People insist on telling me that The Sims was the most unpredictable videogame phenomenon ever to occur. Fact is, they're all talking rubbish. The Sims is quite possibly one of the most predictable successes of our time. By its very premise it was bound to attract an audience much larger and more varied than anything that had gone before it. The Sims gave PC gaming a friendly leg-up over the walls of its traditional market boundaries, allowing it to gawp open-mouthed at the massive audience that could be open to it. Beyond the walls of gaming's stereotypical audience lies a massive multitude of people just waiting to be turned on to it, most of them women, and The Sims really did something towards capitalising upon this inexplicably ignored wealth of opportunity. The Sims, as the best-selling PC game of all time, truly was a game for everyone.
EA, of course, being the adorably grasping corporation that it is, took advantage of this unforeseen situation by releasing more add-ons and expansion packs than Jeremy Beadle has had bullets aimed at him. It's hard to see what anyone could possibly add to a sequel that hasn't been already thought of (you can even subject your original Sims to guinea pig plague, for crying out loud). This fact, coupled with the unnecessary Â£40 price tag (come on, EA, we all know it's going to be a success either way - why the cruel extortion of your customers?), could easily make one wonder if The Sims 2 is a game already severely past its time; after all, no success as great as its predecessor's can easily be repeated.
I, like half the British populous, went through a significant period of time a few years ago when my Sims were pretty much all I could think about. When Livin' It Up came out, I was overjoyed. Then came House Party, after which I'd pretty much had enough. Then came Hot Date, On Vacation, Superstar, Unleashed, Makin' Magic and any others I may have missed out, none of which, I must admit, I have any experience of whatsoever. Why? Because whatever you add onto it, The Sims' appeal is essentially an obsessive but finite thing. All that a new add-on can do is reawaken one's original love of the game, but that original addiction never changes in itself.
All I can say is that The Sims 2 has been one hell of a reawakening. I didn't sleep for about three days succeeding my procurement of the game. Again that unrelenting obsession with the relationships, health, welfare, abilities and sleep patterns of my virtual people kept me glued to the screen of a computer that, as a predominantly console-based gamer, has been gathering dust in the corner for approximately six months since I got the last Sims Deluxe pack for it. I think the reason that so many were baffled by The Sims' original success is that they simply couldn't understand exactly what it was about the game that kept people sitting rigid in their chairs for such prolonged amounts of time, and thankfully that ingredient X is what certainly has not changed in The Sims 2. What has changed is that there are now several additions to the formula which make the playing experience just that bit more fluid and, theoretically, that bit more engaging than it was before.
It's very clear from the game that Maxis has listened to its fans. They wanted more romance, more believability, better and more complicated interaction between the Sims themselves, rather than more and more things for them to play with. Happily, there is no way that anybody could be disappointed with the comprehensive array of options that the Sims 2 presents us with. Sims now have significantly more complex relationships, emotions and needs, and what's more, they look much more loveable too. The fact that the Sims really look like proper little people this time around serves only to add to the absorption factor; their varied facial expressions and reactions invite us to really care about them in a way which some would no doubt say was severely unhealthy. Despite this, there still appear to be a large number of hateful beasts who would rather kill their Sims in amusing ways than guide them through happy and fulfilled lives - but hey, we all know that videogames turn us into desensitised monsters.
The most significant addition to the Sims' complexity as personalities comes in the form of their Aspirations - as well as the usual wants and needs of daily life, the Sims now have more idealistic desires, such as buying a nice TV, getting married, teaching their children to talk or simply a quick game of SSX 3 (which, yes, you can buy for them along with SimCity and - SchrÃ¶dinger would have a field day - their OWN copy of the Sims). They have one general aspiration in life - family, romance, popularity, wealth or knowledge - and from this one general aim spring hundreds of varied individual desires which really help define the Sims as individuals. Satisfying these desires will help them to become happy, balanced individuals, and also of course lets you buy them rewards.
We also have a variety of other complications to get to grips with - many new mannerisms (some of them slouch, some of them like to read newspapers in the bath, some of them scratch themselves inappropriately), more complex Sim-to-Sim interactions, closer family relationships and, most importantly, several different stages of Sim-life. From Sim-babies they become Sim-toddlers, at which point they have to learn to walk and talk and potty train to become children, who later become hormone-addled spotty Teens and, eventually, progress into boring old adulthood before retiring to Elder status. Sadly, this also means that Sims can die - and an addict like me would say that it's often before their time. Keep your Sims extremely happy, however, and you can buy them an Elixir of Life that'll keep them going for as long as you can keep supplying it...
Genetics, too, play a larger part in the game than one would have expected. Sims can now look quite literally any way you want them to, with significant appearance and personality traits being passed down from generation to generation. Sims will know when they've become grandparents and will pop over to have a chat with their grandchildren; aunts will randomly pick their baby nieces or nephews out of cots and feed them. There are also differences in Sims' interactions with items - typically, though, EA has left plenty of room for expansion packs by halving the number of items that Sims can buy for their delectation.
Enough of this description, though. A lot is new, and we can see that now; but what hasn't changed? Is The Sims as addictive as it used to be? Has Maxis made a mistake and over-complicated things? I've already said that the Sims' original appeal was an obsessive but finite thing, and though that still holds true, I can confidently say that the obsession here will last a lot longer. There's so much more to play with, so many new needs to satisfy, so much more to love about your new Sims that it takes physical effort to tear oneself away from the game, and by the time you do get bored of it there'll undoubtedly be an expansion pack waiting in the wings - we already have Sims University on the way, which will add a whole new time-zone to Sims' lives (that's Young Adult, folks, for those not up-to-speed).
Just about the best thing that I can say about this game in relation to its predecessor is that The Sims 2 never degenerates into the obligatory wake-eat-shower-gotowork-sleep-wake-eat-shower process that the original Sims' addicts eventually ended up experiencing. Sims simply want more this time around. You'll like them more, they'll engage you more, and they'll continue to frequently surprise you hours and hours in. The wonderful thing about the Sims is that those who genuinely get into it really, truly care about their little peoples' welfare. It's near-impossible for a Sim-addict not to get unreasonably excited about a new Sim-baby or a new Sim-TV or a new Maxis download. Playing the Sims is quite a personal experience and you can always take solace in the knowledge that you're not the only person who feels deeply afflicted by the death of a much-loved Sim, with the Maxis boards brimming as they are with fans and questions and user-created scenery, skins and buildings.
I cannot recommend this game enough. It remains uniquely personal, terrifyingly addictive and great fun to play. Despite EA's cruelty in charging us Â£40 for the privilege (and the abuse their staff may or may not have gone through in making it), it's worth getting ahold of under any circumstances - though it's far more likely to get ahold of you somehow. And I warn you: it won't let go.