The Sims is one of the most successful games franchises ever made, and literally the greatest on PC since its inception in 2000. Creator Will Wright's concept of nudging little people around customisable houses and watching them fulfil their hopes and dreams (or not, as the case may be) and snog/shag/fight the neighbours has proven to be immensely popular, largely by bridging the gap between the game-playing hardcore and those who traditionally wouldn't have dreamt of installing a "game" on their computers. The proof is in the sales. The eight-figure sales, in this case.
Another year, another round of The Sims. Following the sincere success of The Sims 2 on PC, the first full update to the franchise following a slew of expansion packs, The Urbz: Sims in the City arrives as the Sims' Christmas console extension, squarely targeted at the "youth" market and putting the Sims, or Urbz in this case, into metropolis areas such as skateparks and roof-top party scenes. Cool. Well, maybe not.
First make your Urb. You select whether he's male or female, the shade of skin colour, hair, eyes, nose, ears, body shape, and so on. The choices are much more limited than those in the PC versions for this section, giving you about five choices for each attribute. You also select the "style" you want your Urb to have, which is basically just selecting a dress sense from one of the nine areas of the game: Skyline Beach (R&B style) Gasoline Row (rockers), Central Station (Goths and punks), Diamond Heights (40s), etc.
You begin at your apartment. As in all the Sims games, you move a lozenge around to highlight objects and people independently of the character you're controlling. The player then hits the A button and receives a list of possible ways to interact with things. If you've highlighted a toilet, you'll be asked if you want to Use it. If you've highlighted a person, you'll get options to perform social moves to increase your Reputation. Your Urb has five main attributes that affect his mood and ability to socialise properly (toiletry needs, washing, eating, dancing and sleep). A bar represents each, so if the food bar dribbles out, your Urb needs to eat. If he doesn't he'll get grumpy. The same goes for sleep and so on.
When interacting with other Urbz (there are about 60 in total in the game), you're given a choice of Network, Icebreaker, Act Friendly, Act Mean, Act Romantic and Power Socials (big, impressive moves with plenty of special effects). As your Reputation increases, various new options are added to the separate lists, such as Bust a Move (breakdancing to impress people). Actions that will be beneficial to your Reputation are highlighted in green. Choices that will damage it are red. Some are amber. As you can imagine, this doesn't exactly produce much of a challenge. When your mood becomes too bad for you to properly socialise with other Urbz, you can merely put down the pad and let your chap or chapette sort itself out by wandering around, doing what the AI wants him or her to do. If he needs the toilet, he'll go to the toilet. It really does get rather dull at grass roots. Obviously, if you leave them for too long they end up tired, hungry, poor and dirty, and in need of a good dance, but by that point you're probably well past caring anyway.
When your Reputation reaches the top of a level bar you unlock levels and dancing clubs, an animation plays, your Urb "waheys" and you're then able to go and dance with the other "hip dudes" in clubs in the levels. You may have to change your clothes first, though. Which is really exciting. Of course, the game merely tells you what you need to buy in order to gain access to clubs, and so on. Each district has its own store for clothes, but, again, the options are so linear that The Urbz merely becomes a case of doing what you're told to do. There's no thrill to it whatsoever, and the lack of complication in the design means there's very little sense of achievement when you do accomplish goals.
This is basically the mainstay of the game. You have to interact with people in an effort to become friendly. The more Reputation you build with the Urbz, the more districts you unlock and the more clubs you can dance in. That's it. It really is. The Urbz finally boils down to you performing the same actions over and over again to impress people. And considering you don't even have to judge whether or not others will be impressed by your actions as you're told by the colour of the options in the menus, there's very little here to keep you happy. Apart from the animations.
The overall style of the game is, as you'd expect, polished and cool. The animations when you interact with other Urbz are funny and keep you entertained the first few times you see them, but they soon dull. New ones are introduced fairly regularly, so this aspect of the game is kept reasonably fresh. For some reason though, the game suffers from horrible framerate issues. We have no idea why. There really is no need.
You can take on jobs in all the areas to raise cash, starting off with weasel taming and going on to creating sushi and sabotaging business competitors in the fireworks trade. Pretty much all the jobs boil down to pressing buttons in sequence to accomplish tasks. Money buys you new clothes, primarily, in order to access new clubs, but there are also a large number of items available for your apartment such as wardrobes, fridges, plants, and so on. You can change the colour of your walls and buy furniture, should you care enough.
And here we arrive at the nail/head interface.
You don't care. You just don't. The paper-thin premise is only lifted by EA glitz and years of honing of the general Sims formula. None of the freedom of the PC iterations makes it into The Urbz, which simply shepherds you down very specific routes to achieve set goals. It does become rather telling when you put down the pad just to see what the AI does, then actually find it preferable to controlling your Urb yourself. The Urbz is a game created to suit a specific market and will certainly sell well. But as an extension of The Sims as a franchise it categorically fails to engage, and even just squeaks through on a technical level. No amount of glitz is going to cover that up. It's not bad, per se, but there's no way anyone with a heavy, eclectic interest in videogames should be spending £40 on this.