It seems the sort of thing which would have made it into dystopian sci-fi 30 years ago – a video game in which you play yourself living life. And yet, since 1999 the Sims series has been incredibly popular, spawning three major sequels and countless expansion packs. But as one of EA’s greatest cash cows (probably rivalled only by FIFA and Madden) enters its fourth installment, there has been some controversy.
For one, while The Sims 4 is a sequel, it actually removes many features which were present in The Sims 3, which itself lacked features from The Sims 2. The most talked-about examples are the complete lack of both swimming pools and toddlers. While these two are a rather incongruous pairing to take out, it makes sense in the broader scheme of what EA is doing to The Sims.
There is no technical reason toddlers or pools are not feasible. Indeed, they probably will make their way into the game at some point. But there is no chance whatsoever that they will be free additions meant to make up for the wait. They will join myriad hairstyles, shoes and bits of furniture in the big EA closet marked “DLC”. It’s this attitude of doling out content in small portions which will eventually be the downfall of EA, but for now there is just about sufficient content included in The Sims 4 to call it a full game.
The basic formula has not changed. The game opens by creating a family of Sims, granting them appearances, attributes and aspirations of the player’s choosing, then building a house and setting them free to do as they will. Of course, life is almost as hard as it can be in real life. Pants are peed in, ovens catch fire, and the opening rungs of the career ladder are repetitive and demeaning. But if the Sims persevere, they can move out of their three-room hovel in which the kitchen is only accessible via an outside door (because the player couldn’t figure out build mode) and build fame, fortune and social skills for themselves.
Still, most of the early game is not occupied with ladder climbing, but learning the basic survival skills needed not to immediately be killed on setting foot outside the house. Skills are acquired by carrying out relevant tasks – Handiness is built by fixing and upgrading appliances, Charisma develops by (among other things) talking to oneself in the mirror, and Cooking is quite self-explanatory.
There’s a deep satisfaction to watching your Sim’s video games skill bar rise incrementally as he plays a MySims game on the computer, or a grilled cheese contributing to a Sim’s rise to master chef status. Attending to their needs becomes secondary to building social and practical skills, and it actually carries some sense of pride to see a Sim become popular (even as your lack of self-awareness fails to tell you that you’re sat alone playing with virtual people).
At the same time, there are problems. For example, it’s very easy indeed when dealing with multiple Sims to have their sleeping and eating patterns fall way out of line, so that one Sim rises at 4AM while the others stay in until mid-afternoon. It’s also quite likely after some time that you’ll fall into a rut and keep the same pattern of activities going for no better reason than that it makes the skill bars inch incrementally upwards.
The much touted new feature of The Sims 4 was the ability to perform actions emotionally and it does indeed impact on how well work is done and interaction with other Sims. It’s a neat little feature, but the major issue is how randomly and quickly their moods flip. One minute your Sim can be writing a novel while inspired, the next uncomfortably working out with no real stimulus for the change. It’s much too akin to RPG status effects and doesn’t quite feel natural yet. Some kind of incremental change with bars for each feeling – a “mood mixer” of sorts – would have been much better.
Graphically the game does not advance far from The Sims 3, although animations are a little smoother and the Sims do look nice. However, the game has quite unreasonable system requirements relative to its graphical fidelity. While there is a chance the necessary hardware listed on the box is an overstatement, it may scare away many of the players who enjoy The Sims on non-gaming hardware.
As an overall package The Sims 4 will be a worthwhile game and has a lot to do. But for now it feels unfinished, and it’s with heavy hearts that we must accept that many micropayments will be necessary to make it complete. Maxis have proven themselves quite capable of making good quality products, but EA’s business practices are stifling their appeal.
Have you played The Sims 4 yet? What are your impressions? Let us know in the comments. Also, you can watch some of Cubed Gamers in action in Sian’s Sims 4 Footage.