Before I start, I need to clear the air and manage some expectations regarding this article. If you're hoping to read something written by a knowledgable Sims player, I'm afraid you're doing to be disappointed.
Since there was no available USgamer Sims expert, I thought I'd volunteer to head down to EA's Redwood Shores offices and give an "everyman" take on the game. I thought it might be fun to see what happens when someone with only the most cursory understanding of the Sims series is dropped right into the very deep end of the game, with no guidance or instruction.
The depth of my Sims ignorance was immediately hammered home during the pre-playtest brief. My lack of context and reference meant that a lot of its detail was lost on me. However, I did get the gist of it, and the long and the short of it is that smarter Sims are what fans can look forward to in this fourth outing of the series. Smarter Sims that now feel, and express emotions that are influenced by interactions with other Sims, objects, and events. These, apparently, will help you bring your stories to life?
This was my big revelation of the day. As a non-Sim player, and not having ever had a serious conversation about the game with anyone who is, I didn't actually know what you did in a Sims game. I mean, I know you create characters, make houses and experiment by putting Sims together and seeing what happens. But I didn't realize that people made stories with them. But it makes sense. I can see it. It's role-playing. But there aren't weapons to wield and dragons to slay. This is deep social stuff. Relationships and procreation. Life and death. With you as God.
Sorry if I sound like a dumbass for saying that, because I'm sure that most people understand this aspect of the game, but hey. I just never really thought about it that way. So it makes sense that to deepen the experience, Maxis has seriously beefed up the interaction side of the Sims by letting players assign a whole variety of emotions to their progeny, which can be further enhanced by traits, skills and aspirations.
The other easy-to-understand introductory takeaway was that Sims 4 presents players with a far richer environment to enjoy than before. There are parks and venues, as well as plenty of houses that create communities where Sims can play out their lives.
That information brought the presentation to a close, and we were encouraged to turn to our PCs and load one of the saved games that had been created for us, preloaded with lots of characters and houses. I declined, electing to watch what the Sim expert to my right was doing while I started from scratch and made my own Sim. I thought that would be a better move, since starting with a bunch of Sims with no clue what to do would probably be a recipe for random mouse clickage and frowns.
After aimlessly grabbing and pulling the face and body parts of my soon-to-be-minted Sim for a few minutes, I decided to see whether I could create the likeness of my World of Warcraft character. I manipulated the shape of my character's face and body type, and then moved on to individual features, tweaking the nose, eyes, chin and mouth. The amount of adjustment available is quite mind-boggling, giving huge scope for Sims players to create unique-looking characters, or ones based on real-life counterparts. It's exceptionally easy to use, and within about 15 minutes, I'd created a really satisfying likeness of my WoW character. Only wearing a punk t-shirt, ripped jeans and big boots with buckles instead of a bright green cutaway robe with glowing shoulders.
All I then needed to do was assign some emotions and traits – loner, likes tech, wants to be an astronaut – and that was that. Sim cherry popped, I moved onto house construction. During the day's preamble, we'd been told that the original Sims actually started out as a house-building program. Simulated people were added later, and when they were, magic happened that fortuitously changed the course of the game forever. Sim House testers loved playing around with its sim inhabitants, and the more sim people-oriented features were added to the game, the more people enjoyed it.
Despite playing second fiddle to Sims, housing is still a huge, huge part of the game, and Maxis has certainly not skimped when it comes to building a domicile in Sims 4. The player is given a huge suite of tools to build pretty much whatever kind of humble (or not) abode that takes their fancy, and like creating a character, it's easy and intuitive. It can be a little fiddly at times, but considering the wealth and complexity of options available, I needed no training wheels to fairly quickly build a quite cool one-storey home with all mod cons. Then I began to dig into the interior design options and soon found myself falling down a rabbit hole. Carpets. Lighting that actually does light the room. Knick-knacks. Chairs. Tables. Basically, IKEA at your fingertips.
I took the roof off my house, and began to modify the floor plan again. I decided that I wanted all my bedrooms to have en-suite bathrooms. I wanted an open-plan kitchen and dining room, with a living room behind it. I began to obsess over detail. Door positioning. Lighting. Symmetrical windows. I decorated and re-decorated rooms for a couple of hours, until I forced myself to stop.
I was way into this house-building malarkey. It plugs right into the "if I was rich and I could build my own house what would it be" fantasy that most people enjoy, gives you the tools and means to do just that, and lets you have at it. It's engrossing, rewarding, and looks brilliant both close-up and from above. By the way, the big header picture at the top of this page is what my house ended up looking like.
House done, Sim done, I started the game proper. Having no frame of reference, other than Little Computer People on the Commodore 64 – the first ever Sim-like game – I let my Sim mooch around and do her own thing. It wasn't particularly exciting, but after a while I figured out that you need to micromanage these Sims' lives, and began to provide some guidance. That was a bit more entertaining, and once I prodded my Sim into the outside world to interact with the other Sims who are wandering around, it became interesting.
I started experimenting with responses, helped along by the game that gives you challenges to compete. I made some friends – and an enemy. I built a rocket in my back garden, and flew up to space – which made my Sim very happy indeed. Me too, funnily enough. I began to finally understand why the bizarre fantasy creator that is The Sims is gaming meth to so many people...
...and also why Sims 4 is going to be their Blue Sky. Maxis has produced a phenomenally-equipped sandbox that'll suck up as many hours as you can give it. In a way, that makes me sad. After playing Sims 4 for about 6 hours, I've gone from clueless to highly curious. I know I'd have a huge amount of fun building and decorating houses, and seeing just how complex and nuanced the Sims' emotional system is. But I just don't dare. I know that if I did, I'd end up playing it all the time – and unfortunately I have too many other games like that on my plate. However, if you don't, and this is your thing - your emotion is going to be happy, your trait will be obsessive-compulsive, and your aspirations will be pretty much unlimited.