The Sims 3 Review
The Sims meets The Truman Show
June 1, 2009 IGN
For most of the past decade, The Sims franchise has maintained a permanent presence on the Top 10 sales charts of PC games. Often, it occupied multiple slots on those charts. That's because for every hardcore gamer who scoffs at The Sims, there are many more non-traditional gamers who love the series. Yes, many of those people are female. That makes it easy for some to simply describe The Sims as the equivalent of a virtual dollhouse, but that oversimplifies things. The Sims, like almost any game, is about living a different life than your own. Some people escape reality by diving into MMOs. Others jump straight into shooters. It turns out that whole bunches of people turn to The Sims. And in this regard,The Sims 3 won't disappoint. With the third chapter in the series, EA has introduced some overdue growth and made some bold changes, yet much of this brave new world's potential remains relatively untapped.
I've been a fan of The Sims since the very beginning; Will Wright's idea of letting you control virtual people in their everyday lives taps that desire that we all have to be ruler of the world and tell everyone else where to stuff it. The Sims is the closest that many of us will ever get to Ed Harris' character in The Truman Show; that's the movie where he plays the director who gets to "cue the sun" and manipulate events around the unsuspecting Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey. The thing is, Truman doesn't realize that the quaint, coastal town that he lives in is in fact a carefully staged set and that his every move is caught on camera and beamed to the outside world. The Truman Show is an apt description for The Sims 3, because it too takes place in a quaint, coastal town that your sims can go out and explore. Yet wherever they go, you'll be carefully watching. As you've probably heard, the big change in The Sims 3 is the fact that it no longer revolves around a single household lot at a time. Your sims can go anywhere in town at any time without pause. This is a very welcome change, because the gameplay doesn't feel claustrophobic anymore; you're no longer spending 95-percent of your time looking at the same house and then having to sit through lengthy loading screens for those moments when you send your sims out into the world. This freedom is pretty liberating; I spent quite a bit of time at first just switching between my characters just to watch the camera pull back on the town and then zoom in on the location of the next character. It doesn't take too long before you get used to the change, and it's hard to imagine how we played The Sims before. Now it seems totally natural to send one sim to the park, while another goes shopping downtown, while another stays at home; you can switch between all three effortlessly and almost instantly. Lives feel more naturally lived this way. You don't even need to worry much if you neglect your sims because they default with a high level of free will; leave them alone and they'll take care of themselves and keep themselves amused. It can be fun just to let go of the mouse, sit back, and watch what they do on their own.
There's also a much greater sense of a living, breathing world. You see other sims going about their daily lives; sims still age and die, and after a while new sims show up, giving a sense that people are coming and going. The sims themselves are now powered by much more sophisticated psychological systems than found in earlier games; they might be party animals or childish, flirty or brave, neurotic or clumsy, and more. You might see maids who are secretly kleptomaniacs (never a good combination) or health nuts constantly working out. I like watching the neighborhood at night and seeing the cat burglars skulk around the houses and night owls going about their thing.
Life on the home front is also much improved. Your sims no longer have to constantly run to the bathroom like in the old games; now you can send them about once per day, and there are ways to reduce that even more. That gives you more time to play with, and at its heart The Sims is very much a time management game where you juggle daily and lifelong goals. There's the short-term need to keep them fed, social, and happy, but then there are long-term needs that require them to improve their skills in order to gain a promotion, work out to get into shape, read a cookbook learn a new recipe, tend to an elaborate garden, or maintain friendships before they fray. There's never enough time in the day, so you must learn to set and prioritize goals.
It's easy to visit other sims' homes and see what they're up to.
This all translates into a more elegant gameplay experience, one that doesn't feel as constrained or confined as before. Yet if there's one complaint, it's that The Sims 3 doesn't really explore what all this freedom can offer. In many ways, you're still doing the same tasks as before. For example, when your sims race off for work you now have the luxury of being able to follow them all the way to their workplace before they disappear for hours at a time. Imagine if EA could make everyday work as interesting as everyday life in The Sims? You could experience challenges trying to earn a paycheck. Or perhaps the designers could embed adventures and mysteries within the world for you to uncover? Maybe there could be some MMO-style quests that NPCs could grant? The potential is here to create a much grander and richer experience, and it'll be interesting to see what route EA takes with the expansions going forward. There's more to The Sims than just managing people, though. It's also a fun way to experiment with architecture, as it's a lightweight alternative to those consumer-level CAD programs that let people use to try to design and outfit a dream home. Designing a house in The Sims 3 requires a lot of trial-and-error, but it can be thoroughly rewarding in its own way as you bring a vision to virtual life. There's an incredible amount of options, too, when it comes to selecting wallpaper, paint, surfaces, and furniture. And when it comes to furnishings, clothes, and objects, you're no longer constrained with the color patterns that Maxis has created; you can create your own custom patterns in game and then share those with other people online.
The online integration in The Sims 3 is greater than in previous games in the series, but nowhere near as deep or as seamless as that in Spore. (For the record, while Maxis created Spore and the first two games in The Sims franchise, The Sims are now handled by a team at EA's Redwood Shores complex.) While Spore had a built-in browser that let you peruse all the user-generated content, The Sims 3 requires you to visit the official Web site to access The Exchange, which lets you download user-made content such as sims and furniture patterns, as well as The Store, which introduces the idea of microtransactions to pay for EA-designed objects, sims, lots, and more. Considering the wild popularity of the expansion packs, it seems like a given that an online store will be successful, but we'll see. The Web site also lets you create your own Sims 3 blog, as well as edit movies that you record in the game. All of this is likely to be gravy for fans that really love The Sims and want to share everything they do, but they're completely optional and unnecessary to enjoying the core game. Go anywhere without hitting a loading screen.
One impressive aspect of The Sims 3 has been its performance. Anyone who played the first two games in the series remembers just how badly the frame rate could struggle if you put more than half-a-dozen sims in the same room. Even though The Sims 3 models an entire town and everything in it, the performance has been completely smooth on a high-end PC with no noticeable hiccups at all, even with all the graphical sliders at maximum.
Visually, some might argue that the graphics aren't as great a leap as they were from The Sims to The Sims 2 and that the sims themselves aren't that much more detailed than their predecessors. Yet the sims in The Sims 3 look more natural than those in The Sims 2; the sharp edges in the faces have given way to rounder, softer curves, and there's a greater variety of body sizes to play with. The lighthearted art style is also a nice way to avoid any uncanny valley issues. That's the theory that when you try and create a more lifelike robot or human facsimile, it creates a greater sense of revulsion because it just doesn't feel right. The rest of The Sims 3 looks great; it's sort of amazing to take your sims to the beach and watch the setting sun over the horizon. And the buildings in town are packed with detail; you can almost read the books in the window of the bookstore. You can get some pretty amazing views never seen in a Sims game before.
Meanwhile, the audio keeps the charming simlish that the sims like to gibber-gabber with, but let's face it, The Sims isn't a series really known for its audio prowess. With that said, it's hard not to be swayed by the revamped theme music; there's an energy and excitement there that's fitting for the new scope of the game. There's also a large variety of pleasing background music in different genres, including real-world classical music from the great composers. You can select whichever music you like, and it all blends nicely into the background and helps to while the hours away.