Save our sims!
Being mortal has its drawbacks. We live in a state of constant threat, whether it’s the potential to be eaten by a bear, hit by a train or victimized by our own stupidity, and no matter how much we watch out, we’re sure to get it in the end. To deal with such frightening inevitability, we have lots of sex, but on the flip side of that flip side, we wind up with even more mortality to feed, educate and protect – tasks that test our sanity and our wallets.
Balancing such plusses and minuses while keeping the species afloat is the stuff life is made of, and as The Sims 2 for the PC proved, also makes for a damn good video game. Unfortunately, the new console versions feel more like weak clones of the original rather than the vivacious offspring we hoped would carry the line into our PS2s, Gamecubes and Xboxes. There’s still a ton of content and some interesting new features here, but the complex sense of manners and familial intellect were lost on these three red-headed stepchildren.
The main gameplay mode is Story mode, but this actually plays more like a long-winded tutorial. First, you take a spin on a genetic slot machine to generate your sim, then customize it with extensive editing tools. From there, you guide it through each of its aspirations, such as finding a crush or working in a particular field, and this in turn earns aspiration points which unlock objects to buy. And that’s it. Rather than giving you a plot, Story mode has you completing soulless objectives while getting spammed with a stream of windows reminding you to sleep and poop. This isn’t life, this is a mid-life crisis.
You’ll quickly bail out on that and hop into Free Play, which provides the classic Sims sandbox mode – minus the whole aging, death, and child birth thing. Sadly, that’s much of what made The Sims 2 a worthy sequel on the PC over a year ago, and the omission hurts.
Instead, the console version adds a new cooking menu where you can choose from tons of ingredients including meats, sides, fruits, drinks, and so on from your fridge. Every combination will have a different effect on the Energy, Hunger, and Bladder meters. You might even unlock some new recipes for later use as you make new random combinations of foodstuffs. You can’t make a baby, but you can sure cook a mean lasagna (insert bitter tears here).
Besides, you can pull yourself together better than ever with the new Direct Control scheme. While the game can still be played with the traditional top-down, cursor-driven PC interface, Direct Control lets you jump into a sim and move it around from a third-person perspective. Unfortunately, this turns out to be counterproductive much of the time. A simple task like washing the dishes requires way too much effort in Direct Control mode. You manually have to find a plate, select it, and pick it up. Mission accomplished! You are now equipped with a plate. Now you must choose the plate that’s in your hand again, then choose "wash dishes" and wait for your sim to walk over to the sink. If the sink’s too far away, you can manually make him run to the sink, then target the food and tell him to "wash the dish." I guess this is why gamers don’t do dishes in the first place – too much hassle.
Still, Direct Control is a step in the right direction, since nothing beats the immersion of actually moving your avatar around, and when you come to a task you’d rather not directly control, you can switch back out to Cursor Control with the click of a button. It’s hard to knock the additional control option, even if it’s not the best idea in the world.
At times it is, though, because the A.I. is a far cry from the PC version. You’ll find yourself babysitting your sims a ton so they don’t end up killing themselves, like one of my unfortunate sims did when he ate an undercooked meal. Maybe it’s a good thing they can’t reproduce.
They can, however, fall in love, and you can accelerate the process through Direct Control interactions. When you engage in one of these, the background blurs out and tints yellow if the other sim likes you or turns pink if they’re starting to fall in love. If a sim does something particularly adorable, you can take a screen shot, although you won’t really need to save the memory as they tend to repeat their animations all the time.
Though you can look out your sim’s virtual window and see other houses, an invisible wall blocks you from walking down or across the street to visit or control other families. Removing the focus from multiple households further removes the console versions from the PC original. And so does the fact that in either Story or Free Play mode, a second player can jump into your already existing game for co-op play. While it’s nice to play with your girlfriend, you can’t get into domestic disputes or hop into a hot cup of coffee, making this functionality as sterile as the rest.
But just because you can’t smack your spouse doesn’t mean The Sims 2 isn’t dysfunctional. In all three versions, you can only have one Story mode file and one Free Play mode file per memory card. If you want to start a new Story or Free Play game, you’ll either need to overwrite your previous save file or save the new one to a different card. This memory issues reaches absurd proportions on the Gamecube, where a save file requires a whopping 147 free blocks. Considering that the standard GC memory card (the one that comes with the system) only has 59, you’re probably going to have to pony up the simoleans for something bigger. Save files don’t hog the PS2’s 8MB card nearly as much, and the Xbox is the easiest to deal with since you can save multiple files to its hard drive.
The Sims 2 looks decent on all three consoles, although the framerate occasionally crunches (especially during fast forwards) and the loading times are long. The slick interface is par for the Sims course, though, and the overall presentation is close to the quality of the PC original, featuring the same great blend of rock, hip hop, and alternative tracks, as well as all the Sims sound effects we’ve come to know and make fun of.
However, we aren’t used to making fun of an entire Sims game. Then again, when a title tries to juggle massive content with console limitations and comes up with in-depth cooking, the best thing you can do is laugh. Admittedly, there’s more here than just a kitchen – you can still decorate your house and your sim with tons of purchasable items, and Direct Control is a good (if often boring) idea. But the underlying gameplay and A.I. that made the PC version such a cohesive package is lost on this new generation of sexless sims, who care only for new rugs, expensive coffee tables, and balanced meals. They’re perfect yuppies, and perfectly boring.