With every new chapter of The Sims, Maxis have gotten closer to their vision of a broad, easy-going and loveable life simulator. Naturally we had high expectations for the fourth installment and now that it finally has arrived, there is much to say. Although perhaps not as many things as we had thought. But first, let's start from the beginning ...
As usual when it comes to The Sims, the simulation of human life is held at a twisted and easygoing level. This means that we don't have to relive everyday events such as forgotten passwords to email accounts, fungal infections in the more private parts of our bodies, or formal and awkward fish dinners with new acquaintances. Wait, that's a lie, there's a lot of the latter as a matter of fact. Our current Sim is named Simon Seduce, and he's a womaniser with a hectic triple life. With multiple girlfriends at the same time, two children and long nights at the bar, he often sleeps on dirty wooden floors and tries to hide his many escapades juggling his complicated family life.
With a criminal past he now wants to leave behind, Simon has dreams of taking to the stage with sweaty armpits singing softly to large audiences. Lately, his thoughts have also revolved around Nina Caliente, who's out strolling in the street, and hopefully it'll not take longer than forty-five seconds (with the fast rewind activated) to go on a date, charm the pants off of her and start a new family. He's like a more childish and reckless version of reality, daydreaming in math class during the seventh grade, and to play with his life is almost shamefully exciting from time to time.
We really enjoy the new interface, which is both cleaner and more visually appealing than before. To build houses and decorate them is a smoother experience than ever before. Getting started is not a problem, thanks to a rather non-existent learning curve. You can move walls, rooms and objects very intuitively, and browsing for new furniture is facilitated with the virtual room menu. And, yeah - you can scale the sizes of selected objects absurdly, which has resulted in many a smile.
For the first time the Sims themselves can now multitask, which means that they, for instance, can have a conversation while using the treadmill at the gym (or drink orange juice at the toilet while business is being taken care of, if you prefer). The interactions between different characters are also more lively than before, and new faces inject themselves into conversations in the street and during activities more fluently. This may seem like a small change at first glance, but it really adds more to the experience than you might think.
Other than that, the system for moods and emotions is a good addition. The new interface allows the player to see how the Sims are doing at any given moment, and what options for interactions you have will depends on how the Sims feel in the situation at hand. How you feel depends in turn on how you take care of yourself during your day-to-day life. After the death of his mother our young boy felt very sad and angry for a long time, which affected his behaviour considerably. What roads your Sim will take through life opens up new choices, activities and objectives, and this adds a lot of replay value, not least in how different conversations can play out.
Sadly this is where the good news ends. In many ways this feels like a return to the first and second game in the series, in a negative sense. The single biggest problem here is that the seamless environment that characterised The Sims 3 has been replaced by a more strictly divided world where loading screens attack you whenever you want to pay your neighbour a visit or get our of your house. If you and your best friend want to head to the gym in a car? Well, you can't. The game will teleport you instead (after a loading screen), because vehicles are not available. You can never go with your Sim to work, but rather you must patiently wait at home like an old housewife until he or she comes home with money in their wallet.
After noticing these things you will also spot all the invisible walls and the city in the background that never can be reached. The two (small) neighbourhoods that you can live in or visit feel very limited after just two hours, and we can only imagine that the Sims will begin to feel like Jim Carrey's character did in the second half of The Truman Show. It goes on, the striking 3D map from the third game has been replaced with a 2D one. You can no longer deform the terrain in your garden. Teenagers all look eerily similar to adults. There are no diseases or random deaths. Many professions that previously existed are no longer there. No swimming pools can be purchased. Other Sims can never invite you to parties.
It is also very strange that the possibilities to customise the characters have been trimmed down quite dramatically - there is, for example, only one default colour preset for clothing. We don't think that this is an especially big loss, but there are many fans who like to pamper their Sims with a plethora of accessories and there's not a whole lot here to satisfy those who feel that need.
Prior to the release, we've seen plenty of videos showing off the somewhat antiquated graphics in The Sims 4, and these have made it all the way into the final version. The animations are better, but overall this is just a small step forward compared to the previous game. No matter how little you care about this aspect in a title like this, it's difficult not to feel a little cheated. Not only are we offered few new features and only slightly altered gameplay - not even the surface is thoroughly polished. Although movements are better, Sims still don't move in a way that can be described as natural. For example they cannot hold hands while sitting, but instead have to stand up to then approach one another very awkwardly. The multi-tasking only extends to certain actions it would seem.
The Sims 4 is rough around the edges and is lacking in content. It is both surprising and sad to see. It's impossible to look past this issue. We still believe that this will be the definitive version of The Sims after all the mandatory countless expansion packs that are set to follow, but in its current state, it's just too barebones, even when compared to the original vanilla version of The Sims 3. When the new, fresh aspects of the game serve only as a solid foundation, with the rest of the detail largely absent, a large part of the charm is lost along with it.
If you have all the expansions for The Sims 3 and make the jump to this version you will be immediately disappointed by the lack content. It almost feels cruel to the consumers, and that's clearly the feeling we've been left with after playing the game.
Aside from the new interface, more life-like characters and the improved mood system, this feels like a step back for the series. For new players, this is a good entry point, but if you come straight from playing the third game, you will probably find it too limiting. Thus we cannot really justify the high price tag for all longtime Sims fans. It's a fun game, we're not suggesting otherwise, but given the expectations we had thanks to the bar set by The Sims 3, this is a disappointment.