Making the grade.
When I was much younger, one of the most magical things was seeing more and more subtleties of real life show up in the virtual ones I was living. To me, that was always a clear indicator that gaming was moving forward. So when The Sims came out while I was in college, it completely enthralled me. I was hopeless against its power.
It was the ultimate expression of art imitating life, an attempt to make the act of living and growing into a game. At a certain point, though, the expansions started to feel gimmicky to me—incremental improvements with a few new items thrown in simply wasn't enough to keep me coming back. Having gotten my few hundred hours of enjoyment from it, I decided to move on, and besides a brief stint with The Sims 2, I never really felt like coming back.
Sims 3: University Life may actually change that for me. The ninth expansion for The Sims 3 is far more than a different backdrop with a few new interactive doodads to toy with. In fact, it's almost an entirely new game. The minute-to-minute gameplay is just what you've come to expect, but it now sits within a framework of new systems and mechanics that make it feel as different from the core game as college life feels from everything that comes after.
With so much crammed in, it's hard to know where to start, but the main focuses of University Life are the same as those of any real-world college experience: to enrich your life and your person through education and socialization. Once enrolled, you get to pick from one of six different majors, at which point you receive a unique, interactive item to complement it. Using these is one of many ways to improve your academic performance, which appears as a new meter on the lower right of the screen. Not only does this move you along your path to a degree, but depending on the item, it can have different effects on your needs as well as certain skills. In this way, what you major in doesn't only affect the degree you'll have, but what kind of person you'll be.
Of course, who you are isn't only about what you do, but who you do it with. To this end, University Life introduces a new mechanic called social circles. The social landscape is split up between nerds, jocks, and rebels, with each having distinct hangouts, likes, and dislikes. It's not as segregated as it sounds, though. The different groups don't have any predisposed attitudes towards one another, and you can gain influence with all three without any negative impacts. Just as in real life, some people will choose to stick with one clique, while others will be happy to hang with everyone.
As you rise through the social ranks, whole new conversation options and interactions start to open up. If you aren't sure how to go about getting in with each distinct crowd, just pull out your smartphone, another new gameplay mechanic. Using your phone, you can check your status with each social circle, find out what impresses each the most, and a whole lot more. Send text messages of all kinds from naughty to nice, take and send pictures, or send an anonymous admirer text to that special someone. Every time you use your smartphone, it levels the new social networking skill, allowing you to create blogs and gain followers to aid you in a variety of ways. You can even monetize your blog or have it bought out by a big corporation.
In real life, the choices you make leading up to college impact your academic career, which then affects your post-collegiate life in turn. The same concepts apply in University Life. High school grades, work experience, and aptitude test scores all impact how many credits you'll need to earn a degree, as well as your academic performance. Completing your education will result in a better chance at scoring jobs in related fields, better base pay, and more frequent promotions, with your grades impacting the severity of each bonus. Performing well enough socially can result in new career opportunities as well, as several entirely new careers that can only be accessed by having notoriety within certain social circles have been added. Finally, to represent the way the college experience fundamentally changes you, getting a degree and maxing out your social influence each net you an additional trait slot.
I've already covered a lot, but truthfully, it's just the tip of the iceberg that is University Life. Study groups, herbal supplements, comic shops, bowling alley's, keggers, streakers, protests, parties, and a slew of other activities all await you. So go ahead. Be a nerd who up and joins a fraternity, then plants a “heat of the moment” kiss on the girl you've been crushing on without any notice just to see if she's into you. After all, it's your virtual life, and you're only young once.
You can grab The Sims 3: University Life on March 5th.