As The Sims continues to dominate the PC charts, this Friday heralds the series' debut on PlayStation 2. But instead of scoffing at the very idea of handing over forty quid to direct a slack-bladdered, nonsense-warbling virtual household, first consider your current gaming diet. If you're a PS2 owner, you've got a healthy selection of platform, sports, mission based driving and the ubiquitous third person action titles to your name. This is all very well, but don't you ever yearn to do something less, well, gamey? What you need is a supplement.
It may sound like heresy, but The Sims offers a very compelling argument for a place in your collection. It's like a Stone Age version of those virtual reality machines and 'holodecks' all the big sci-fi franchises rely on. Your job is to play the part of a particular householder whilst exploiting your relationships to get the maximum benefit/comedy/suffering out of everyone. In some cases it's like holding a magnet to a compass, but in others it's more of a piss on the floor, watch porn and sleep all day situation.
And on PS2 there's much more structure than ever, with the basic story (or "Get A Life") mode allowing you to first create and then direct your Sim through various scenarios, starting off in a cosy one-bed bungalow with your dear old mother. Principle objectives are to borrow 800 Simolians, fix the TV and learn to cook. If you can do all that you'll earn various new bits of furniture (like a jukebox), which can then be optionally purchased and installed to keep your little fella or fellarette happy. As you complete scenarios, your task list grows and you find yourself organising parties, getting hitched and even retiring to the country to live a grand old life of luxury.
The game is made all the more accessible thanks to a wonderful control system built with the express purpose of guiding The Sims to PS2. Using the right stick to zoom and pirouette on cue, and the left stick to select things using a cursor (highlighted by a shaft of light running from its spot on the floor to the top of the screen), you quickly find yourself moving your Sims through the rigours of daily life without so much as a "no I meant to select that".
Meanwhile, various pop-up menus are mapped to the D-pad, and allow you to keep your Sims' various comforts in check. Each Sim is blessed with a need to fulfil certain criteria, and it comes down to you to make sure that they are always well fed, sanitised, social, comfortable, happy and raring to go. There are eight individual things to keep under control, and if any of them lapses into the red you'll need to take action - a red bladder for instance needs immediate attention, or else the poor mite will suffer the embarrassment of a puddle, before having to finish the job in the right place, clean it up, take a bath and watch some TV to cheer himself up before bed. If you don't keep an eye on the various gauges, sooner or later there won't be enough hours in the day to go about your various tasks.
Sadly, as we thought of the original, it's a bit of a chore having to keep these comforts under control, and when you're worrying about multiple Sims it can be very much non-stop. Fortunately the game can queue up various tasks - so you can set Harold Monkington (or, um, whatever you opt for) off tidying up dinner, cleaning the toilet, reading a cookbook and watching TV and then go off and worry about something else. There's even a way to cancel queued commands, and on the whole the system works well.
The Spice of Life
But, as keen observers will by now have realised, the developer's attempts to spice up proceedings with a task-oriented single player game are merely ways to cover up the repetitive tediousness of life. And since this is a game, there's rarely any variety in what you see, either. The first time you watch your little Sim electrocute himself on a busted TV for instance, it's funny. You might even laugh. The third or fourth time he takes a jolt from something, it's a bit trying, and watching him read a book is like, well, watching someone read a book.
That's not to unduly criticise the visuals, because they look more or less the same as their PC counterparts, albeit in slightly lower resolution. Your Sims are animated with sufficient emotion, your environment is brightly textured, well lit and fully rotatable, and the cartoon look is complemented by speech bubbles, TV static to obscure naughtiness and other comic ideas. No, the visuals are good - it's just that there's only so much variation in completing the one, mundane task.
Fortunately, Get A Life mode compensates by changing scenery, characters and objectives and the tedium of the daily grind is easily ignored for the most part. And by the time you're actually very bored, the game lets you off the hook and opens up Play The Sims mode - the start-from-scratch equivalent of the original PC game. Not only that, but you open up the curious novelty of a two-player mode, which has you competing with a friend to attract the most visitors to your museum, or to chat the most girls up at a party (whilst simultaneously spreading gossip about your opponent) amongst other things.
It's a love/hate thing
This wealth of variety and reward structure is carefully considered, but ultimately it won't help the final outcome - you're either going to love The Sims, or you're going to hate it. If you've never played it, you owe it to yourself to give it a go - and the PS2 version is probably more accessible than the PC release - because there's so much to do here that a simple review couldn't hope to touch on everything. Almost anything you can do in real life is available, be it redecorating the house, chatting up girls, getting a job, getting married, getting a pet, building a pool, having a BBQ - you name it and you can probably do it.
On the other hand, some people will hate it for the exact same reasons. It is just a simulation of someone's fairly boring life, it is very repetitive and it doesn't even have a real ending to speak of. It's a mindless plaything, which will grow old and stale within hours.
Which category do we fall into? Still the first. For us, The Sims is a pleasant change from the monotony of running, jumping and shooting at increasingly ugly aggressors, questing to retrieve some arbitrary item from the something of somewhere and getting excited about Nazi-esque criminal activities in gothic palaces. We get a lot more of that than we do The Sims, and in our view, to holiday in someone else's lifestyle for a bit is a thrill worth pursuing.