Hurible badda flabber? Wibble durble booby. Fasherk! Yes, you don't need to speak Simlish to know The Sims 4 is now out and ready to let you spend your precious life ensuring little computer people have far sexier and more successful ones. Only now you can't drown them in your pool. Does the rest have what it takes to compensate for that shocking omission? Here's Wot I Think...
The Sims sequels are odd things. Normally, you sit down with a new game to see the world expanded, a game made deeper, the stakes raised higher. In this series though, it's inevitably a clearing of the board, a throwing out of all the really cool stuff and also Katy Perry's Sweet Treats so that it can be repackaged and resold later on. We all know that's going to happen. The Sims is as shameless about it as a Lego starter kit composed entirely of lime-green flat pieces. Soon enough, there will be pets, there will be goofy new destinations to visit, there will be a whole array of exciting DLC opportunities to fill your life and credit card statements. The only person apparently not aware that this is more a core to plug stuff into than a full game is whoever decided the 'Standard Edition' should be fifty shitting pounds. More for the Digital Deluxe Edition!
The deal then is essentially this - in exchange for winding back the clock, each new version of The Sims needs to offer a darn good reason for doing so. It's unrealistic to expect the equivalent of five years worth of additions at launch, even if at this point a few things like cats and dogs do feel like they should be in on Day 1, but there has to be something. Some justification. The Sims 2 for instance saw a full jump into 3D and a strong refining of the original game's concept now that it was a proven success. That counted. The Sims 3 then dramatically opened up the possibilities, with its open town marking a transition from simply a fancy dollhouse to a living world where your little darlings/minions/victims could collide in endless clever and funny ways.
The Sims 4... doesn't have anything close to that level. It has improvements, and we'll get to those, but in terms of scope and ambition it actually feels like a big step backwards. Features like the lack of pools hinted at this in advance, but are a trivial omission compared to the tiny maps your Sims call home, where everything is a loading screen rather than a short walk away, and where every stone has been left unturned in the quest to make it feel like a real world.
From the way your Sims just fade into the ether when they go to work, to the complete indifference paid by everyone if you persuade a friend to go streaking down the street, their new world feels flat, empty, sterile and much like the recent SimCity, depressingly claustrophobic. The neighbourhoods immediately feel cramped, but turn out to be a whole new level of small when you realise you can't even visit a neighbour's house without a loading screen or return to yours without another one. The towns, of which there are two so far, are tiny, with ironically few (and small) housing lots and such a lack of businesses like bars and gyms that they all share the same street... albeit again one that demands a load between locations, with any building your current Sim isn't in becoming less real than the pub on your average soap opera set.
Instead, the big push this time around is improving the Sims themselves, and that's a worthy goal. The first big addition is multitasking, which allows them to finally do things like have group chats, sit on the sofa and watch TV in their pants while also nomming a slice of cake.
The second, more visible addition is the Emotion system. Sims have a default state of "Fine", but can be bounced around through alternate states like Uncomfortable and Flirty and Energized in various different ways; a steamy shower putting them in the mood for love, an awkward conversation having them wishing the ground would swallow them up, a boring day at the office leaving them trudging home in a mood, whether that office is devoted to space travel or supervillainy, or sometimes just a sudden burst of sadness or cheer out of nowhere in particular. Sims can have multiple moods at once, affecting which commands are available, how they perform actions, and how well they accomplish them. This being The Sims, it's not unusual to see them bouncing between extremes faster than you can say "Squirrel!", but the negative moods are easy enough to dismiss without being irrelevant while the positive ones last long enough to make use of the buzz to make a cake or write jokes or continue down the path to becoming suburbia's greatest secret agent/kindergarten book author.
This is a great addition, not only for adding the additional strategic element to controlling Sims, but for making them feel more rounded as characters. Instead of just seeing them pitch a fit for no apparent reason like before, you're now told specifically that they're jazzed after a good day of work or feeling a bit off after eating some poorly made food, or feeling pumped and ready to burn off some energy. It's a handy addition for role-playing, for guiding attempted romantic introductions, or just for squeezing a little more out of that same old ridiculously fast-ticking clock that doesn't give a Sim enough time for either a slice of toast or a shower before heading to work.
