Thanks to the success of The Sims, Maxis can pretty much write its own ticket these days. Unfortunately it keeps booking the same show. This time The Sims are "bustin' out", which means more locations, more jobs, and more social interaction options on the old drop-down menu. All the while the player is busy keeping those troublesome "motive" meters in check; feeding, watering and coddling little digi-men and women who would otherwise be left to stew in the ridiculousness of their own heavily customised appearance.
I'm bored of The Sims. Have been for a while. Oh, I know, welcome to the club, right? It's all well and good for a few hours, but after a while the daily grind of nursing hopeless cartoons through basic sanitation begins to lose its appeal. It's like Jamie's Kitchen (for our foreign readers, that's a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a well-known TV chef hiring a bunch of reprobates to cook at his restaurant). These folks are good for very little at all, and even if you can help them amass friends, fame and fortune, they'll never thank you, and you'll never be able to leave them to it.
To be fair on Maxis, The Sims Bustin' Out marks only the second time the Sims have ventured outside their PC strongholds to try and tickle console fans, and although this is effectively one of the regular PC expansion packs strapped onto the original console adaptation and sold for twice the price of one, it's still a pretty competitive package, offering countless hours of entertainment if you can stave off boredom for long enough.
The central hook is that your Sims are now able to "bust out" of the family home, set up camp with friends and climb the job ladder in seven different ways. The main Bust Out mode offers ten levels of increasingly arduous goals for your Sim, which range from improving your cooking by two levels and getting to know your flatmate, to gaining a promotion at work and inviting your mother over for tea. The idea is to prove yourself to the world and reclaim the town's possessions from the maniacal Malcolm Landgrabb, a greedy millionaire buying up everything in sight. Sounds familiar...
Completing these objectives adds new items to the shop, which is already bristling with pinball machines, model railways, three-piece suites and consumables covering every other conceivable angle, or new clothing sets for your custom Sim, and even new social interaction options. The good news too is that you don't always have to finish every goal on a particular level to move on - the trigger may just be gaining a promotion at work - and you can revisit any of the game's ten locations, after you've landed there once, should you feel like tying up any loose ends.
But other than darting around town on a scooter or in a fancy sports car, and heading out of the house for a few hours to follow your chosen career path, Bustin' Out is more or less the same as last year's console take on The Sims - a never-ending battle against depression and personal hygiene. As ever, your progress in completing simple tasks is hindered by your Sim's need to piss, shower, eat, sleep, interact and entertain. A series of "motive" meters keep you up to date in each area, allowing you to prioritise actions. Activities and their effects vary - keeping the toilet bar in the green isn't that difficult, but you may find that you can top up your interaction and entertainment bars by dancing around the living room with your friends or flatmates.
In addition to these motives, you also need to keep an eye on your Sim's mood and his skills, another set of bars that grow from nothing through learning and self-motivation. Getting off the second level - a houseshare arrangement with a dotty lass called Mimi - for example, involves gaining two promotions at work, and to gain the second one you'll need to keep all your Sim's motives firmly in the green and also build up his or her charisma by practising speeches in the bathroom mirror.
Working with your eyes closed
Bust Out mode certainly gets tougher as you progress, but only for the same reasons all the other Sims games and expansions threw up a challenge - you can only afford to play around with the new bits if your Sim is clean, happy and awake. Juggling complex objectives and job timings can be stressful enough without juggling a full English breakfast in the other hand, and often you'll find yourself losing out slightly because your Sim takes too long to finish his meal, or bath, or what-have-you. Missing the bus to work is only okay if it's a once-in-a-blue-moon deal.
That your career paths don't influence the gameplay all that much is another shame. Although you can pick from all sorts of careers, from Fashion Victim to Movie Star and so on, you don't actually follow your Sim to work, although you can visit particular areas that help bolster the right sort of skills. More than anything though it's about getting your Sim in the right frame of mind for the working day.
Fortunately Maxis has really gone to town in terms of the sheer volume of bolt-on extras that you can unlock, buy and revel in, and the locations they've dreamt up quickly go from boring (a friend's trailer park home) to exotic (a haunted gothic manor house) and beyond (a laboratory, you know, for the Mad Scientist). The new interactions are perhaps a little underwhelming (although "sign language", which involves the middle finger and a tirade of beeped abuse, is fairly amusing), but to completely unlock everything and conquer every objective, you'd need to invest days and days of playtime. And die-hard Sims will probably feel it's worth it.
Up the mech skill
Alongside Bust Out mode you're also given the chance to dabble in Free Play, which is effectively the original The Sims game with all Bustin' Out's new toys. You don't have to complete set objectives, in fact you don't really have to do anything - you just raise a family of Sims and do what you like. They can still get jobs, with a few extra career paths to be unlocked in Free Play, but there's no real obligation to play by the book. If you want to reduce your Sim to a Tommy-from-Trainspotting-esque pit of vomit, disease and drug-induced depression then you're quite able to. Sans drugs, obviously, although you do wonder how long it'll take Maxis to realise the potential for more grown-up expansions. The Sims Crackwhore anyone?
Before they do anything though, Maxis ought to consider cleaning up their game engine a little, even if they have telegraphed things a bit better with more nagging message prompts. The mechanics of the original console The Sims meant it was simple and easy to do everything from the PC versions, and that remains the case here, with a sensible system of character and item selection, and context-sensitive menus that compensate for your slightly untrained cursor/analogue stick movement, but the actual game engine is looking distinctly ropey. Even on the Xbox, which is the least jagged of all three titles, the bright palette and wonderful variety of people, places, things and actions can't make up for an almost total lack of transition animations and other obvious flaws. Viewing the game close-up is still rather disappointing - hopefully that's something The Sims 2 will address on the PC in coming months (and its inevitable transition later to console).
But then therein lies another big problem - what we're dealing with here is quite an old game now, and it looks it. It hasn't changed a great deal from the game that's originally charted back in 2000, and as I said at the top of the show I'm pretty bored of it. I've played enough expansions and reworkings of the basic formula to last me a lifetime, and having a Clouseau-like rendition of Sam Fisher trying to sneak in through a half-open window on the character design screen isn't going to win me over.
Although The Sims Bustin' Out does make some neat advances - a two-player co-operative mode that allows fellow Sims fans to guide their characters around in tandem in either Bust Out or Free Play mode; PS2 Online support allowing you to swap items and visit friends' houses; and GameCube/Game Boy Advance link-up functionality allowing you to earn extra cash by completing tasks on the handheld (the latter hardly significant enough to warrant Will Wright's cameo at last May's E3 press conference) - this still boils down to a fairly unremarkable Sims expansion pack on the same disc as a new cut of the original game. With The Sims 2 just a few months off now, Bustin' Out has more in common with Malcolm Landgrabb than the benevolent player, and though it stands alone quite convincingly it's only worth buying if you still enjoy wiping arses for digital playboys.