Reviewed: November 17, 2005
Released: October 24, 2005
I've always been a fan of Maxis games. From the time I was about eight, I grew up with all the classics: first SimCity, then SimAnt, SimEarth, SimLife and even Yoot Saito's SimTower. And when I got my hands on a copy of the original The Sims, I was excited to say the least. Of course, that was before I found out that the copy I'd managed to procure had no instructions. After a brief stint toying around with it and watching all my Sims more or less die of bladder problems, I forgot all about it and went back to the sort of console gaming I had grown more accustomed to in the years between my pre-teen childhood and post-graduation adulthood.
With the console release of The Sims 2 for all the major systems, the time has come for me to get off my lazy, RPG-and-adventure playing bum and come back to the type of game I had all but forgotten about: the simulation. The Sims 2 has the trademark Maxis effect of seeming mildly entertaining at first, and then sucking days of your life away with its details. But despite it being a very good game overall, it doesn't escape a few problems with the console translation of it to the GameCube.
Most of you reading this know more about The Sims than I do, so I'll be brief. Maxis' latest opus puts players in control of the lives of Sims, funny little virtual people who laugh, cry, eat, drink, pee and dance around looking like idiots, just like most of us. The game offers two basic modes of play, including a loosely defined story mode with specific goals and a free play, 'sandbox' mode for those who just want to mess around for a while.
In the story mode, you'll guide your personally created Sim through a few months of his or her virtual life, making friends and enemies, learning how to do various things (and do them better than before), and generally being silly whenever the opportunity presents itself. The starting area is a simple, basic three bedroom house with a cramped layout. Your Sim arrives early, but is soon joined by two roommates, a man named Ossie and a girl, Felicity.
Ossie is a nice enough fellow, but a total slob, as evidenced by the piles of trash all over the house, and Felicity is bubbly, with a penchant for turning on the stereo in the middle of the night and dancing her little virtual heart out. As you help your Sim do all the things necessary to his life, with a bit of tutorial direction, things will begin to happen.
As is the case with any sim game, what actually happens isn't satisfying so much as the idea that, in a way, you made it happen yourself. For example, befriending and then becoming romantically entangled with a roommate is immensely enjoyable, not only because it's entertaining to watch them flirt with each other, but because you, the player, guided your character to that point in her life.
It's worth mentioning that the Sim creator is detailed and flexible. There are literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of possible combinations. For my first couple, I busied myself designing the ickiest-looking '70s-reject creep I could, and partnered him with an innocuous-looking female Sim. Needless to say, I was both disgusted and entertained as I guided them gently into true love (although my female Sim had enough sense to spurn the male's advances towards marriage). My girlfriend made a pretty decent facsimile of Maynard James Keenan, front man of Tool and A Perfect Circle. It's not quite at the level of City of Heroes' peerless character creator, but it's close.
In free play mode, you're free to create an entire family of Sims, rather than just one. You then pick a plot of land (or a pre-made house, if you're dull like that) and alter the property any way you see fit with a few thousand dollars in start-up funds. The house/yard editor is the main reason that free play mode is my favorite mode to play in. There are a large number of design choices to make, with varying costs, and hundreds of different objects both functional and otherwise to populate your Sims' dwelling with.
From wallpaper and flooring tiles to bubble machines, anti-gravity showers and a "vibro-matic love bed" shaped like a heart, the options are nigh endless. I often found myself having more fun designing my own house than I did creating my Sims. The best part, of course, is when everything is ready and the two aspects of free play mode (Sims and property) can come together. In true simulator fashion, you can even forgo control of your Sims entirely and just watch as they interact with each other via a sophisticated AI.
My only problems with free play mode are a few missing design choices in the build tool (most notably curtains and/or draperies), and a nasty control issue. When trying to lay walls for a house, the cursor is controlled by the left analog stick, but the translation of that control from the PC version is awful (not having played The Sims 2 on PC, I am making an informed assumption here that click-and-drag is a more natural fit).
On the GameCube, it's far too lose. The cursor throws itself spastically this way and that as you try to get your wall to line up and meet the others. A 'sticky' or 'snap-to' effect would have helped a great deal here, or, barring that, simply a lower sensitivity on the stick. Usually, the GameCube's analog stick feels smooth and well gradated in comparison to those of the other major consoles. Here, it felt shaky and loose. I did not have the problem outside of build mode.
Generally speaking, The Sims 2 is everything I could have hoped for and more. It isn't perfect: the controls can get messy and, in addition to there being no drapery options for windows, I found that it is more or less impossible to create an inner courtyard for a house due to the way the creator reads walls. However, what's important to really enjoying the game is here in spades: near-limitless freedom in determining your Sim's appearance and personality, plenty of small details and interactions, a good sense of pacing to the length of activities, and enough humor and humanity to leave even a jaded person feeling strangely charmed and amused by the overall experience. It's fun, flexible and never the same game twice.
