Much like The Sims Life Stories, which breezed onto shelves back in February, Pet Stories is another self-contained (i.e. You don't require a copy of The Sims 2 to play it) adventure in Sim suburbia, designed for casual play and laptop friendly to boot. Whereas Life Stories took a more general romantic comedy route with its twin tales of lovelorn Sims struggling to make ends meet, Pet Stories - as the title cryptically suggests - introduces elements from the Pets expansion pack and weaves them into two stories revolving around domesticated animal hilarity.
From a technical standpoint, the game is virtually identical to Life Stories. Keyboard shortcuts mean you can still prompt your Sim to deal with their needs quickly and easily, while laptop players will also benefit from an in-built battery warning, which lets you save your progress if everything is about to shutdown. Similarly, closing the laptop lid automatically pauses the game. The game itself has been streamlined so that it can run in a window, allowing you to check on emails and hold IM conversations during play. Indeed, the game has such a small CPU footprint that it makes you wonder why The Sims 2 and its attendant add-ons can be such a system hog. There's certainly precious little difference in the visuals even though, once unlocked by completing the stories, the freeform mode is basically The Sims 2 minus the expansion capability.
Of course, the fact that Pet Stories is essentially Life Stories with new content means that it must be reviewed almost entirely on narrative criteria. Personally, I find this quite an exciting development - being able to judge the value of a game in the same way you'd judge a film or a book: as, first and foremost, a story. For years the games industry has chased the Holy Grail of "interactive movies" and here, in a rather unlikely fusion of God sim and Machinima, we might have the answer. These may be fluffy distractions aimed squarely at the chick lit reader, but imagine a future in which your Dad is addicted to an ongoing series of Sims stories about an aspiring footballer or where short digitised stories in any genre can be told using these virtual, controllable actors. It's highly unlikely, naturally, but I can't help wondering if the future of casual and accessible games lies in guided narrative and carefully rationed creative freedom. Anyway...
In this regard, Pet Stories represents a significant advance. While naysayers may furrow their brows, stroke their chins and grumble about EA simply rejigging and re-releasing the same software, the addition of pets results in two stories that are both more fun, and more structured, than anything in Life Stories. The first tale revolves around Alice Whitt and her Dalmatian, Sam. She's inherited her grandparents house but, in order to avoid eviction by local property developer Diana DeBore, she must train Sam to win the local dog show. There's a tentative love interest in the shape of an old friend, a wise old mentor who helps her discover the secret of dog training and even a sparky best friend. If it were a movie, it'd be Cameron Diaz and Will Smith trying to outsmart Meryl Streep.
The second yarn, as in Life Stories, features a male lead who must find time for romance alongside his hectic career. In this case it's a chef, Stephen, who promises to look after Diva, his cousin's troublesome cat. Needless to say, as the wacky feline turns his bachelor life upside down, he learns What Really Matters and, by the end, you'll be choosing between two female companions for your happy ending.
And, make no mistake, there will be a happy ending. It's almost impossible to fail these stories, structured as they are in a way that means even the most inattentive player should be able to progress through the twelve chapters. Using the Sims 2 "wants" system to drive things forward, provided you follow the main needs exhibited by your Sim, you'll reach the end eventually. But then, these games are not really about challenge. They're about entertainment. About cute, silly moments. And about making you chuckle in short bursts. It's entirely possible to play through each tale in one day, but that's not how the intended audience will experience them. Played in sporadic half-hour chunks, there's a solid few weeks of amusement to had - and that's before the freeform mode is unlocked.
Both stories are stronger this time around, especially Alice's adventure with its central villain to drive events forward and the climactic dog show to provide a central plot thread. The downside to this is that, when the game decides things need to move forwards, your own freedom to explore is hampered. Most of the time you're free to tackle the story when you feel like it, but in order to preserve the storyline this means certain things simply won't work. There are moments where your goal is simply "Me Time", which is your cue to do your own thing until the tale is ready to roll onwards. Building relationships with important NPCs during these periods, for instance, is a carefully guided process and you'll find they run off or disappear should you try to use your bursts of freedom to alter the direction of the tale.
You've also got to feel a bit sorry for the Sims newbie who breezes through the stories (you can leave the Sims to their own devices for hours and they'll still be happy and healthy when you return) only to find the training wheels removed as freeform mode begins. Suddenly previously self-sufficient pets begin to starve, laidback best friends begin to complain when you don't phone and money becomes a real issue. After the gentle pace of the story mode, it can be a rude awakening - even for someone familiar with The Sims series.
It's also curious that the game allows you to customise the main characters, and their pets, but only within very narrow parameters. Clothes, hair and other accessories can be changed, but not facial details or skin colour. It's seems a rather weird and arbitrary half-measure, made even stranger by the way that your altered Sim appears in loading screens but not in the chapter end story recaps. Either way, those hoping to cast themselves as the lead will be disappointed.
The whole package be easier to recommend if it was priced at a more budget-friendly level, but if you (or your significant other) enjoyed Life Stories then the chances are you'll enjoy Pet Stories just as much, if not more. The characters are funnier, the stories more interesting and the gameworld that little bit more interactive thanks to the hairy companions running around. Let's just hope that volume 3, Castaway Stories, features a smoke monster and mysterious hatches.