The first time I seriously played a Sims game was just four weeks ago, when EA invited me to the campus so I could spend the day playing the Beta version of the fourth in the series. I'm glad they did, because the experience gave me a really good grounding in the game.
Had they not, I'd have been totally overwhelmed getting to grips with this fourth iteration of the series. As you can see from my first encounter with the game, I really had a lot to learn about Sims and how it works. And indeed, how to play it.
It's obvious in retrospect, but I'd never really thought about Sims being an RPG. A serious, hardcore RPG where your creations roleplay whatever situations and scenarios your creativity can muster.
To that end, creating a Sim is easy and very satisfying. Intuitive tools let you prod and poke almost every aspect of your Sim, and enable you to create distinct and original characters. Ethnicity is particularly impressive: it no longer feels like you're just changing skin color and textures. Facial structure varies considerably between races, with quite lifelike and convincing results.
As well as giving the player the tools to create a wide array of characters, Sim 4's traits and aspirations enable broad-scope behavioral modification. Traits come in four flavors: emotional, lifestyle, social, and hobby. The selection is interesting and varied, so whether you want to create a sim who's a cheerful, family-oriented music lover, or, as it was in my case, a mean genius geek, you can do just that and much, much more.
A Sims' aspiration adds a significant layer of complexity to his or her modus operandi. Pick "fortune," for example, and your sim will be driven by the desire to be rich and successful – which will be helped by the fact that the "fortune" aspiration also yields a bonus "business savvy" trait. "Deviance," on the other hand, results in a sim who wants to make enemies and be generally dastardly – which is made all the more easy thanks to the bonus "dastardly" trait that comes part and parcel of this aspiration.
In practice, I found that this latest iteration of the Sims' emotional modeling is largely successful. Interactions between Sims are quite rich and varied, and when you're watching a group, it's sometimes quite challenging keeping up with everything that's going on. But that's a good thing, as it makes the proceedings lively and entertaining. In smaller groups, or if you're guiding just one or two Sims, it's possible for you to become very granular with your interactions, and play out stories in high detail – often with consequences that aren't always predictable. Which is the way I think it should be.
My first foray into Sim 4's wide blue yonder involved a trio of characters that were all evil genius deviants with excessive drive for social disruption. I set this Terrible Trio loose in a quiet neighborhood full of social, cheerful, family-oriented Sims, and basically began to make mischief. Sims were upset. Parties were pooped. Angry exchanges were made. Fights were picked. Attempts were made to break relationships. I had a whale of a time.
This was a simple scenario for sure, but it let me get to grips with how the game works generally. As delved deeper into the game, I began to become more ambitious but putting together opposing traits and aspirations. A hopeless romantic who's socially awkward? That was quite entertaining. What happens when a Sim is insane and popular? That's still a work in progress.
However, while the emotional side of Sims 4 is solid, the styling aspect isn't. There are certainly plenty of styling options and available items, but even so, the selection lacks oomph. I found much of a little too conservative, and not particularly interesting. It's certainly possible to give all your Sims different looks, but I found I often had to use items and aesthetics that weren't particularly exciting to me. Perhaps that's the way the game has always worked, but I wanted far more accessories, and far more texture options. I want to have fun dressing my Sims. Not like I'm pulling clothes from the rack of a low-end mall store.
Like Sims creation and styling, house building is a game of two halves. If I were to play Sims 4 for an extended period of time, I'd probably end up just designing houses. The tools available to that end are easy to use, and enable very high levels of creativity. The player has a myriad ways to manipulate walls and floors, making the creation of complex structures relatively easy. It really is very good indeed.
It's not all plain sailing, however. I found that the more complex my building became, the higher the chance I'd run into a glitch. It doesn't happen all the time, but I did have instances where I really had to work an object into place by making the camera view just so. At other times it seemed impossible to place an object, even though I knew it should be able to go where I wanted it to. I've also had parts of a house disappear on me, and some very odd issues with not being able to paint the garden. Maybe it's all user error? Perhaps, but don't be surprised if something odd happens if you build something excessively complicated.
However, while house design seems limited only by one's imagination and the odd glitch, Sims 4's interior décor suffers the same issue as its styling options. The range of furniture and accoutrements seems impressive initially, but in practice the selection doesn't really cut it. Color options for carpets and walls often seem much of a muchness, and I found that when you boil down the furniture into stylistically complimentary groups, the actual pool of options is surprisingly small. While decorating large houses, I often ended up using similar groups of items repeatedly.
The Sims series has always been driven by its expansions, and this first of a new generation looks like it's business as usual in that respect. In a way, Sims 4 feels almost like it's been engineered to fall just short of being a fully satisfying experience. The core engine is rock solid, enabling you can to build really interesting Sims and houses for them to live in. But when it comes to interior design, personal styling, and activities, the game is wanting.
Ultimately, the thing that puzzles me is how hard is it to build items for the game? I'm certainly no expert in terms of understanding the manpower required to produce items for a Sims game, but when I look at the volume and complexity of assets created for other games, Sims 4's launch inventory just seems lacking. And not just lacking in volume – but also in imagination. Some items are simply mundane. Yes, it's important that there's a range of conservative, cater-to-all-tastes furniture and clothing. But when I look at certain items, like futuristic coffee tables and desks, or the textures of specific rugs, you see a massive potential that simply has not been fully realized. There's certainly some brilliant, creative items you can furnish your place with, or put on your Sims, but there's just not enough of them.
What's patently obvious is that this game needs is an item builder. When I look at the bending and warping effects of the Sims creation mode and the structural capabilities of the house builder, it's pretty clear that such a tool can't be that much of a developmental stretch. However, I also do understand that such a thing will never happen, because it would open up a huge rusty can of writhing worms if it did. An item builder and texture map generator akin to the one you use to customize cars in Forza would no doubt precipitate all sorts of creative shenanigans. Creative shenanigans that would likely give EA and Maxis a double conniption if it appearled on the Sims 4 Gallery. But damn it would make the game so much more fun – especially if you could also use the texture map generator on clothes and surfaces.
Ultimately, Sims 4 represents a great start to a new generation. It has top-class tools that can facilitate the creation of an astounding range of people and places, and an interaction engine that delivers deeply fascinating stories and enthralling social experiments. But its paucity of styling, design and activity options really peg back the enjoyment. When I play a game, the last thing I want to feel breathing down my neck is its business model, but that's what happened every time I felt my creativity was being stymied by a lack of inventory. I also felt the same way when came to activites and world options. Sims 4 delivers a minimum requirement, as opposed to being the sandbox filled with goodies we'd prefer.
In a way, that's infuriating, because what's perfectly obvious is that Sims 4 is a 5-star game with 2-star content. And that's why I'm giving it the mark I am. It deserves more – but then so do Sims players.
Crisp and inherently Sim in style, the game treads a fine line between cartoon and realism very deftly.
The music is very muzak, but isn't unpleasant. Sims chat and the general sound effects are all spot-on.
The building and creation tools have been very well designed. While they're not completely perfect, they nevertheless enable players to express themselves very creatively.
Sims has always been a long-term gaming prospect, and number four in the series looks no different. However, its initial content offering might well become old before the first expansion arrives.
The new generation of Sims begins with what feels like a bare-bones starter kit. It packs top-of-the-line Sims creation and house building tools, but styling options and activities are distinctly lacking. Add the contents of its first expansion, and Sims 4 will probably feel like the game it should be right now.