Reviewed: July 9, 2003
Released: September 30, 2002
The category of computer games we call simulations, or “sims” for short, is actually quite diverse, but the games we label as such all have one obvious thing in common; they are designed to simulate a real life experience on the computer. Competitive simulations can put a player in the driver’s seat of a formula race car or the cockpit of a jet fighter, surrounding him with authentic instrumentation and giving him the feeling of “being there” as he attempts to win the race or shoot down his foes.
The earliest and truest simulations are not so much competitive games as they are open-ended experiences. Game developer Maxis defined the genre with Sim City, an urban planning and management title as popular today as it was when introduced over fourteen years ago. Amazingly, though each of Sim City’s three successive remakes boasted ever improved graphics and greater depth and complexity of gameplay, all remained true to the format that made the original a classic, a testament to the enduring nature of this type of game.
Finding its niche, Maxis went on to develop more than a dozen other Sim titles of varying quality and success, but none had ever captured gamers’ imaginations like the Sim City series, until 1999, when Maxis introduced the The Sims, a title that could have more descriptively been called “Sim Life”. While games such as Sim Theme Park recreated specific experiences (e.g. building and managing a theme park), The Sims let you simulate the entire human experience from birth to death.
Allowing people to play God to their own virtual people-pets has proved so appealing that Maxis has gotten away with spawning a record five (soon to be six) expansion packs which provide new options and experiences for those cute little cyber personalities.
The Sims Deluxe is not an expansion, but a repackaging of the original game with the first add-on, Livin’ Large, and some extra goodies thrown in. If you already own the original Sims, you don’t need Deluxe. But if you’re a latecomer to this engaging artificial world, then Sims Deluxe is a great way to start catching up.
Sims Deluxe (everything here applies to the original Sims as well) allows the player to create one or more virtual people, buy or build a house for them, and set their lives in motion. Once alive, these ‘sims’ must take care of the big issues like finding a job and earning a paycheck as well as perform mundane tasks like eating and showering, even going to the bathroom. The player can decide how much, or how little control to exert over his creations. He can sit back and watch them run their own lives, force them to do his bidding, or give them general direction.
Be warned that Sims Deluxe is more challenging than it seems. Even if you give your sims little autonomy in their actions, you have no say over their state of mind. The saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink’ is well remembered. You can keep a Sim from using the bathroom when he needs to, but sooner or later he’ll have an accident, and be quite distraught over it. If he gets too unhappy and becomes depressed, it’ll be difficult to get him to do anything.
You don’t win or lose the game, it has no objective except as life itself has objectives; for some of us, that objective might be “he who dies with the most toys wins”. I found it quite natural to translate the rat race to the small screen, finding better jobs and working my little sim’s way up the corporate ladder to earn more money to buy a bigger house and nicer furniture, eventually adopting a lifestyle which requires an even higher paying job and so on, until daddy Sim has the cyber equivalent of a nervous breakdown.
Therein lies the true beauty and appeal of this title. Each sim has a complex physical/ psychological/ intellectual/ social profile, so each is an individual, reacting differently to his or her environment. Sims get hungry, happy, and sad. Getting dirty will bother Felix Unger sims to the point where they can’t function, while Oscar Madison sims won’t even notice. Sims like some of their contemporaries, and dislike others.
When reviewing a racing game, I might talk about the game’s physics model. Here it would be more appropriate to discuss the game’s behavior model. When first playing Sims, one does not appreciate how complex that model actually is. For example, one might not realize that choosing a more expensive couch or cheaper one isn’t simply a matter of the player’s sense of aesthetics and his willingness to spend. Each couch has both an appeal rating and a comfort rating. If the sim finds one couch more beautiful, she will be happier, and the effects of this pleasure will spill over into other facets of her life. If the sim finds one couch more comfortable, she will suffer less fatigue and be more rested, perhaps improving her performance on the job.
Sims react to every item in their world in subtle and not so subtle ways. They can read books to improve their cooking skills and hopefully avoid burning their houses down. They can exercise to improve their fitness and get that promotion if their job requires strength. They can play chess to sharpen their mental faculties. And, as in real life, the more expensive couch usually (but not always) is the better couch.
Fortunately, Sims does not take itself too seriously. There is enough campiness and good-natured humor in the game to keep it light and pleasant, and to keep bringing a smile to the player’s lips. When one of my sims died tragically, burning to death in a freak fireworks accident, the grim reaper himself appeared, cowl, scythe and all, and allowed another sim to try to win her life back in a game of odds and evens. It was like watching a couple of school kids playing for a chocolate bar.
Sims Deluxe is viewed from a third person isometric perspective, giving the player a good view of his entire house at one time. The graphics quality is adjustable, depending on your computer’s processing power, and is very crisp at the higher resolution, more than adequate at the lower. Visuals are quite pleasant, and have lost none of their charm despite the lack of a major overhaul in the Deluxe version. The interface is extremely clean and intuitive, and allows the player to view his world from just about any camera angle.
Don’t expect to see expressive faces on your little sims. They’re too small. You’ll just have to rely on their exaggerated body gestures to cue you in on whether they’re angry, happy, or perhaps feelin’ a little frisky. Their comic book style speech bubbles and humorous voices are a giveaway as well.
Speaking of voices, Sims have their own language which has to be heard to be appreciated. Almost Seussical verbiage is accompanied by speech bubbles that contain pictures rather than words; the overall effect contributes to the game’s humor and charm.
There’s no in-game music, (unless one of your sims turns on a radio) and it’s not really missed, but there’s plenty going on in the way of ambient sounds, with vivid positional audio, even on a two-speaker system.
The Sims is, by its nature, one of the most replayable titles ever developed for the computer. The newly repackaged Sims Deluxe adds even more value by including the Livin’ Large expansion pack, Sims Creator, and additional items created for this package.
Livin’ Large, perhaps because it was the first, is the least inspired of the expansions. It’s pretty much a collection of new items across the board- skins and clothing for your sims, some new neighborhoods with new houses, and lots of new furniture and other toys for your sims to interact with.
Though not included in the package, the mere existence of the other expansion packs adds to the franchise’s value. Once you’ve caught Sims fever, you can pick up one or more of the add-ons anytime you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket. All of the major stores still carry them in quantity.
Sims Creator is another nice extra included in Deluxe which gives you the tools to custom create your own sims. Make them look like your family and friends, or even celebrities.
A loyal modding community and strong company support make the Sims environment highly expandable. Literally thousands of items are available online for free downloading (use a search engine to find them), with lots of goodies available at Maxis’ website.
If you already own The Sims, don’t bother with Deluxe because much of the added content, including several different apps for creating custom sims, is available online for free. But if you haven’t yet experienced the Sims phenomenon, the new Deluxe package is a great way to get your feet wet. Guiding your sims through their lives can be a very challenging and rewarding experience. It’s also just plain fun.