Wednesday, 10 September 2014
Developed by EA Maxis
Published by Electronic Arts
Genre Life Simulation
Once upon a time there was a great videogame developer called Maxis Software, headed up by legendary designer Will Wright. Wright was the creative force behind some of the most celebrated, early genre defining games ever made, including Sim City, The Sims, and pretty much anything with "Sim" in front of it. Without doubt a legend of the industry, Wright's gift was the ability to take complex or mundane activities, like the ministerial running of a city, the management of an ecosystem, or simply just going through one's daily routine, and turn it into a game that was not only deep and compelling, but accessible to all gamers.
Unfortunately that company no longer exists. Mega-sized videogame publisher EA bought Maxis and all its intellectual properties, killed it, and hung the carcass on its mantle in the form of subsidiary EA Maxis, a company which is linked with the old Maxis in name only, with Wright and all of the original team having left the company soon after the takeover.
But without a doubt Maxis' most commercially successful creation has been The Sims, one of the last great franchises created before the takeover by EA. As most everyone will know, The Sims is a life simulation game, whereby players design an individual and play through their daily life, managing relationships, careers, friendships and family. The Sims also worked splendidly as an interior designer game, allowing players to build and furnish the homes of their dreams using the hard-earned cash their Sims accumulated during the game. Each new game in the series has gone from strength to strength, introducing new features and ever-greater depth. Then EA happened.
Blah blah blah, anti-corporate whining, right? Well hold on there sparky, EA has quite a storied history of destroying great companies and franchises. EA acquired Bullfrog, developer of beloved games Theme Park and Theme Hospital, then literally gutted the company. It doesn't exist, and neither do those franchises any more. EA acquired Westwood, developer of the hugely famous Command & Conquer, a series that essentially created the real time strategy genre, and inexplicably took out all the base-building and strategy of the series and gave us the critically panned abomination that was Command & Conquer 4.
But the most recent and high profile debacle was the new SimCity 5, one of the most famous games franchises of all time, and the first videogame ever to be nominated for war-crimes at The Hague. EA took what was once a deep simulation of huge urban expanse and turned it into a glorified Facebook game. Tiny plots of land, cartoonish art design, forced and unnecessary multiplayer components, and most unforgivably, an always online requirement (a thinly veiled security check against piracy as it turns out). Not only was it an appalling game, it was barely playable due to having to connect to their congested servers.
Given the universal shitstorm EA suffered after SimCity 5, you would expect them to learn from their mistakes and deliver a better product with The Sims 4. It's incredible then, that The Sims 4 appears to be an even bigger catastrophe than SimCity 5.
The name of the game appears to be streamlining. The Sims 4 has been designed to run faster and smoother on more low-powered computers, and to accomplish this EA have cut a huge number of features out of the game.
One of the big new innovations of The Sims 3 was that everything took place in a single continuous world, which had the benefit of eliminating the need for loading screens, and also allowed Sims to leave their home and simply wander about town, or head to their jobs, shops, restaurants etc. This was really quite brilliant, as one of the weaker points of old Sims games had always been the disjointing disconnect between the isolated home and the rest of the world, for the first time in The Sims 3 Sims had complete freedom of movement via walking, or owning their own vehicle, not to mention the possibilities for exploration and discovery of secrets out in the game world.
This has all been cut from The Sims 4, individual homes are now isolated once again. In fact homes are more isolated now than they ever have been in The Sims series before. Sims can no longer walk to other properties, can no longer own vehicles, and in fact don't even get a carpool or bus to work. Now when Sims leave the property they simply "disappear". It seems fitting then that there is far less reason than ever to leave the property in the first place, with no restaurants or shops, and lacking even the most basic ability to go visit neighbours. If all that is not bad enough, the neighbourhood itself is no longer an animated, evolving, viewable location, having been replaced by a static cartoon map where you simply select the house to play.
All of those things essentially take The Sims series back to the very basic mechanics of the first Sims game... but then it gets even worse (We're going to be saying those words a lot in this review by the way).
