Yeah, I was sceptical too. I mean, I realise that it's been on the wish list of many Sims fans ever since Will Wright's little computer people first wandered onto our monitors, but I just couldn't get my head around the idea of paying for an expansion pack just so you could see some virtual snow.
University gave them ambition and options for improvement beyond the slender bookcases of their homes. Nightlife gave them an actual social life that didn't revolve around endless house parties. Open for Business made them self-sufficient, and freed them from rigidly defined career paths. And Pets? Well, pets at least introduced living additions to each household.
So, for this fifth update to the globe-conquering Sims 2, the prospect of making it rain didn't quite jump out as an essential evolution of the ever-expanding Sim suburbs. It's impact on the Sims themselves seemed too intangible - sure, they might get wet or cold but so what? Surely it's only ever going to be a background effect, not a major gameplay development.
It's raining Sims (Hallelujah)
Well, yes and no. It's certainly true that the benefits of Seasons won't be immediately apparent. The first thing you'll notice is an additional icon in the top left of your Neighbourhood screen, from where you can set the quartet of seasons that your Sims will go through. You can follow the usual Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter sequence, or mix things up to your liking. You may, for instance, prefer to create a virtual California where it's hot all year round. Or you may like to keep things frosty.
Once in the game, a new gauge on the control panel shows which season you're in, and how long it'll be before the transition to the next. Six Sim days is the normal time period for one season, and it's really just a matter of waiting to see what the weather will bring. Rain, hail, snow, thunderstorms - all can occur, depending on the season. When the weather does change, your Sims react with commendable realism. Their first snowfall is greeted with delight, while perpetual rain makes them stand at the window, grumbling. Lightning can strike trees - and Sims - setting them ablaze. This actually happened within the first few minutes of my installing the expansion, and it was undeniably impressive to see flames flicker around the shrubbery before the downpour put it out.
There's certainly no faulting the effort that has gone into creating the weather effects. Snow, in particular, is a subtly complicated piece of simulation. Rather than just covering the ground as a standard texture map, it gathers on the tops of objects (even user-defined objects), dusting your neighbourhood with speckles of white. If it keeps snowing then it builds up in drifts around buildings and objects, while Sims leave paths of disturbed snow in their wake. Such prettiness comes at a price though - The Sims 2 is becoming more of a system hog than ever, and even with 2Gb of RAM and a 512Mb video card - far beyond the recommended minimum specs - sustained snowfall did result in graphical chugging when moving the camera.
Should the chaotic nature of the weather prove too random, one of the new Aspiration rewards is a mad scientist's dream - a bizarre contraption that can be used to change the weather, or the season, to your liking. As with all Aspiration objects, using it while in the wrong mood can have catastrophic results. Two words: meteor shower. Personally I'd hoped the game would make you work harder to earn something so powerful, but it's easily unlockable after less than an hour of play.
One day a real rain's gonna come...
So, you can have realistic virtual weather. Big whoop. How does it actually affect the gameplay? At the most obvious level, each weather type brings with it specific activities - splashing in puddles, raking up leaves, making snowmen, having snowball fights and so on. If you have Pets installed, then your cats and dogs will also frolic in the wonders of this new ecosystem. There are also the expected additions to the object database and costume options. A new preset outfit is available when creating or editing a Sim, allowing you to define their outdoor clothes, while a coat stand can be placed next to the door for convenient manual changes. Should your Sims spend too long outdoors, inappropriately dressed, then they'll catch a cold or even get sunburned, sending them scurrying back to bed to moan and groan.
Because so much of this expansion involves the great outdoors, there have been tweaks to the way Sims stats are updated. Their needs drop slower when outside, so you don't have to worry about dashing into the house every ten minutes for a snack or a shower. The seasons also affect the effectiveness of various Sims activities. Romantic gestures receive a boost during Spring, friendships are boosted in the Summer while strengthening family bonds during Winter has an enhanced effect. Autumn, apropos of nothing, has been designated the season of self-improvement so all studies carried out during this time result in faster advancement.
Unlike University, Nightlife and Open for Business, Seasons doesn't introduce any new areas for your Sims to explore, but it does feature a new neighbourhood - Riverblossom Hills - which includes a grocery store and other NPC facilities. It's a rural neighbourhood, with plenty of farm lots and a generally laidback vibe. Riverblossom Hills also introduces this update's token comedy character skin, in the shape of plant people. These Jolly Green Giant look-alikes function in much the same way as werewolves and vampires from previous expansions, albeit without any noticeable negative side effects. Unlike the other transformations, this one can be passed down through Sim DNA, resulting in human/plant hybrid babies. There's a preset plant family - the Greenmans - that does just this, or you can vegetablise your own Sims by using too much pesticide.
This brings us, rather neatly, to Seasons' other major gameplay addition - namely gardening. You can now place vegetable patches and greenhouses, and use them to grow your own fresh produce. Unlike the existing flowers and shrubs, these plants require more than just an occasional watering can and must be tended regularly, removing weeds and parasites. It's a tricky skill to master, especially if your Sims have ongoing careers, but the rewards are significant.
Not only can your fresh food be stored in the fridge (along with leftovers, another new tweak) but they can be used in new recipes, and have benefits beyond the usual hunger reduction. Homegrown fruits, for example, can be put through the new juicer object to create drinks with status effects. Ponds come stocked with fish, which opens up a wealth of fishing options, including different baits. Again, your catches can be transferred to the fridge and used to keep your Sims healthier. If you have Open for Business installed, then you can even go into the grocery trade. For organic types, it's a whole new way to play. For those who'd rather not be distracted by such unrestrained Titchmarshery, it's yet another feature that will only distract you from those all-important Aspirations.
Beyond that, the expansion is full of smaller additions and refinements. Bills can now be paid all at once by clicking on the mailbox. Pools can be constructed using curved corners, allowing for much more elaborate designs, while water slides are a fun new way to take a dip. Skating rinks - both ice and roller - are ideal for communal fun, if you have the space. There are six new career paths, though none of them are particularly in keeping with the seasonal theme, or worth ditching a character in progress to try. Adventurer and Gamer are the most fun, though I did balk at the prospect of playing a virtual me, getting paid virtual money to play games, just as I'm getting paid real money to play as the virtual me, who's getting paid to...woah. Cosmic.
It's just a shame more time hasn't been spent on ironing out some of the more persistent niggles - such as the way Sims still get stuck on the scenery. There's a house in the new Riverblossom Hills neighbourhood where characters get stuck on the same corner every single time. Any annoyance is tempered by appreciation of the sheer scale of what the Sims engine is now capable of simulating, but after five passes through the tweaking machine you'd hope such fundamental glitches would be less frequent. Bah. Humbug.
Viewed as a whole, Seasons is a strange expansion. The biggest change - weather - is one that impacts your game in a mostly subtle background way, rather than redefining your Sims world in appreciable gameplay terms. The weather effects are quite wonderful, and there's something perfectly cosy about having a snowstorm fluttering outside the window, but they only change the game as much as you want them to. After the tenth rainstorm, the novelty starts to wane. Gardening and fishing offer interesting new ways to approach the game, if you want to get away from the virtual rat race, but other than that it's a thematically confused update - somewhere between a oversized object pack and an impressive weather system tech demo. It certainly doesn't damage the game, or disgrace the Sims brand, and veteran Sims players will find enough new and improved features here to justify investing another twenty notes. Newcomers, however, might feel more at home with the more immediate gratification of the earlier expansions.