It's in these smaller-scale changes that The Sims 4 is at its best; the refinements, the polish. The updated Create-A-Sim for instance is now incredibly easy-to-use, controlled by dragging on skin to mould characters as you wish, with the only real problem being the lack of clothes and accessories. Even without the old Create-A-Style feature, players are already making lots of cool things and there's an integrated Gallery for downloading and importing all kinds of TV, movie and game characters, along with plenty of others. If you want George and Nico from Broken Sword to move in next to the Mass Effect team just down the road from Anna and Elsa from Frozen, it couldn't be easier. While there are limits to what the editor can do - the closest it can get to Garrus from Mass Effect for instance is to paint a guy blue and give him spiky hair and glasses - it's already an impressive resource of community creativity. Downloading characters also brings in their personality traits; from that set, Jack is pre-configured as an insane hothead, while Liara is a gloomy genius, and Kaiden is there too.
The same also applies to the Build Mode, which may have lost its pools, but has gained the ability to plug rooms directly onto houses and pick from dedicated styles to make expansion fast and easy. Want a good looking kitchen but don't want to spend ages manually picking everything from the floor to the toaster? Pick one, drop it in, done. Alternatively, the standard tools are there to place every last window and door by hand, as well as upload and download templates to the same gallery for easy sharing and tweaking, and a number of improvements to allow for more complex structures and looks. Already available are a house themed around the Starship Enterprise, a floating house on stilts, a garden maze dwelling, and a couple of famous recreations like the sets of Seinfeld and Friends. (You should probably grab 'em before the lawyers start coughing.)
These changes are all good ones. They're nowhere near enough to justify everything that's lost in the generation gap, at least at this point, but they do at least set a good foundation for what's to come. Bored of my usual approach to The Sims, of creating an amiable Sim and trying to make them happy, this time around I decided to start off by creating a monster - Dastardly, Evil, Insane and a little Clumsy, just for my own amusement. Stated life goal, Chief of Mischief - one funded by a life of super-villainy that somewhat unfortunately had to start on the side of the goody-two-shoes by temping at a spy agency, before I could branch out and launch Project Chaos.
This immediately made for a hilarious welcome to the neighbourhood, objectives like "Make 3 Enemies" achieved by running out and picking fights with kids and calling them names, then inviting their parents around for dinner and polite conversation about boring mortal things. Early on it became clear that everyone in the neighbourhood was a ridiculously good sport when it came to the old hand-buzzer trick, though they weren't quite so wild a couple of levels later when it developed the power to knock them on their arse for a good couple of hours, leaving nothing but regret at the lack of follow-up options like "steal wallet" or simply "steal trousers".
At about this point, cheery neighbour Eliza Pancakes made the mistake of thinking we were besties, at the same time as I discovered I could order voodoo dolls off the internet, bind them to people I knew, and use them to summon, poke and torment as if by remote control. I decided that being evil meant rules were for suckers, punched in the money cheat, evicted the Goth family from their mansion so I could move in, then slowly whittled away her resistance to my evil scheming. Later, we ate tacos on the sofa.
Stories like this, and less sociopathic ones too on occasion, are what The Sims is built on, and The Sims 4 is well placed to provide them in the future. It's a solid foundation, and one full of charm - its animations, its little details like the books you can collect, the naughty things you can make your Sim do or persuade others to do in the name of a laugh... there aren't many more fun games to watch, unless your Sim is simply sitting in the dark and playing The Sims, of course.
The problem is that it's a solid foundation that doesn't make a sufficient jump forward, or offer anything to make those possibilities exciting instead of merely inevitable. The changes it does include are worth an appreciative nod, definitely, but that's all. It feels tired when it should be at its most refreshed; a game that from the first screen feels born more of the commercial need to update the number in the title and making life easier for the content creation team than of having awesome player-focused ideas for a fourth generations of pets and holidays and sexy new adventures.
While it will absolutely improve and get more content, especially now that it's shot straight into the charts, it's just not enough so far. It badly needs more content, clothes, items and space. It has to provide a convincing reason that smaller is better - which it as yet it simply fails to do - and it needs more new ideas like the Emotions that radically shake things up. In time, it may prove the definitive Sims, the last gasp for the series or anything in between. For now though, while its primary changes are good, the trade-off is hard to recommend. Ready or not for a sequel, it feels more an expensive preview than a game; like waking up on Christmas morning to find that Santa has stolen your piggy bank, and left you little but last year's Toys R Us catalogue to fill your dreams.
The Sims 4 is out now.