The most inexcusable, inexplicable, impossible to believe change in the game concerns the career paths your Sims can take. It's a fact that the vast majority of Sims players project themselves into the game somewhat, and play the game at least semi-realistically. To this extent the previous games in the series have allowed Sims to pursue any manner or real-life profession, from doctor to teacher, police officer, businessman, politician, lawyer, etc. Incredibly these most basic of things have been cut from The Sims 4. The only careers present in the game now are cartoonish fantasy careers like secret agent, criminal mastermind or astronaut. In one fell swoop, EA have taken away the ability to play The Sims the way that probably 90% of people play it. It beggars belief.
So then the life-simulation aspect of the game is essentially gone. Sims can no longer leave the home to do anything, there's no town or public areas to visit, and no real careers to pursue. We really can't stress enough just how gutted out this part of the game is. You ever see the movie Misery? Because that's the life your Sims are forced to live now, reclusive and lonely hermit existences. I look forward to the first expansion pack "agoraphobic stuff".
Most learnable skills are gone, relationship managing is hugely streamlined (read: overly simplistic, even by Sims standards), there's honestly just nothing to do in this game. And of course since it's a new Sims game all of the stuff from add-ons like pets, vacations, etc are all gone, you'll have to pay another £40 each if you want those in the near future. The most laughable omission though? Toddlers are gone. That's right, your Sims now grow from a baby (which in Sims 1 style is now simply a movable object rather than another person) to a fully grown child.
But nevermind, maybe the home-building/interior decorating has been improved? Wrong. House building is now much more restrictive. Smaller lots, fewer floors, and only one foundation allowed per lot (so no sheds or guest houses). In addition major series hallmarks have been removed like swimming pools, gardens, most things really.
Another of The Sims 3's major improvements, the create-a-style which ingeniously allowed players to create their own patterns and textures for all items and clothing in immaculate detail, is completely gone. Many familiar items like pool table, hot tub, all gone. Book shelves, gone, as are all books in general. The Ephemeric likes to pretend that The Sims 4 is set in some dystopic nuclear wasteland whereupon leaving the home at all you will be mauled by angry mutated guinea pigs, and as luxury items are so rare all one can do is mournfully watch TV until the sweet caress of death takes you to Simheaven.
Also there are no dishwashers, and The Ephemeric doesn't want to live in a world without dishwashers.
So what has been added to the game? Not a whole lot. The Sims 4 looks pretty much the same as The Sims 3 from a graphics standpoint, which is still quite pretty. Some additional customization of Sim mannerisms has been added which gives a nice bit of character to your Sims. Quite notably the motives and aspirations systems have all been removed and replaced with a new "emotion system" which does pretty much the same thing, but in a much less nuanced entirely "on/off" way... not sure why anyone thought that would be an improvement.
By far the biggest (and possibly only) improvement is the addition of multi-tasking. Sims can now do multiple things at once, and in fairness that is pretty brilliant, it's just like real life. For example as we speak The Ephemeric is multi-tasking, simultaneously writing this review and contemplating over rock hard scotch why he keeps giving EA his money when they churn out such utter tosh. It's like battered-wife syndrome for gamers.
The create-a-sim mode has also been improved, allowing players to drag facial features and craft some pretty nicely detailed Sims, but of course the lack of create-a-style means that clothing your nicely detailed Sims is very restrictive, especially with the tiny selection of default clothing available.
We could go on forever about everything that's been cut out of the game, and the cynical among us would suggest that they'll all be added at a later date, and probably you'll have to pay extra for it, and at the end of the day that's exactly what The Sims 4 feels like. The Sims 4 has far, far less content than it's predecessor games, and adds very little indeed. Honestly it's incredible that this is a final, finished product rather than a very basic proof-of-concept beta version.
At best, The Sims 4 has been stripped down into a very barebones, casual Facebook-style version of The Sims without any of the depth of its predecessors, at worst it's a cash grab designed to sell you an empty shell and then charge for all the content. It's The Sims, but with half the content removed, and likely to be sold to you in addition to the hefty price you already pay for the base game. The question for existing Sims players is why would you pay this much money for a game you already own, but with all the content taken out and costing additional coin? We can't think of an answer, so save your money and get your Sims fix from The Sims 3.