Bizarre architecture? Check. Green diamonds floating above heads? Check. People gibbering nonsense, having tempestuous affairs and then crying when they wet themselves in public? Check, check and check. All of this can mean only one thing: the world's greatest living dolls house has returned.
The original Sims was a genuine landmark in gaming - a brilliant concept, perfectly executed - and Maxis seems to have spent the past nine years expanding the series in every possible direction. Some critics might argue that there have been too many add-ons and extensions, that the developers have been excessively pumping the udders of the Sims Cash Cow - but I disagree. After all, this is essentially a life simulation: there will always be more places to go. There will always be new avenues of exploration with this series, and there will always be people who want to go there. If it's good gaming, who's complaining?
According to MJ Chun, the game's assistant producer, The Sims 3 is largely focused on the little people themselves: who they are and how they act. In addition to greater-than-ever-before freedom when it comes to each Sim's appearance, you'll now have to determine the facets that make up their personality. In previous games, character creation was a matter of distributing points across several behaviour categories, a system not too dissimilar to the average RPG. Now you'll get to directly pick the defining elements of a Sim's nature, choosing five traits from a list of 65.
As you might imagine, this gives you a huge amount of scope for building the weirdo of your dreams. If you want to make a lazy kleptomaniac who's a hopeless romantic but also a paranoid hydrophobic - you can. Or perhaps you'd prefer a nosy vegetarian daredevil who loves to flirt but hates taking off their clothes? Each choice you make will affect the Sim's ultimate goals, and in some cases it will unlock specific actions: nasty Sims, for example, can be a douchebag in ways that a nice Sim cannot. Infant Sims start off with only two traits, gaining more as they grow up. At the preview event I attended, someone had made a baby that was Evil and Insane; I hope for their sake that they weren't replicating their own child.
Of course, the nice thing about all this choice is that it makes it very easy for stories to spontaneously form in your head. With the huge range of trait combinations and the expanded control over your Sim's features, colour and shape, Maxis is promising that we'll be able to build pretty much anyone we like. While I only got to toy around with the game for fifteen minutes or so, it was clear that Sims will have a huge array of actions and interactions: selecting one Sim and clicking on a neighbour was enough to summon a menu of over eight different behaviours. Apparently the AI has been given a major overhaul for this release, so you won't need to worry so much about telling your little people to eat or go to the toilet- they're far better at taking care of themselves.
It's not just your own Sims who've been given better brains, either. The virtual city that your families inhabit has also received a cerebral makeover, to the extent that it's now filled with a whole community of autonomous NPCs, all of whom will go about their daily business. Players can choose to visit the town at any moment they desire: There's no loading screen for such jaunts - the Sim or Sims you've selected will simply hop into a car and drive there. The entire town exists as a cohesive virtual world. If you want, you can get your people to meet and befriend the NPCs, but if you don't, they'll still exist and go about their daily business. It sounds like the kind of thing that would give most programmers nightmares, to be honest - so I'm impressed.
While some buildings in town, like the school, will be places that Sims disappear into for set periods of time, most will be open sites that you're free to explore - art galleries, museums and the like. These locations should ensure that you always have somewhere to go if you're bored of your own home. Maxis also says that you'll be able to redesign "public" buildings in the same manner as your own house, so hopefully you'll be able to ruin the post office by filling it with toilets. I didn't get much time to play around with the construction side of things, but apparently the big development in this area is the Create-A-Style tool. In a nutshell, the player will now be able to edit the exact colour and material of any object in the game. You can alter your fridge so that it has a wooden door and a main body made out of pink leather, and thanks to the new colour-wheels you'll be able to pick out exactly the right tone to clash with your avocado carpet.
On top of all this expanded creativity, The Sims 3 is also due to come with some fairly powerful video editing tools. As many of you know, Sims 2 has become a popular choice for people making spoof films and the like, and this time around Maxis is looking to embrace such machinima right from the get-go. Details are fairly scarce at the moment, but we do know that the system will be designed for easy uploading to YouTube. This sounds like a pretty smart move to me.
A game like The Sims will only reveal its true depths over an extended period of time, so it's something of an understatement to say there's still a lot to see. All the same, my fifteen minutes was enough to re-pique my interest in this series, to the extent that I'm seriously thinking of dusting off my old Mac copy of The Sims 1 (it couldn't quite handle Sims 2. Incidentally, the new game will come on a disc that will work on both PC and Mac - always a nice touch). The bottom line is that The Sims 3 is looking pretty exciting, and I can't wait to delve headfirst into everything it has to offer - let alone the numerous expansions that will inevitably follow.
The Sims 3 is due for release on PC and Mac on June 5.