is of slim build (even the apparently overweight models are pretty svelte) - hardly a reflection of Super Size Me modern times, and a missed opportunity. The icing on the cake, though, is being able to tinker with various personality aspects, making them less inclined to tidy up, more stroppy and aspire to be lying cheating Lotharios. All good, and certainly more than evident when you get around to seeing them in action.
And all of this is before you've even had a chance to work out where they're going to live. Again, the whole design-your-own-home thing is entirely optional, and not necessarily for everyone. We had a few aborted attempts at it, and could see the massive potential, enjoyed the slick interface and never had a problem actually understanding what to do, but frankly we could see what a timesink such a project would be. Not to mention that it didn't interest us at all - we just wanted to get on with ruining our Sims' lives.
Arriving at their home of choice (and there's not a massive amount to choose from, thanks to the limited budget) it's pretty much imperative to make their lives as comfortable as possible. With no furniture, no home comforts bar the bare minimum (not so much as a bed), we realised just how much work there is to do to make their lives bearable. Not only did they have no jobs, but the jobs available paid such a pittance that keeping everyone happy was almost impossible - with both parents forced to go out to work while the kids amused themselves. Not only that, both parents worked different hours and soon started bawling at the grief of never having any attention. The dad got so bored with life he resorted to imagining that a Social Bunny was in the house, and started fighting with him in a cartoon ruckus fashion, and even dreaming about him. Ooops. The kids? Well, they were doing terribly at school, being underfed, and suffered from hygiene issues. No one said we'd be good parents okay? Was this turning into some sorry social commentary? Well, we didnt think so until the Social Worker came and took the kids into care.
Sell your story
And so on. The real charm about The Sims 2 is the storylines you create. Very quickly there's a sense of attachment, humour, and personal involvement in what you're doing that few other games could ever hope to match - and that's whether you create everything yourself or jump into one of the numerous readymade scenarios or families. The question lies in how long you'll want to play it for before the novelty wears off? Sure, like any game there's always going to be a period where the newness charms you, but one of the great things here is that there's such a range of permutations that almost every day provides something fresh.
But as much as we can acknowledge the hugeness and the open-ended possibilities, where the game falls down is the sheer repetition of having to continually do the basics; the toilet trips, the showers, sending them to bed. To an extent characters begin to look after themselves after a while, but much of the 'fun time' when they're not working or going to school is taken up doing actually quite boring tasks that after the 50th day you really start to wish could be removed from the equation so you can just get on with making Woo-Hoo (that's a shag, in case you were in any doubt) or seeing how quickly you can send them mad.
But then much of what we didn't like about The Sims 2 seems to be part and parcel of the experience, and presumably must be something that most followers of the game take on board as a necessary part of simulating life. It may be accurate to a degree, but much of real life really isn't that interesting - and perhaps going to lengths to map out a human's bladder/body odour/hunger cycle isn't necessarily an ingredient for a compelling game. It's tedious enough in real life having to go through that, without watching AI humans doing the same endlessly. In short, if you can tolerate the more nuts and bolts elements of The Sims 2, then there's just an oceanic amount of things to do.
Even graphics whores will love it
Having admittedly never touched a Sims game before it's hard to identify with any authority what has been enhanced over and above the visual gloss and level of customisation given to you, but certainly it's worth noting just how much effort Maxis has gone to in order to bring every area of the game up to scratch. Back in 2000, the original Sims sported the kind of fugly isometric visuals that were years out of date even then, with generic characters with the same bodies and the same head. Fast forward to the present and it's a game that not only is a vast improvement, but easily outshines practically any game of its type, with a wonderful array of subtle animations and expressions that you can zoom right in on. The only thing that you feel could have been improved is the camera system, which even after a couple of days felt unnatural and unwieldy. With so few characters to worry about and such a small play area to manipulate, it seems odd why the game didnt just give you the option of playing it in first-person - the engine could certainly handle such a transition and would make some the scenes really outstanding to watch.
But it's not just niggling repetition and control issues that detract from the overall package. There are many things that could have improved matters - being stuck in the same house feels somewhat stifling and claustrophobic, and for this reviewer was the main reason it shattered the dream possibility of The Sims 2 delivering a virtual personality simulation the way that classic Alter Ego did all those years ago. Sure you can always change family or scenario, but that's not the point: there's massive potential here to make this a life sim, and being confined to one single house eventually makes you feel trapped; inevitably you want to see what adventures your Sims get up to at work, or at school, or their cheating ways round at a neighbour's house.
We guess, ultimately, that's where EA could make their dollars from the next half dozen expansion packs that will all sell bundles, but for now we're guessing that most people will just be happy that the sequel does a fabulous job of enhancing everything that the first generation did. Tampering with a winning formula has never been characteristic of EA, but still - there's a whole lot more Maxis and EA could do to give the game a much wider appeal. For now we're happy to have dabbled in The Sims 2; it's a thoroughly charming package rammed with possibilities. We wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to those that have so far resisted its charms, and for the real fans it'll be a dream come true, but whether we'll stick with it is another matter. Ask us when the inevitable expansion hits...