The Sims 3

My virtual son has a logical mind and a natural talent for music, but he prefers to be alone and tends to act and speak inappropriately. In other words, to mirror my real-life family, I created a little kid with high-functioning autism.

The Sims 3

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Players: 1 player
Price: $49.99
Platforms: PC
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Release date: 2009-06-02

As a life simulator, Electronic Arts latest addition to the Sims family, The Sims 3, is more powerful than ever. As a video game, while it doesn't break new ground in its genre, it builds on the success of its forerunners and extends the franchise to new depths without becoming labyrinthine or needlessly complex.

I have criticized other recent simulation games like Spore and SimCity Societies for simplifying their user interfaces at the expense of gameplay depth, but The Sims 3 commits no such transgression. The controls are easier to use and faster to learn than ever, and at the same time, the player has more control and more choices at every turn. With the third and newest version of its hit series, the developers have struck precisely the right balance between complexity and intuitiveness.

But first, my only complaint: watching people sleep is still boring. Come on. It's been ten years. Can't we have a warp-speed option for when all the sims in a house are asleep or at work? Would that cause a terrible upset in the balance of the game? Is it just too difficult? What's the problem here? At least waiting for my sims to wake up gives me a chance to get up and use the bathroom, fix myself a snack, or what have you.

Now, for the game. The graphics are a bit sleeker than previous iterations, and you can zoom in a little closer than before. But the changes to the game go far beyond a simple graphics update, and you have to give the development team credit for that. They could easily have repackaged The Sims 2 with shiny new graphics and an updated soundtrack to issue an easy sequel to the best-selling game series of all time. But instead, they tore down the existing infrastructure and rebuilt the game from scratch.

Going from the first Sims with all its expansions to The Sims 2 prior to the University expansion was a bit of a downer. This “upgrade” to the series actually caused a loss in gameplay variety that wasn't replaced until Downtown and University were both released. That's not the case with The Sims 3. Most of the functionality of the Sims 2 expansions has been retained in some form, and even where it's scaled down, the best bits remain. It's like the developers made a list of everything that they liked about the way that the game evolved over the course of two versions and dozens of expansion packs then threw everything else away.

For starters, players no longer must distribute personality points along a continuum of six pre-selected character traits like neat/sloppy, mean/nice, playful/serious. Now you can choose five traits for your sim to express from a long list of potential personality traits. For instance, my virtual son has a logical mind and a natural talent for music, but he prefers to be alone and tends to act and speak inappropriately. In other words, to mirror my real-life family, I created a little kid with high-functioning autism. (He grew up to be a rock star, incidentally.) For some reason, EA chose to heavily emphasize the “kleptomania” trait, which in my opinion is one of the least interesting and useful traits available. Why choose to compulsively steal from your neighbors when you could be, quite literally, both evil and a genius?

Maintaining needs is still required, but comfort and environment have been replaced by “moodlets.” These icons appear as modifiers to your sim's general mood but aren't meters that need to be constantly replenished. The remaining six needs are much more evenly balanced and easier to control, leaving your sim plenty of time to pursue work, hobbies, and family. And with enough lifetime happiness points, you can purchase rewards that allow your sim to never have to use the bathroom, bathe, or eat on a regular basis.

Wants and wishes are still a part of the game, but the system is significantly different now. First, lifetime wishes (no longer aspirations) are not chosen by the user but are instead an amalgam of the sim's five assigned personality traits. Based on those traits, the player may choose a lifetime wish in Create-A-Sim, or one may appear alongside short-term wishes in Live mode for natural-born sims. There is also an option to change your sim's lifetime wish if you have enough “Lifetime Happiness” points. You can also choose special abilities, like the ability to never again need to use the bathroom or the ability to slack off at work without getting fired.

Career advancement makes much more sense. Under the new system, there is no arbitrary number of friends or loosely-related skill sets that equal advancement. Instead, each career path has an associated skill and improving that skill improves your work performance. The old generic abilities are gone, replaced with a more specific set of skills that tie in seamlessly with the new “trait” mechanism. For instance, a sim may be innately athletic, which helps her learn the athletic (formerly “body”) skill faster. Additionally, some of the activities that were previously awarded as talent badges or “enthusiasm” are now full-fledged skills, like fishing, painting, and gardening. I only wish there were a fuller range of skills like those offered in The Sims 2: FreeTime.

However, these skills offer benefits and challenges that are a little more involved than the enthusiasm points awarded in The Sims 2. For instance, a writer who writes more than 5 books in a specific genre will complete the Specialist Author Challenge and have greater success in that genre in the future. A handy sim who repairs enough plumbing objects will earn the title “Master Plumber” and plumbing objects fixed by that sim will never break again. It's worthwhile to complete certain challenges to receive certain benefits, and it's fun just to explore the different options and see what kinds of rewards are available.

In addition to the hobbies, challenges, and careers that your sim may pursue, there are random “opportunities” that arise based on your sim's personality, job, and skills. You may be asked to convince a technophobic neighbor that modern technology is a good thing for a boost to your relationship, or you might be asked to learn a particular recipe to earn a financial reward and a boost in your job performance. These are basically mini-quests that can usually be completed in a day, and they tickle the part of the player's brain that demands a feeling of accomplishment and structure. As a side bonus, they also guide the player towards parts of the game that might otherwise go undiscovered.

The biggest change between The Sims 2 and The Sims 3, however, is the dynamic, walkable, living neighborhood for your sims to explore. Walk to a community lot or hop on a bike or into a car and visit a neighbor, no load screens are required. This feature has really given a big hit to my household productivity; I used to fold laundry or knit during venue changes, and now they're so quick that I barely have time to pick up my knitting needles. Some of the community locations allow full interaction; others have limited options and don't allow you to view your sim while she's inside the building. (These are mainly stores and workplaces; parks, libraries, and gyms are all fully interactive.)

As part of a fun little experiment, I took a young adult sim and moved him out of his parents' house with just $2800. He had enough to buy a small lot and build a 2x3 unfinished enclosure for a toilet; I put his bed outside and gave him a fire pit to cook on. He had brought a guitar in his inventory but nothing else. He was able to survive just fine and even hold down a job, showering at the local gym just before work and fishing at Central Park for food, which he roasted over the fire pit at home. Often, he could grab a free meal in the park by sneaking a sandwich out of an abandoned picnic basket. It's really incredible how little a Sim can get by on -- and how materialistic the little bastards are once the money starts rolling in.

There are a few minor bugs that have caused my sims to fail Opportunities, but nothing on the scale of crashing, freezing, or other major technical issues. The game runs well on my six-year-old Alienware rig without forcing a hardware upgrade. It actually runs better than my copy of The Sims 2 with all of its expansions, and alongside the improved graphics and powerful AI, the game's relatively modest specs are a welcome surprise. Of course, not having half a dozen expansions installed does significantly reduce the bloat, so perhaps we should wait and see.


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