Cast your mind back to the glorious technicolour world of ten years ago. You’ll probably remember getting your first wifi router, having to wear sunglasses to cope with HD TV sets, and morons pretending to enjoy Razorlight songs. You may also remember that Maxis used to be synonymous with quality within the games industry. Riding high with the release of The Sims 2, it seemed everything that the legendary designer Will Wright and his team touched was an instant hit. However, a team riding the crest of a wave has only one place to go; back to shore. From the disappointment of Spore to the bungled release of SimCity, it seems that Maxis can’t quite get anything right these days. So, when The Sims 4 was revealed to have fewer features than its predecessor, fans were understandably dubious.
While it doesn’t bode well to start a review with a list of missing features, this is the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in. The Sims 4 eschews several elements that were introduced in The Sims 3 and before, such as swimming pools, basements, and most importantly, persistent neighbourhoods. If you want your sims to travel to a different lot, go on a date, or simply go to school/work, you’ll either be presented with a loading screen, or you’ll have to wait around in an empty house like a cursed spirit until they return. In this sense, The Sims 4 plays more like The Sims 2.5.
For those who may have skipped The Sims 3 (like me), you’ll find The Sims 4 very familiar. The basic premise of the game is the same; create some virtual people and impose your own machinations upon them, whether they be dastardly or benign. You can force your sims not to use the toilet until they publicly pee their pants, thus simulating your last school reunion. You can lock them in a room until they ultimately starve to death, place their urn on the mantelpiece, and have their ghost haunt a newlywed couple who have just moved in. You can create a family full of green children, take them to the park, and make them all play on a jungle gym like a bunch of space aliens that got distracted during an invasion of Earth. The neighbourhood is your playground, and you’re encouraged to go wild.
However, the main reasons for a new Sims title become apparent in the more subtle moments that the game provides. The Sims 4 provides a major upgrade in the way that sims interact with each other. Sims now have a wider range of social interactions, some of which are contextual to their current mood and personality. A sim who has just had a promotion or practiced speech in the mirror will get a confidence boost that will allow him to flex his muscles at the local gym. Hot-headed sims will actively gain pleasure from starting fights, or, as was the case with one of my sims, berating a small child and lying to them about their parents dying. All social encounters are different and an absolute joy to behold, especially now that sims can chat while doing different things from each other. A sim dancing to music can socialise with people eating at the dinner table, which is a nice touch, even if it is a bit distracting for those trying to enjoy their fish tacos.
Setting a sim’s personality through the Create A Sim mode is where the game first introduces you to this new level of social sophistication. You give them a series of personality traits that can create some truly unique behaviours. For example, I created a sim who was hot-headed and liked being outdoors, so she used to get unreasonably angry if she was cooped up indoors for too long. Naturally, I kept her in a dimly lit room for as long as possible. I came back shortly and found her picking a fight with a local jogger near the house.
The Create A Sim, while not vastly dissimilar from earlier games, is robust and surprisingly flexible. Certain parts of your sims can be pulled around like putty, and the customisation goes quite deep. While the customisation options present you with a lot of opportunities to really tinker with your sim’s appearance, the presets in the game are quite limited. Those wanting to jump into a game quickly may find themselves taking far longer than they wish to create a simple family. Regardless, the versatility of the creation screen is impressive, and the ability to give your sims different walking styles is a nice touch that really helps to bring them to life.
Build Mode offers you the opportunity to craft houses from scratch, decorate them with garish wallpapers that would turn Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen inside out with rage, and buy trinkets to keep your sims satisfied. Out of the box, The Sims 4 doesn’t seem to offer an awful lot of choice on this front and lacks a lot of variety that was present in previous games. The tools on offer work great, giving you the ability to create architectural nightmares that wouldn’t look out of place in an Escher painting, but putting your own individual stamp on your house is quite narrow. This is sure to become more populated when the onslaught of expansions start to be released, and the game is ready for that with a nice curation system and search features that will help you find just what you’re looking for.
Overall, The Sims 4 is a leap forward for the series when it comes to simulating people’s lives and their relationships. The interactivity and the way in which each sim feels more individual and intelligent is a feature that has been missing since the first Sims game. Your families no longer feel like lifeless puppets waiting for their next orders, and that makes the core game incredibly fun. On the other hand, in terms of gameplay and features, The Sims 4 feels really bare. Even for a series that has a reputation for providing a basic experience in the base game, this feels like a cynical attempt to sell expansion packs. No doubt holidays, pets and additional furniture (the current furnishing options feel rather limited) will be available later at a cost, but for now, The Sims 4 doesn’t quite feel like a complete game.