The Sims games have always been about manipulating the lives of the tiny virtual people you create who are modelled after friends, family or just plain fantasy.
Each game in the series has traditionally started slowly, with enough amenities and functions that provide the basic format of the game, but which are fleshed out in the seventeen million, add-on content packs released for the game over the next few years.
The Sims 4 (TS4) looks to continue this tradition with its promising, but ultimately somewhat threadbare content.
You’re still going to be managing a virtual dollhouse full of Sims, but this time around the interface, loading times, graphics and Sims’ behaviours have been given a major overhaul to make doing it faster, easier and – in theory – more rewarding.
The first things Sims fans will notice is that the game’s interface is very different, but in a good way. Gone are the rounded edges and menus of the SimCity 4 to SimCity (2013) era; they’ve been replaced with far more minimalistic elements that really un-clutter the screen and make it easier than ever to see your Sims’ vital statistics, job status, their needs and more without taking up too much screen space.
It’s a pleasant change and I really liked it.
The second thing Sims veterans will notice is that even though I said the graphics had been overhauled, they’re not extraordinarily different from those seen in The Sims 3. TS4 still looks pretty good and, more importantly, runs smoothly on a wide range of hardware.
Which is the whole idea, really. EA wants everyone with a computer bought in the last three years to play The Sims 4 and have a good experience, and in that, they have succeeded – the game plays mostly judder-free and loads quickly even on a non-gaming test laptop we have in the office.
These points, while important, are still minor in the larger Sims picture. People don’t play The Sims for the latest graphics or to see what UI design has taught game designers in the last 13 years – they play it because it’s a people-simulator that lets them toy with their creations’ lives however they see fit, whether that’s by driving them hard to be successful, or trapping them in rooms without doors just to see what happens.
And that’s what The Sims 4 allows… just with different furniture, neighbourhoods, things to buy and ways to build homes and socialise compared to previous games. It’s not a huge leap forward from other Sims games, though, but there are some nice changes that fans will appreciate.
Building in particular is amazingly simple now, with pre-made rooms to choose from, the ability to drag and drop walls, copying and pasting entire rooms and even completely furnished, themed rooms to choose from that help to make building far more intuitive than in previous games. Unfortunately, as nice as the new tools are there are still a lot of limitations that can stop you from building the house of your dreams, even once you’ve cheated your way to tens of thousands of Simoleons.
For instance, there’s no colour wheel in TS4 that lets you pick the exact colours you want, and the choice of patterns for your walls is likewise limited. It can also be hard to get the windows, door frames and other fixtures to match as not all colours and patterns can be applied to all building elements. While a lot of people won’t necessarily mind, it can be tough for budding interior designers and experienced Simmers to build virtual homes to their exacting specifications. For the average person, though, the decorating options in The Sims 4 are sufficient, if unspectacular.
While you can totally choose a pre-made Sim to play, it’s a lot more fun to create your own from scratch. The Create-a-Sim tool is very easy to use and offers simple drag-and-drop mechanics to stretch, tweak and enlarge any part of your Sim’s body that allows for the pretty accurate recreation of people you know. There’s even a neat Genetics tool that will let you create family members quickly and easily, and the option to customise the way your Sim walks.
But the real genius of this iteration of The Sims is how subtly EA/Maxis have integrated emotions and moods into the game, and animated Sims with mannerisms and body language that is tied directly to how they’re feeling. Tired Sims slouch and drag themselves along, angry Sims stomp around the place and are likely to yell at other Sims, energised and confident Sims strut around and so forth, and being under the effect of an emotion unlocks related conversation options, which are more extensive even without mood-linked options than any other Sims game I’ve played.
Emotions even play into whether your Sim does well at work or not, with certain moods beneficial to your chances for advancement. Since emotions affect your Sim’s physical actions, it’s a fun system to mess with by, say, making your Sim exercise while they’re mad, an action that often leads to them falling down or breaking the equipment. It’s also good for cheap laughs, but more importantly it shows the game understands and can animate complex human situations.
On the downside, progressing your Sim is tied quite closely to satisfying the mood-based actions they want to take, meaning you’re often working to appease rather than direct them. The things they’re likely to want are largely determined by their personality, which you also set up in Create-a-Sim so if your Sim gets out of hand, you’ll only have yourself to blame.
Loading screens, everywhere!
So the developers have worked hard to make The Sims 4 load a little faster than previous games, which is wonderful, but visiting other Sims, going to bars/parks/clubs/the gym are still all separated by irritating loading screens. Even though individual load times aren’t terrible – less than a minute each on my review rig – they proved annoying over time.
It’s the little things…
Where The Sims 4 shines, though, is in the little things that the designers and animators took great care in adding, things that you take for granted in your real life but which take time and effort to add to a game. Like the ability to work out while talking to someone, or cooking and singing, pooing and talking on your cell phone, all of which are now possible.
I particularly liked seeing touching interactions like fathers sharing heart-warming moments with their kids as bedtime stories are read, the way Sims sing in the shower or strut when they’re feeling confident, graphical enhancements that make their interactions appear a little more natural and many other small touches, all of which make the stories that emerge that much more life-like and enjoyable.
And that last bit is important, because ultimately it’s the stories your Sims’ lives will tell and the situations they get into that will keep you playing. Sure, you can work hard to reach the pinnacle of your chosen career, level your Sims’ skills up to the max and earn tons of Simoleons with which to buy everything in the game, but, like real life, that stuff is a little dull and repetitive and it’s really the friends you make, the funny situations you get into and the memories you create that are important, and those The Sims 4 has in spades.
Unfortunately The Sims 4 isn’t that great at depicting inter-Sim relationships, leading to some comically tragic family situations when death and adoption are involved, and utterly unpredictable moments of hilarity when girlfriends and wives don’t react realistically to, say, their in-game partners flirting with people they shouldn’t be flirting with. But these are minor issues, really, and I found that the unpredictability actually added to my enjoyment of the game.
A community of Simmers
Maxis has also baked a community hub into the game that lets you share the Sims, homes, rooms and neighbourhoods you’ve created with other players, which can be downloaded and played. I found it to be a showcase of the skill and talent within the game’s community that showed off what can be done with a bit of creativity, and some of the home designs genuinely surprised me.
A good foundation
I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with The Sims 4, but I’ve come away feeling like it’s less of a fully-fleshed-out game and more of a basic foundation on which EA and Maxis will build with future expansions, just as they have done with every other Sims game.
This is only a bad thing if you were hoping for The Ultimate Sims Game in a single box, because I really like what they’ve done with The Sims 4 and am looking forward to seeing a little more meat added to its very stable skeleton in the future.
The Sims 4 is for both PC and Mac and retails from R499.