Being super-experienced rock-hard gamers with enormous thumb muscles it can be difficult to comprehend the notion that some people find The Sims daunting. After all, its reputation in hardened gaming circles is generally one of silly fluff, a frivolous distraction, a - heck, let's not beat about the bush - a girl's game.
Buying sofas? Cooking meals? Choosing hats? This is not the path of hardcore gaming and so we stagger onwards with our epic RPGs and gory shooters, mostly oblivious to the enormous number of curious would-be-gamers who are intrigued by the "virtual life" concept behind The Sims, but a bit put-off by the often manic resource juggling it seems to require. Luckily for these confused souls, with their little inquisitive noses pressed up against the window pane of gaming, the Electronic Arts cyborg intelligence in charge of demographically pigeon-holing every last person in the world scanned their brains, identified their needs and set the Sims Spin-Off conveyor belt to work on a title just for them. All hail the democracy of consumerism!
As it turns out, all the pre-release banter about this new range of standalone story games being nothing more than Sims Lite for twittering low attention span idiots proves more than a little unfair. The range of options has certainly reduced, but Life Stories actually feels streamlined as a result, rather than gutted.
My Big Fat Geek Wedding
With an emphasis on wacky love triangles, fairytale weddings and quirky domestic bliss, Life Stories ditches any pretence of being gender neutral and is pitched directly at the same ladymarket that Hoovers up Jennifer Aniston comedies and those chick-lit novels you see advertised all over train stations, with their puce covers and bubbly fonts. Using a rejigged Sims 2 engine to deliver a flighty story with Sims as the actors, it's an interactive playbox of wish fulfilment where you get to muck around as much as you like with the day-to-day stuff, but all the major plot developments are dictated by the game.
There are two such stories in the game, each comprising 12 chapters, with certain objectives to be met in each before you can move the tale forwards. Riley Harlow, the heroine of the first story, is a feisty young lass from SimCity who moves back to the suburbs for a fresh start. Romantic complications soon rear their head, along with bitchy rivalry and other light-hearted sitcom twists. Complete Riley's story and you can start playing as Vince, a guy whose hectic business has left him wealthy but hopeless in matters of the heart. Sort out Vince's life and you can continue to play in the traditional open-ended Sims style, albeit with the slimmed-down Life Stories options.
EA has already started supporting the game with free downloadables, which bodes well, but Life Stories isn't compatible with expansion packs or items from Sims 2. Whether this is down to technical restrictions or Machiavellian greed is a question I'll leave to the conspiracy-minded amongst you. It's not entirely unfeasible that the game requires uniquely coded content, as it's been optimised to work on laptops, with reduced RAM requirements and a more forgiving video card policy. Even with these restrictions, it still does a good job of matching the 3D environments of its more established sibling. The game also runs in a window, allowing those vital emails and instant messages about shoes and make-up to continue uninterrupted. It's all about lifestyle compatibility, you see, a little something to tinker with during the lunchbreak.
And, taken on those terms, it works. It works very well.
Are you experienced?
Those with even a smidgeon of proper Sims experience will romp through the story mode with indecent ease, but then the game is most certainly not for those people. Strange as it sounds, if you're a Sims fan this isn't for you - unless you desperately want a more portable version of the game. Even so, some of the ideas implemented here should actually be worked into the next Sims expansion. For instance, rather than using the touchpad to cursor-click on everything, there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts for the most frequent requests. Cooking a meal or answering the phone is as simple as hitting a button, while the cellphone from Sims 2 University makes a welcome return so calls can be taken without having to sprint back into the house every five minutes.
The characters are much better at looking after themselves than their predecessors too, able to use the kitchen and bathroom to keep their mood generally buoyant without asking you to micromanage their every internal organ. As a result there's a lot less frantic waving, pant-wetting and mournful Pingu babble emanating from your speakers, and you don't spend most of your time scrolling around the play area tackling irritating minor incidents. It's a relatively small change dictated by the need to minimise, but it's something that would also have a positive effect on The Sims 3, when it comes to pass.
Despite this stripped-down approach, progress is still more than just clicking at the right parts to get to the next chapter. It's not the same game as Sims 2, but it is definitely a game rather than a desktop toy. Job hunting, money management, social networking - all these tried and trusted skills are required and developed as you play. It's just that now you have a much clearer path to follow in order to achieve them, while many of the more annoying obstacles (such as Fears) have been stripped away. Friendships and relationships are both easier to initiate and maintain than in the original games, while the familiar skill trees are simplified and quicker to fill up. Although it adopts a half-hearted stern tone advising you against it, the manual even explains how to access the cheat codes.
While some may sniff at such hand-holding, this is a game that wants you to keep playing to the end, and is more concerned with ensuring you have fun than in stretching you as a player. It reminded me, more than anything, of the Lego Star Wars games. Not in terms of gameplay (there are very few wookiees in Life Stories) but in its innate understanding of the intended audience, and the sheer effort that's gone into ensuring that this audience sees - and enjoys - everything the game has to offer.
So, it's a sort of halfway point between the more basic elements of the PC original and the better innovations from Sims 2, all mixed up inside the more linear adventure game structure of the isometric GBA version. With such a lineage it's no surprise that Life Stories is often a peculiar beast, yet it's always a strangely endearing one. The stories are just long enough to satisfy the casual gamer, and the objectives are strung along a difficulty curve that's just simple enough to keep new gamers engaged without becoming routine. Still, if the game has one major failing, it's that the replay value is rather limited. It's once they reach the feature-limited freeform mode that casual players will probably start to grow bored, but by then the game will have performed its function in training them up so they're to splash out on the full range of Sims titles.
With that (minor) disclaimer in mind, Sims Life Stories takes an unlikely concept and executes it with no small amount of style and wit, acting as a perfect gateway to lure normal human beings into wasting more time on their laptop in the process. The next time said people are walking past a games shop, there's a good chance they'll be more inclined to wander in and make a purchase and, in the long term, that's a Very Good Thing for gaming on the whole.
While some may bristle at a Ł30 price tag for what looks like a truncated version of an existing game, it really is a different product for a different audience. I realise I'll probably have to surrender my testicles for admitting as much, but I chuckled at most of the soapy plot twists and, come the end of the stories, even felt a small twinge of regret that the only way to carry things forward would be in the old freeform style. Snobbery be damned, Life Stories is a thoroughly enjoyable crossover between an established series and the world of casual games.