Back in July I reviewed The Sims Pet Stories, and got a little bit excited at the idea of the Sims engine being used to create different gaming experiences and fresh interactive narratives. At first glance, it seems like The Sims 2 Castaway (not to be confused with the confusingly titled The Sims Castaway Stories) might be another step along that road since it really doesn't play like a Sims game at all. At least, not to start with.
After creating a group of up to six Sims, using a rather thin array of design options, the game wastes no time in spoiling their boating holiday by tossing them into the brine and washing them ashore on a desert island. They all get separated, so you start the game proper with just one Sim - you get to choose which one - and must then fend for yourself in this primitive environment.
Rather than guiding a floating cursor to inspect and interact with things, you're in direct control this time around, moving your Sim with the left stick and rotating the camera with the right. Stand next to an object or item and the available options pop up in the bottom right hand corner. The R1 button speeds up time, if you get tired of watching the same animations over and over. You've got a mat for sleeping on, a pocket knife and an infinite roll of toilet paper for those private moments. That's it. You can soon start filling up your inventory with driftwood and bananas you find lying on the beach, while a few swishes with your knife will earn you bamboo shoots, palm fronds and other organic building materials. There's no limit to what you can horde, so it makes sense to stockpile right from the start.
But to begin with, your priorities are fairly simple: food and shelter. When you start out you can only really create a small campfire - on which you can crudely roast whatever food you find - and a rudimentary shelter, which will keep you safe from the tropical rainstorms but won't do much to lift your Sims spirits. Loneliness is also a major problem in the early stages, and the game has some amusing ways of satiating this need. You could, if you fancy, build a friend from sand and fruit. You can chat to your inanimate pal, even argue with them. If you want to go where even Tom Hanks feared to tread, you can even get romantic with it. Better still, the island is populated by three chimps who can be won over with bananas. You can name them (I formed a very close bond with one called Heston) and should you become close friends with them, they'll help you out with sporadic gifts of resources culled from around the island.
Goals are supplied by books and journals that are conveniently left at the start of new locations, while successful play grants you access to more plans for things to build. Soon enough you're able to craft larger shelters, wooden beds and chairs and more effective tools. Spears enable you to catch fish - if you can get the timing right - while stone axes and hammers open up the ability to harvest soft and hard wood, and even tough shards of obsidian for even stronger implements. Later developments include farming tools (in a nice recycling touch, you use the accumulated ash from your fires to create fertile soil), and the option of catching and rearing chickens.
There are actually three islands in all, and the aim of the game is to explore all of them thoroughly and reunite with your stranded pals. Then you can decide whether you want to try and find all the objects necessary for rescue, or forge a sustainable life in your new tropical home.
To an old Sims veteran like myself, it's all rather refreshing. Although the mechanics of the game are clearly Sim in origin, the hands-on control and emphasis on finding and using objects means it really plays a lot more like an adventure game. The early stages of exploration are the best, with a wealth of foodstuffs to find (higher cooking skills mean you can combine ingredients and rustle up such castaway classics as, er, yellowfin tuna with ginger and lime). There are also lots of fun hints at buried treasure and ancient mysteries to be solved and, if you're so inclined, you can put your escape plans on hold to dig deeper.
Sadly, the whole doesn't quite live up to the sum of its parts though. The game engine is fussy and clunky, more akin to the original Sims than the more sophisticated Sims 2. It's 2007, and we really shouldn't have game characters that are unable to get past such fearsome obstacles as a pile of feathers on the ground. The graphics seem drawn from a similar vintage, with crude character models, stiff animation and jerky scrolling, which makes accurately placing structures and items a right fiddle. It's horribly slow as well, with lengthy loading times and frequent pauses where the game simply stops and chugs while it works out what to do next.
The game is also full of weird inconsistencies. The other Sims, for instance. You were all on holiday together, right? Sharing a yacht, in fact. So why, when you find them, do you have to start building relationships from scratch? It's like Highlander 2, when they said that Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert were actually old friends from an alien planet, even though THEY DIDN'T KNOW EACH OTHER IN THE FIRST FILM. Sixteen years, and that still makes me angry. Bah.
And there are other annoyances, I'm afraid. Hygiene becomes an issue once you meet up with the other Sims, but the game is in absolutely no hurry to explain how or when or where you can build something to deal with this. Even more irritating, your Sims will wander around grumbling about their smell even though there's ample water on the island. Can't they just have a wash in that pool? Or the sea? Apparently not. It doesn't seem to matter though. Indeed the whole development and design side of things can be rather obtuse, with a cumbersome menu system hiding vital selections in unlikely places. I'd been playing for hours before I realised I could have been making some very useful rope all along had I looked for it under "Special" rather than "Resources".
It doesn't help that it has a habit of dumping you back at the top of the menu tree after each selection, forcing you to click all the way back in again. I needed ten lots of the aforementioned rope to build a bridge on the second island, for example, but rather than asking your Sim to simply make ten lots of rope, you have to go through the crafting process ten times, a task which involves three menu navigations and loading delays. Similarly, you can swap between your Sims and sign them up for communal tasks, so that when not in your control they're still being useful, but you can only send them out to forage for general stuff. You might need soft wood, but you can't ask them to seek it out. They'll just turn up with handfuls of grass or stones. If you want something doing properly etc etc.
So I find myself torn by Castaway. I love the concept, and applaud the idea of using the Sims framework to create something more hands-on in nature. It's fun watching your Sims get hairier and scruffier as the days go by and, during the better moments of exploration, I was even reminded of those grand old 3D adventures like Cruise for a Corpse. But the game is undeniably patchy and full of scrappy design decisions that push the player away rather than drawing them in. It's so rough around the edges that I even ejected the disc to check it said review code. It did, so I have to assume this is the build of the game that will be in the shops. Eek. A classic case of a nice idea, shame about the execution.