Ah the Sims; progeny of the SimCity franchise I love so much, I find it impossible to loathe you. Sure, your focus on the lives and loves of just a handful of Sims at a time varies somewhat from your ancestor's interest in the macro concerns of an entire city of simulated people, but the general gist - allowing players to interfere with the lives of virtual citizens - is still something you hold dear to your chest.
To be completely honest, I've never really "got" the Sims. Lots of people do; most people do, if you look at the stats (it's the biggest PC gaming franchise of all time, don't ya know?), making me a bit weird when all is said and done. But having seen (and played with) The Sims 4, I suspect all of that is about to change.
If you are a true Sims fan (and there were lots of them at Gamescom; boy are they loud when they're gathered together in a group), fear not; my interest stems not from some massive departure the series is (isn't!) taking, but more from the fact that the love and attention being lavished on the game this time around is hard (impossible) to ignore.
Let's start with the character creator (the only bit we were allowed to actually play with at Gamescom.) Lots of games have character creators; its inclusion scarcely warrants a mention. What is of interest (and considerable interest, at that) is just how amazingly simple it is to use - all without sacrificing any amount of depth, which it also has in spades.
For a start, you adjust the options (i.e. how fat your Sims' legs are, or the width of the bridge of their nose) not by fiddling with sliders or any similar arcanery, oh no. Want to enlarge the bust or engorge the waist? Click that part of your Sims' body and drag it to where you want it to be. It sounds simple, and it seems obvious, yet it's never been done before. It works like an absolute treat, too, exactly as you'd expect something so brilliantly simple to.
You can dive right in and change loads of stuff, too; the highest level of zoom lets you tweak nearly any aspect of your Sims facial structure, giving you a vast array of potential looks for your virtual town's citizens. Given how emotionally attached Sims players get to their pretend people, I can imagine fans spending a lot of time in this area of the game alone; hell, I don't need to imagine it - I've already done just that, and I don't consider it time wasted.
This focus on providing powerful functionality by way of incredibly intuitive interface mechanics extends to another popular system: the house building toolset. Similarly, you can now build (or adjust) nearly any aspect of your house just by clicking and dragging it. You can drop rooms straight onto your plans and then link them up with extremely simple tools that conceal a raft of possibilities; there's even a magazine-style view that lets you choose fully furnished rooms (or any part therein) and just drop 'em complete, right into your house.
Using the above tool, our guide during the hands-off part of the behind-closed-doors Sims 4 experience managed to fabricate a detailed, multi-story dwelling in just a few minutes - and that included time spent doing nothing in the game but show us around the options. To top it all off, he concluded this portion of the demo by raising and lowering the (completed) house - something that has never been possible before but is dynamically (and seamlessly) handled within The Sims 4.
Something else that's brand new to the series, and which made up a big part of the presentation, but we were unable to test is something called SmartSim. Sims in The Sims 4 have "rebuilt brains" that allow them to behave much more realistically thanks to the all-new simulation of emotion. The idea is that emotional state will come into the equation when determining Sim behaviour, including choosing which options are available to a Sim at any given time.
Negative emotions don't mean negative gameplay, however; a Sim who's feeling angry, for example, will have a more effective workout in the gym, with the inference being that getting Sims into all of the available emotional states will be necessary to access the many different gameplay options enabled by the system.
In fact, it sounds like manipulating your Sim's emotional state will not only add a new layer of inanity to the game, it will be key to most of the Sims 4 experience. Exactly how much of an impact it ultimately makes is something we'll need to wait until we go hands-on to figure out, of course, but the prospect (and what it will mean to user stories like the brilliant Alice and Kev) is enticing.
It's still early days, with not a lot of The Sims 4 revealed as yet, but like I said near the start of this article, I'm already very interested in what they're doing - and that, from someone who's never previously been drawn into the game's web. It looks like it has the potential to be far more than just a simple toy, with interface elements that should make it more approachable than ever; a potentially potent combination.
The Sims 4 is planned for release on Windows PCs and Apple Macs early next year.