It’s midnight, and I’m at my computer, watching my Sim surf the web while he goes to the toilet. After he’s finished browsing the net, he makes and takes a few calls to his friends, all from the porcelain throne. Yes, this is multitasking at work, Sims-style, and it’s one of the new features in The Sims 4, newly released this week from EA.
The Sims: it’s the game where you watch digital people laugh, love, fight, cry, and text on the loo. It’s been called a living dollhouse, a “God Game”, and even the next generation of storytelling. Whatever your opinion, it’s pretty hard to argue with the 175 million titles sold within the franchise, worldwide. I doubt I’m overstepping the mark when I say people have been looking forward to this one.
The premise of the game is still the same. Players create any number of little computer people with various ambitions, personality traits, and looks. They then let these Sims free on an unsuspecting digital world, where they can help or hinder said Sims in their lifelong goals. Sims marry, have babies, have affairs, slack off at work or become super-spies and astronauts.
And, despite the controversy over features that had been left out from the last game, there is a heck-of-a-lot of new stuff in here. It’s true that the open world and heavy customisation options of The Sims 3 have been dropped, but I’d like to argue that The Sims 4 is - at its core - a much more optimised, accessible game.
One of the new main features is the expansion of Sim emotions. Sims are no longer pushed through life by their personal ambitions and agendas (although these are still here); emotions are definitely at the forefront of gameplay now. For example a Sim might become angry after having an argument, or become uncomfortable if he has a low bladder and hunger meter. Conversely, winning a chess match can make a brainy Sim feel confident, or saying something dumb in conversation results in embarrassment.
When Sims are under the influence of a particular emotion, be it playful, bored or energised, different actions become available to them. A playful Sim gets more options to mess around with others while they're socialising, while an inspired Sim might want to focus on doing some painting or playing an instrument. Confident Sims can "pee like a champion!" if they so desire.
In addition to the extra interaction options, Sims' facial expressions and body language also change to reflect how they're feeling. Now, walking down the street, you can see Sims dragging their heels, or strutting their stuff. And the “I have to pee” walk when your Sims first get out of bed is eerily realistic. It makes the world feel so much more dynamic and alive.
Speaking of the Sim-world, yes, it is a lot smaller. The two starting worlds, Willow Creek and Oasis Springs, look stark in contrast to the sprawling towns of the Sims 3. There is no fly-by past the Town Hall, over water towers and hot air balloons gently bobbing in the breeze. Instead of the open world where Sims could wander where they pleased, there are now short loading sequences - around ten to fifteen seconds - as Sims move between neighbourhoods and worlds.
Some gamers still say this is too disruptive - and too different - but I have to disagree when I think back to the fifteen minutes it took for my Sims 3 game, bloated with expansions and additions, to load. The Sims 4 feels like it’s been planned with expansions in mind (and of course, we all know they’re coming). It feels...smarter. The Sim-world isn’t going to feel this bare-bones for long.
The Create-A-Sim (CAS) aspect is smarter too: instead of fiddling with sliders, you simply push and pull body parts with your cursor to make them bigger or smaller, or move them up, down, in and out. For some this will be heaven, while for others (me included) it will feel too fiddly. Fortunately, randomized Sims no longer look like something from reality TV; they look good, even the ugly ones, and it’s now actually a valid way to generate a Sim that you can then tweak to your liking.
Build mode, which is the furniture-placing and house-building aspect of the game, has also had a revamp. Houses, rooms, and even entire lots, can now be dragged-and-dropped around the place. It’s very easy to build a reasonable-looking house for your Sims, using a similar push-and-pull mechanic to the one used in CAS. Click on a wall, and drag it out to extend it, or delete the whole thing with the click of your mouse. For someone who usually just builds square, box-like houses for her Sims to live in, this aspect did feel like a revelation.
As the game’s only been out for a few days, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with discovering all of the new changes. There have been some tweaks to progressing with work and school, and these all feel intuitive and straightforward. There are new skills to discover, like mischief, and comedy, and even old ones like cooking and gardening feel fresh, with more things to plant and cook, as well as some horticultural options for the botanists out there.
And the Sims are more intelligent. Multitasking (the feature that let my Sim text on the loo) lets them do all sorts of things at once, and have conversations with multiple people that feel natural. Generally, they just seem more switched on. Even the infamous bladder-monitoring has been eased a bit: simply click on a Sim’s particular need bar and the Sim will “auto-solve” it with the nearest option at hand.
And of course it wouldn’t be a Sims title without the huge player-generated content element. On the first day of The Sims 4’s release, the Gallery, where players can upload and download Sims and their houses (and insert them into the game, while you’re playing it), there were over a million uploads recorded.
Look, let’s be realistic: The Sims 4 as a core game is never going to have the same content and gameplay as The Sims 3, with all of its expansions added, so frankly the complaints comparing the two seem quite ridiculous. And ultimately when you buy a Sims game, you're not so much buying a game, as buying into an ongoing series of expansions and adventures for your Sims.
And yes, it is another Sims iteration, but at the same time this one feels clean and fresh. The emotional interactions are really interesting, and the combination of these with different Sims' personality traits and aspirations can make for some great unpredictability. Despite what’s been left out, The Sims 4 feels like it’s heading in the right direction.