You can't miss it.
The Sims 4 is a case study for loss aversion. Psychologically, people—and I believe this applies even more for gamers—strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. For instance, we would rather be rewarded $5,000 than be given $10,000 and have $5,000 taken away. That more or less describes the vitriol emanating from a portion of The Sims community through user reviews on Metacritic, Amazon, Reddit, and almost everywhere else on the Internet where pissed-off gamers can vent their frustration. Combine that with the general attitude by online gamers toward Electronic Arts as a punching bag and its handling of the SimCity reboot, and this has become a storm that critics like myself can't ignore or avoid unless we create a speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil illusionary bubble around ourselves.
The most venomous responses tend to cite a user-compiled list of about eighty-nine features that The Sims 4 is ostensibly missing or has crippled when compared to the first three core Sims titles. Though unapologetically one-sided, the list exposes the numerous shortcomings of The Sims 4, most of which you'll notice if you've followed the Sims series for years and have all the major expansion packs for The Sims 3 (like yours truly). For fairness, of course, we should compare The Sims 4 to the base game of The Sims 3 without the expansions. While about half of the missing features can remain missing as far as I'm concerned, the other half—or the lack thereof—does inescapably tarnish the game.
That said, I still have a blast playing The Sims 4. It's not that the wealth of improvements and additions necessarily compensate for the omissions, but that the spinning-plate core gameplay and lifelike simulation of the series shine through just the same. The cleanliness of the new user interface and the unbelievable quality of the character animations cannot be understated. The new Create-A-Sim exemplifies both of these attributes, allowing you to mold your character's body, skin, traits, and clothing intuitively. Generating twins and siblings is a breeze, and the ability to transport your character, or your friend's character in the much enhanced Gallery, to and from different households is swift and uncomplicated. You can also save and plant your and your friend's humble abode onto different plots in world management.
Sims move from one action to another smoothly, flowing from dialogue to action much more naturally than before, and the interactions between them take advantage of human body language at a level that is unmatched. Although Sims have a nasty habit of butting into conversations and ruining them without your consent, particularly when your Sim is about to reach third base on a date, the ease of group conversations allows for more believable conversations. At the same time, Sims can multitask by listening to music and chatting with other Sims while cooking, eating, sitting on the couch, and exercising on gym equipment. Also, the upgraded "Travel With" allows you to bring characters instantly to a lot of your choice without any fuss.
The graphical improvements, however, come at the cost of the open world and brings along with it unfortunate loading times. Given the console version of The Sims 3 Pets, the lot-based system isn't a new concept and the loading times between neighborhoods are on par with how long it would take to travel there by car in The Sims 3's open world anyway. Where this breaks down is that there's loading time between lots on the same street, so even visiting your neighbor requires a loading break. In The Sims 3, the ability to zoom out and view the breadth of the open world engenders a sense of cohesion. There may be more Sims walking about each lot in The Sims 4, but the feeling that the town outside of your immediate vicinity is alive with hustle and bustle has weakened.
If there's an upside to the stringent lot system, it's the greatly enhanced stability of The Sims 4 for a series known for bugs, crashes, and glitches. So far in my 25-hour playthrough, I have yet to experience a significant hiccup anywhere, apart from the occasional slowdown and some UI issues. Even better, there are reports from lower-end PC users that the game remains amazingly resilient.
Moving beyond the basic mood meter from prior Sims titles, the introduction of moods supplies a welcome layer to the upkeep of the six traditional needs (social, hygiene, etc.). Performing actions can put Sims in the right state of mind—confident, playful, flirty, inspired, focused, energized—for the proper task. Taking a brisk shower instills energy for workouts, whereas browsing art on the computer inspires Sims to write, cook, and paint for higher-quality results. Positive moods can be amplified by happiness, which effectively operates like the basic mood meter, in that it builds with living in a comfortable, well-decorated environment, eating delicious meals, and generally maintaining all six needs.
As you might suspect, mood control is the crux to achieving goals in the most efficient way possible. This normally means avoiding the sad, embarrassed, uncomfortable, and angry moods, but you can flip some negative emotions around into rage-filled exercises and emotionally-charged paintings too. Since the only the most dominant mood is the only one that counts, your prevailing mood can flip erratically between all of the different moodlets that apply. By placing the proper decor items, though, and notably the free lamps you receive if you own The Sims 3 and its expansion packs, you can successfully manage your Sim's mood in each room.
Skills largely remain the same from before, except that there are many more available in this base game and the numerous skill challenges have been replaced by aspirations. Similar to lifetime wishes, aspirations represent your Sim's achievement goals and are broken down into four tiers with various tasks to complete. A few of these goals are finicky and require some finagling to complete (having 5 best friends requires a lot of juggling), but they all award a permanent perk. Better yet, every aspiration is available to you at the start and you can switched between them on the fly. Aspirations also give progressively more satisfaction points, which can be traded for lifetime rewards that act as perks. Completing one of the three random, short-term whims will also earn satisfaction points, and since they respawn often, it's worth cycling through whims quickly.
Careers haven't changed much either, progressing through ten levels and branching off near the middle into two specializations. Being in the ideal mood and completing daily tasks will improve work performance, as will selecting the "work hard" tone while working. The trouble, though, is that all of the widgets that monitor your Sim are disabled while working, which means that it's difficult to gauge when to switch on different work tones and how far you are to being promoted until your Sim returns home. The lack of an actual workplace for every Sim and the strange absence of the Law, Medical, Business, Police, and Firefighter tracks also worsen the disconnection caused by the loss of the open world.
Along with the graphical improvements, build mode has seen a significant overhaul with an extraordinarily user-friendly interface where walls can be placed and moved with hardly any hassle. The transition from build mode to live mode is practically instant. Regrettably though, there are no terrain elevation tools, no basements, no pools, and no create-a-style widget where you can completely customize clothing and furniture apart from the presets. The catalog of available presets has a fairly wide range of options, but the inability to fabricate the colors and materials of these objects is a severe disappointment.
The Sims 4 could easily have been a nominee for one of our editor's choice awards, but it's woefully incomplete, despite being unexpectedly solid and entertaining in its current state. While many would argue that Electronic Arts is merely omitting content for the sake of DLC, The Sims is known for extensive expansion packs and content patches, and from what can be gathered, the initial production of The Sims 4 was reassessed when SimCity launched. That isn't an excuse, though, and EA Maxis has a plethora of user complaints as well as plenty of time to transform The Sims 4 into the fuller game it's meant to be.