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.
Slightly more successful are the changes to the personality system. Character traits replace the Zodiac signs used in previous versions of The Sims to determine the personality of your characters. Adult Sims may have up to five separate traits which can be chosen from a list of over sixty. Certain traits are mutually exclusive (such as the Good and Evil traits), while others form natural combinations. Evil, Genius, Insane and Kleptomaniac are especially good if you want to attempt to go for the Emperor of Evil life aspiration, for example. Traits also allow your Sims to perform personality-specific actions. Sims with the Inappropriate trait will always be able to insult or kiss other Sims, regardless of how well they know them, while Sims with the Flirty trait gives access to romantic interaction options with other Sims far earlier than normal, and Insane Sims may choose to go to bed in their swimsuit and go swimming in their underwear. With thousands of potential trait combinations, the personality system is intended to provide far more replay value than the star signs you were able to choose in the previous two Sims games. In practicality, however, the way certain traits allow some interactions (such as kissing or flirting) to be permanently available, regardless of relationship level, actually feels less rewarding than having to work for them. It's arguable that this might make the game more accessible, but in the long term, making two Sims fall in love and get married because they spent time courting and getting to know each other feels more satisfying than being able to do the same in a much shorter time because one Sim had the Hopeless Romantic trait and the other was a Great Kisser.
The character traits you choose for your Sim will determine their lifetime aspiration, which is tied to a certain career path. The careers themselves remain mostly unchanged, though there have been several welcome changes. You are now able to choose how hard your Sim works at their job, and now the job opportunities take the form of tasks, rather than 50-50 questions that were just as likely as to get you demoted or fired as they were to help you earn your next promotion. Jobs now also pay on an hourly basis, rather than per day, which means that you can earn extra cash by doing overtime, if the opportunity arises. Promotions are still dependent upon your Sim's skills and their mood, but the number of family friends is no longer a factor in how high you can climb up the career ladder. For some people this will be a great relief, having only to cosy up to the boss and your co-workers (which can be done while you're at work, by selecting the appropriate work action underneath the action queue while your Sim is doing their job), rather than try to maintain friendships with a dozen Sims or more to reach the highest tier of the career path. The counter-argument, of course, is that this change makes the game too easy. The whole point of originally linking career progression to the number of family friends was that it would encourage the player to socialise with the community-at-large and have children to broaden the family's social circle. By removing this link, you can make your Sims reach the peak of their chosen career without even entering a single non-work relationship. So while The Sims and The Sims 2 was structured in a way that encouraged family life across all the generations, The Sims 3 allows your characters to be friendless, individualistic people who only live for their jobs; which is certainly realistic compared to what happens in modern society, but not exactly terrific fun to play.
When it comes to the actual day-to-day, hour-to-hour management of the members of your household, again there have been changes. The AI of the Sims has been improved and the decay rates of the mood stats (Hunger, Bladder, Energy, etc) have been toned down to make them less reliant on micromanagement by the player and the icons in the action queue now show tooltips to let you monitor how long an action will take to complete. The Wants and Fears system employed by The Sims 2 has been replaced with a simplified version that tracks the wishes of your Sim, which may be as simple as wanting to have waffles for breakfast or as life-changing as wanting to have a baby. Fulfilling these wishes gives your Sim reward points that can be redeemed for personality modifiers or reward objects. Again, these rewards are a bit of a mixed bunch. Some of the personality modifiers, such as the Steel Bladder attribute, are virtually essential, but the reward objects, like the Collection Helper (a device shows collectable items on the town map), are luxuries at best and superfluous at worst. Most worrying, however, is that the rewards have lost their sense of fun. What's happened to the Eclectic And Enigmatic Energiser, the SimVac and the Love Tub?
The Sims 2 was the video game equivalent of Sunset Beach: A soap opera chock-full with beautiful people, small, shonky sets and more overwrought melodrama than you could shake a stick at. It reflected aspects of real life with its revolutionary level of interaction and the beautiful intricacy of its animation, but it never took itself too seriously along the way. The Sims 3, by comparison, is more like Eastenders - and not just in the ugliness of its cast. The pervading sense of playfulness from its predecessors has been lost in the nuances of the character animation and the way you interact with the game world hasn't really changed. In essence, it feels much more like Sims 2.5 than Sims 3. It's missing the vital spark of innovation that made the first two games so special. Instead, it takes The Sims 2 and broadens the canvas and makes a few interface tweaks. The only dramatic step forward is having the town fully rendered on a single map, but that doesn't actually change the way you play the game that much. The game smacks of EA's traditional, safe development strategy: take what people like and make it shinier. There's a distinct lack of ambition and a worrying lack of content. The Sims 2 shipped with three separate towns. Out of the box, The Sims 3 only has one. Hairstyles and clothes that were available in the base game of Sims 2 are curiously missing from its successor. Which brings us neatly to the biggest thing about The Sims 3 that will have the alarm bells of cynics worldwide clattering loudly: In a single, horrible, compound word: micro-transactions.
Registering your game with EA's Sims Store will allow you to download a second town for free and also grant your account 1000 Sims Points (worth $10), which you can use to purchase new clothes, hairstyles or household objects. There are distinct shades of Horse Armour Syndrome here, but the key to whether this is a cynical cash-grab on the behalf of EA or a worthwhile method of rolling out new content into the game depends on whether the content available via the Store will be packaged along with the inevitable expansion packs or not. If the content on the Sims Store stays exclusive to the store and is not simply added alongside any mechanical tweaks introduced by the expansion packs, then perhaps investing the extra money in those Sims Points is worthwhile. If, however, the store items are all included in any future expansion packs, there's a danger that people will end up paying twice for the same content, and this will be unacceptable in the eyes of many gamers. It also seems like cheek on the part of EA that they produced these items during the course of the game's development, but would rather you paid extra for them, rather than include them in the game. Requiring you to register your game with the Sims Store to get access to the second town is done purely in the hope that you will then go on to spend money in the store, as there's no reason why it couldn't have shipped on the disk with the rest of the game. Of course, it's difficult to predict how EA will choose to implement content on the store with respect to what they include in any future expansions, but if the way they've handled the release of the game is anything to go by, the initial signs aren't particularly promising.
It would be overly harsh to say that The Sims 3 is on the express train to Crapsville. It's still very much a Sims game, with everything that implies. A lot of your enjoyment with the game will still be determined by the amount of imagination you bring to the game yourself, but there's a definite sensation that the interactions and animations within the game feel much more humdrum and ordinary this time around. It's only the inclusion of a much slicker set of tools to allow the recording of machinima movies and the sharing of customised content that prevents an even harsher score. While there was a significant step up both technically and in gameplay terms between The Sims and The Sims 2, the same can't be said of The Sims 3 compared to its predecessor. There's nothing in The Sims 3 that would persuade someone who didn't like the previous games to enjoy this version. Likewise, if you've played The Sims 2 and its expansions to death, The Sims 3 will feel perilously like a retread of old ground, albeit on a slightly grander scale. The core of the game is still strong, but by not showing the same level of ambition as the previous two titles at the design stage, The Sims 3 feels slightly stunted by comparison. It remains at the top of the genre almost by default, given that the few Sims-clones released to date are all so toe-curlingly awful, but in avoiding the trip to Crapsville, instead it's taken the stopping service from Decentburg to Averagetown. Whether EA can return the franchise to the rails leading back to Awesomeopolis with future expansion packs remains to be seen...