I must confess to being a relatively recent convert to The Sims - largely due to the cut-down, free version on Facebook. Where entertainment value is concerned, how can you possibly rate mundane activities such as eating, sleeping, and home improvement against the thrilling ride that is Gears of War 3? Granted, that's like comparing apples with hand grenades, but for non-fans it can be hard to fathom the attraction of micro-managing a virtual person's life when you've got your own (real) household to run.
Given half a chance, however, The Sim-ple life does grow on you - to the point of addiction, if you'll let it. Throw in some cutesy fur kids and the appeal factor is amplified tenfold. The Sims 3: Pets does just that; however the game is not without its faults.
The console version is basically a standalone of The Sims 3 for PC with the pets add-on, although the setting is different. Game operation utilises all of the controller's moving parts: thumb sticks, D-pad, triggers, and buttons. When it comes to ease of use, the Xbox controller is not on par with the PC's more user friendly interface, and it does seem daunting at first; however you do become accustomed to it after about 30 minutes, give or take. There's also support for control via the Kinect, for those who own one.
The uninitiated will find detailed, on-board tutorials on all things Sim, from creation to deciphering the jargon, to managing their day to day lives. There's an awful lot of information to take in, but you can refer to these lessons on demand. Once again, you do become accustomed to it after a while, so it pays to allow a good 30 minutes to an hour to absorb all the info. For the finer points of game mechanics, check out our in-depth review on The Sims 3. Jess is a long-time Sims fan and really knows her stuff.
As we've come to expect from Sims games, there's much emphasis placed on the creation process, and you pretty much have carte blanche. Using the advanced options in Create a Sim you can replicate a beloved family pet or create a new one with a reasonable degree of authenticity... from breed to fur length, size, pattern, and colour... right down to facial features and personality. If you can't be bothered going through the motions, you can generate a random pet or jump straight in with a ready-made family.
In addition to the standard Sim traits, there are several new ones, such as cat or dog lover, and fur allergies, which can make for interesting encounters - should your affectionate kitty decide to smooch up to a neurotic, allergic sim. Pets can possess traits as well - up to 11 in fact, depending on what they learn or do, and how your sims interact with them. Some characteristics are useful and downright cute, while others are wickedly entertaining and guaranteed to wreak havoc.
Pairing up a hyperactive, destructive dog with an aggressive cat is an endless source of amusement; when Fluffy and Fido aren't scrapping with each other, they can often be found terrorising neighbours, or savaging the furniture. You can also give your pets commands and train them to do tricks, or even send them out to work to earn their keep (if anyone knows how I can train mine to do that, please get in touch!).
Pets also have skills, needs, and moodlets - just like their owners. As well as helping your sims to hold down a job, get married, raise kids, accumulate lifetime happiness, and achieve their dreams (or not), there's the added dimension of dealing with their pets' wishes, some of which are modest, while others are more... er, ambitious.
There are 300 challenges to be found within the game. Add to this a handful of drawn out mysteries to solve, plus a creation mode with no financial constraints, and you have the prospect of many, many hours of playing time.
The game is not without its share of annoying graphical glitches, such as objects passing through other objects - cars being the prime example, and terribly jerky movement when taking your pet for walkies. Both of these occur with depressing regularity and tend to detract from the overall experience. While we're in gripe mode, load times are lengthy too, although these can be improved by installing to the hard drive.
The town environment, while a little too clean and perfect, is wonderfully vibrant and well populated with other inhabitants, and pet animations are both realistic and entertaining to watch. Cat and dog owners will instantly recognise the classic mannerisms, such as stalking prey or playing tug of war.
Another attractive feature of the game - for you socialites out there - is the flexibility to design nearly every aspect of your sims' life and surroundings from the ground up, and upload your creations to share with others in the online community (Xbox LIVE account and connection to EA are required).
Things are quite sparse on the audio front, which is apparently the norm for Sims games. Load screens aside, there's no background music, and gameplay is punctuated by occasional incidental sounds such as barking, birdsong, and sims babbling away in their trademark language, Simlish. I enjoy a masterfully composed score as much as the next gamer, but it's actually quite relaxing not to have your eardrums assaulted at every available opportunity.
All in all, The Sims 3: Pets offers a nice change of pace from all the high octane action titles out there, and you'll definitely get your money's worth... plus you get to experience all the highs and lows of owning pets, without the furballs, flea bites, poop scooping, and vet bills. While it's probably best suited to fans of the franchise, the game's gorgeous animal antics are guaranteed to generate warm fuzzies in all but the coldest of hearts.