Doom. Empire Earth. Driver. Master of Orion. Police Academy. What do all of these franchises have in common? Well, there’s no delicate way of saying this, but they all bought a First Class ticket for the express train to Crapsville as soon as they reached number three in the series. Okay, maybe that’s not quite true. Police Academy was never any good to begin with. But you take the point. No sooner does any creative enterprise go beyond the realms of a sequel to the dreaded point of becoming a franchise, that’s usually where quality starts to take an elegant swallow dive into the murky pool of mediocrity. The Sims is already a franchise that has quite rightly drawn a lot of criticism over the years for the way EA has systematically teased every last milky drop from the teats of one its most popular and enduring cash cows with a string of expansion packs. So now that it has reached its third incarnation, what chance that it will sidestep the usual pitfalls faced by an ageing franchise and be able to reinvent the series (in the manner of a game like Fallout 3) and keep its lofty perch at the top of the genre?
The Sims was best described by its creator, the legendary Will Wright himself, as a virtual doll’s house. Wright’s personal involvement with the series has long since ceased, but the basic principle remains true. The Sims 3 is less of a virtual doll’s house as a town of virtual dolls’ houses, however, as the game’s big selling point is that now the whole town has been fully realised without the need for loading screens as you move your characters between the different lots and buildings. This change of scale eliminates the only true flaw that affected The Sims 2 – the feeling that your virtual household was only notionally the part of a larger community. Now, your Sims can escape from the confines of their homes and gardens and take a jog down the road to the supermarket and bookshop, or perhaps take a bicycle ride to the local sports stadium.
This sense of freedom does have a cost, though. While the game’s scale is now undoubtedly grander and the game world more seamless, its overall aesthetic look is remarkably similar to The Sims 2, as the texture quality and the fidelity of the character models show only slight improvements, despite the fact that the game’s predecessor is now over four years old. No doubt this is due to the desire to keep the recommended specification for the game very modest and enable as many people as possible to buy and play the game, but there’s the definite feeling that EA could have pushed the graphics engine far more than they have. On the more practical level, having the whole town fully rendered within a single map can cause a few problems when it actually comes to sitting down and managing your Sims.
Imagine for a second that you have a household of four Sims: two adults, two children. Now imagine you have one Sim at home, another at work, another chatting to locals in the park and the fourth at the opposite end of town chilling out on the beach. So while it’s great that you can have people dotted around town doing a variety of different things at the same time, actually keeping tabs on what they’re doing becomes a whole lot more difficult, because you have to wait for the 3D camera to swoop gently all the way across town every time you want to switch between characters. Families of three or more quickly become quite unwieldy to manage, as you seem to spend more time waiting for the camera to re-focus from place to place than you actually spend giving your Sims instructions. This makes it all the more tempting to just keep them together in their house, where you can keep an eye on what everyone’s doing more easily; which kind of defeats the whole purpose of making the game render the entire town on a single map... so while the concept of a seamless town without loading screens might have looked great on the design document, when it comes to actually sitting down and running the lives of your Sims, it’s almost of much of an impediment as it is a bonus. Perhaps this will be less of an issue for people who are content to let their Sims act more autonomously, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to micromanage every aspect of their Sims’ lives, the constant camera swooping as you cycle through family members will quickly become tiresome and annoying.
This problem is symptomatic of some other aspects of the game, too. There are several new features that sound great in theory, only for there to be a large downside to its practical implications in the game. A good case in point is the newly revamped Create-a-Sim tool. One of the much-vaunted features of the new Create-a-Sim tool is that the body shape can now be changed from the decidedly emaciated to the positively flabby, and it’s perhaps a consequence of this that now all the Sims seem a bit chubby around the chops, even if you’ve given them a slender body shape. So while you could literally spend hours fiddling around with all the appearance options, from changing the angle of the tip of the nose, the height of the cheekbones or the arch of the eyebrows, this myriad number of tweakable options only makes it far trickier to create passable likenesses of the friends, family members or celebrities you want to put into the game. Being all shallow for a second, it’s much more difficult (compared to The Sims 2) to create a good-looking Sim. It shouldn’t really make that much of a difference in terms of gameplay, but it’s so much harder to have any empathy with your creations if you don’t find them pleasing to look at (See also: “The Nice Ass Defence”, which is often employed by male MMORPG players that use female characters – that is, if you’re going to spend a few hundred hours staring at the bum of a third-person avatar on a screen, it might as well be a woman’s…).
Even the developer-created characters have taken a dive from the top of the ugly tree, hit every branch on the way down and then climbed back up to the top for another go. At least there is plenty of scope for customisation in what your character can wear. While the selection of clothes packaged with the game is relatively limited, the manner in which you can customise them is nothing less than staggering. Colour, pattern and even the material can be changed, so if you want a black metal waistcoat worn over a pink shirt with a red and purple flame pattern superimposed on it, it’s possible to create this with a few simple clicks. A similar level of customisation can be made when colouring the hair of your Sims, too. Separate colours can be given to the base, roots, highlights and tips of the hair, and different hairstyles can be selected for each outfit. So even if your creations have taken a severe beating with the ugly stick, at least there are no excuses for being badly dressed or having bad hair.