Every self respecting PC gamer now days has heard of The Sims. The PC's best selling series of all time has found itself on millions and millions of systems world wide, and after the strong E3 showing, EA have now finally released The Sims 2 to the public. The main attraction to this update, amongst other promising additions, is the complete overhaul of the game engine to a true 3D environment, but has this transition caused the gameplay to suffer like so many 2D to 3D conversions in the past?
The Sims 2 starts off by allowing you to choose which location (or town) you wish to enter - a few pre-made examples are available to chose from but you are also given the option to customise your own. Each town has its own back story, which you can also author, including individual stories for the residential families. Of course, this is completely optional, but I'm sure some of the aspiring writers out there will appreciate this feature, further immersing them into the world that is The Sims 2.
Creating your sims is the next logical step and boy has the series improved in this department. The amount of depth on offer here to customise your sims is absolutely amazing, everything realistically imaginable is changeable - the shape of their eye brows, the width of their chin, the depth of their eyes, and of course the usual clothes, skin tone, gender etc. The list goes on and on, so much infact I highly doubt the majority of gamers out there will even touch half of the Create-A-Sim options at all.
Once in-game it is clear The Sims 2 has improved greatly as far as neighbourhood interaction is concerned. Whilst it is still not possible to drop in and visit someone, you can travel down town to public venues whether it be to the park for a stroll, or to the shops to purchase a new set of track pants or the latest EA title for your computer or game console, and much more. You can also still invite people from around the neighbourhood to come in and even hold parties for certain occasions and overall the social interaction is a much more integral part of the game now as there is much more to do in and outside your house with other sims.
New to The Sims 2 is the "aspiration meter". When creating your sim(s), you can assign one aspiration in life ranging from financial success to romantic success, and each new day you will be given four "wants" and three "fears". If you fulfill a want, you gain aspiration points, but if you experience a fear you will lose aspiration points. These wants and fears depend on the aspiration in life you chose, for example a romance aspiration will reward relationships and romantic adventures, whilst it will penalise rejections and bad relationships. This should not be treated quite like the "sim needs" meters which are real time, this is really more of a long term system trying to create purpose and achievement in you sim's life which can be ignored somewhat healthily if desired.
The Sims 2 also has a much better replay value in the sense sims will now generate as a family tree, carrying on your created family name long into the future - providing you choose to have children of course. Each sim has a defined life time so (natural) death does not suddenly appear out of nowhere, giving you ample time to extend your family. The best part is, children born will actually resemble their parents using what EA refer to as a "DNA" system - this can be viewed via the in-game family tree and the resemblance is clearly visible. This isn't a massive feature but a nice addition nonetheless, and as already stated, does improve the replay value of the game as it creates a somewhat purpose of playing - to see your created family grow.
Unlike the previous Sims titles, your sims will actually change physically depending on their activities. The game includes a fitness bar to define what shape your sim is in, and naturally, this bar changes depending on the sim's diet, exercise and general health. It is quite easy to max out and maintain this bar so getting your sim buff isn't exactly challenging, but then again, The Sims is never really meant to be "challenging" if you stick to the bare minimals, the challenge comes from constant activity and balance. For example, if you decide to focus on the aspiration meter mentioned before, you will find gameplay to be quite eventful and challenging, but what you do is really up to you.
The new and improved AI/logic basically allows you to ignore sims if you wish without serious consequence. Your sims seem far more component on their own than any previous version which is a relief particularly when more than one sim is under your control. Infact, if you just wanted to, say, control a child or teenager only (which require atleast 1 parent) then you could ignore the parents and let the computer manage them without any harmful side effects, I found that at almost all times, where possible, every need is in the green with CPU management.
As stated earlier, The Sims 2 features an all new 3D engine which was really a requirement for this series to truly advance. It is hard to remember how the original titles played after playing The Sims 2 because nothing beats being able to see your creations and achievements in a true 3D environment, which has been executed very well in the most part. The visual detail is also quite exceptional, everything from unique facial expressions to the RCA plugs on the back of a TV set are present making The Sims 2 typically EA in the sense it has above average graphics. The draw back here is the performance - even on our Athlon64 PC the game had minor slowdowns particularly when adding further sections to houses etc. Since the level of detail on objects remains the same, the more you buy and build the more the game has to render, which obviously means the slower the game will get. Manually lowering visual detail helps, but that naturally doesn't make the eye candy as impressive, so if you keep relatively modest in size you should have no issues.
Whilst the new 3D engine does wonders for the visual details, unfortunately object placement is still limited to the basic X/Y axis (think "grid"). I was personally hoping for more control on object placement, even if the game simply doubled the available directions by adding diagonals it would have been better, but ideally it would have been great to see truly unrestricted "360 degree" object placement to go along with the new engine. Most of the times the four basic directions are all that is necessary, but there is still no doubting that full control would have created more depth for the building/buying modes which right now don't differ much at all from the same modes seen in the original titles. Sure, a lot of the objects have changed, but the way you are allowed to lay them out generally hasn't.
On top of this, whilst the controls in the most part are very powerful and extremely easy, camera control can sometimes become awkward, which is exposed by the sheer amount of times you'll be changing the camera angle. The scroll button zooms and rotates the camera as expected, however thanks to the new 3D engine, which does give full 360 degree control in this case, getting the right angle for any given situation will take a few moments. On one hand this does allow full control which is nice, but on the other hand the old style of four preset views from each angle gets rid of the adjustment hassles. Personally I do think having full control is better, but it will take some getting use to so maybe including the four default preset views as well would have been a good idea for quicker view changing.
So was the massive conversion to the new 3D engine successful? Absolutely. If you didn't enjoy the original titles then The Sims 2 may not persuade you to jump in on the action, however for the fans (and there are plenty of them), The Sims 2 is absolutely a must buy, featuring some much needed updates saving what could have become a very dated series quickly. The new 3D engine and all the goodies that come with it delivers the series into the world of cutting edge PC gaming, and whilst a lot has not changed from the original titles, if you went from an original Sims title to The Sims 2, then back to the original title again, the experience would probably be best described as traveling back in time (which, by the way, EA have not made an expansion pack about yet!). When it comes down to it, you either love The Sims or you hate it - for the lovers, this is Sims gaming bliss, and for the critics, well, I have a feeling a lot of you out there will be installing The Sims 2 on your PC, making sure its presence is kept a highly guarded secret.