While I wouldn't venture so far as to call the graphics in The Sims 2 anything resembling "excellent," they aren't bad. Considering that the game has to allow for eight or ten people on-screen at once (from time to time), the level of detail each Sim possesses is admirable. Camera controls are natural, being almost entirely manipulated via the C-stick. A bit more of a zoom would have been nice, but it's easy enough to get decently close to whatever it is you'd like to look at. Jaggies are at a bare minimum, too, doubly impressive considering that zoomable camera angle.
However, the game's limitations appear around the edges, and it's doubtful that EA and Maxis couldn't have made them at least somewhat better than they are. When placing objects around my Sim's house, I noticed that all of the other objects nearby would more or less become invisible except for one, which changed as I rotated the camera. This phenomenon persisted even when I was not manipulating an object, but simply moving the camera around. This can become a bit of an annoyance when trying to figure exact placement for an item relative to the others in the room.
The Sims themselves, of course, are the main focal point of the game itself. They look good up close and from a distance. Once again, the level of variation allowed for by the Sim creator is impressive, and every item, tattoo and hairstyle looks just as clear and well rendered as all the others. Aside from occasional lack of minute detail (which cannot be noticed outside of the creator anyway, since it's impossible to get that close to them via camera zooming) and slightly exaggerated body movements (probably a conscious design choice, really), the Sims look pretty realistic while still maintaining a cartoonish distance from the real world. We can enjoy messing around with them because they seem so much like real people, and yet there's a safe visual distance between them and us, which I believe is just the right mix for the game's unique brand of entertainment.
While there are barely any sound effects and only four or five ambient songs in The Sims 2, what the series is really known for sound-wise is the "dialog," such as it is. "Sim-speak" is back in full force here, and sillier than ever. It's practically a full facet of the game in and of itself. The Sims' language is utter nonsense, and yet it sounds so close to a real language that inflection is all that is needed to convey a lot of fairly complex ideas and emotions. They belt out songs in the shower, tease and compliment each other, and converse in neutral tones on the phone. The fact that all of this can be conveyed without the use of a single actual word is a testament to its effectiveness. And of course, it can be wildly funny, too. Try using the "Sexy Growl" emote on your Sim's significant other to see what I mean.
Outside of those four or five often-repetitive background music tracks, the music in The Sims 2 is actually very good - in a way. Once you've got a radio, jukebox or something better installed in your Sims' house, they can listen to music from a number of different genres - all sung in Sim speech. From pop-punk to nu-metal to gothic industrial, one of the most entertaining things about this game is simply flipping through the radio stations and saying, "that sounds exactly like...!" Of course, it isn't really who it sounds like. But the similarities are so striking that, from a room away, it would not be hard to convince someone that what they were hearing from the game's alternative rock station was, in fact, a Counting Crows song.
On one hand, there's an awful lot of value in any game like this. One of my old favorite Maxis sim games, SimAnt, was so simple that, after playing it for a week off and on, I'd done every possible thing I could do in it. Yet the freeform, open-ended style of the game made it so fascinating that I played it again and again for years. Considering that The Sims 2 probably has roughly 1,000 times as many possible things to do, its base replay value is nothing to sneeze at. It also helps that the game is so easy to get the hang of in the first place. The controls and menus can be learned inside and out in the course of an hour or two.
On the other hand, there's just no way to cut things that will make this version of the game look like a better value than the PC version. The game's memory card space requirement is a monstrous 147 blocks - more than half of an average gamer's entire memory card. There are already a couple of expansions out for it, and the expansions actually cost less than it will to buy an entire new game/expansion for the GameCube when they start coming out. In other words, if you've got the capacity to do so, it's much more cost-effective in the long run to buy The Sims 2 for PC and then pick up the expansion packs at roughly $30 each, rather than buying it for the 'Cube and paying $40 or more for stand-alone versions of those expansions as they become available (and more for a new memory card, in many cases).
All that being said, The Sims 2 is certainly worth picking up in any form, and should provide most people with weeks upon weeks of entertainment.
The Sims 2 is one of those games that, like its predecessor, appeals to almost everyone and practically never gets old. By updating the graphics and sound from the first Sims game, and adding in a simpler contextual control scheme (the classic queue-style controls are still available for purists), EA has on its hands what is sure to be another big hit. I for one am certainly glad that I gave The Sims a second chance. It's been an awful long time since I gave a Maxis simulation a whirl.
Minor building issues aside, The Sims 2 carries the torch admirably with gameplay that could almost be called educational, if it weren't all so silly and entertaining. It's absorbing, addictive and passive enough that people who dislike most console games should feel right at home. The Sims 2 probably is not worth picking up if you've already got the PC version, but otherwise it's a sure bet for a great holiday gift - or any other time, for that matter.