All big games are a revolution these days, if you believe their publishers, but as much as The Sims 3 is bound to feature some pretty impressive gimmicks it’s hard to see how it could possibly differentiate itself from the previous games in the series.
And you know what? It doesn’t - not a great deal, anyway. But is this necessarily a bad thing? The Sims might be the biggest selling PC game of all time, but The Sims 2 was a beautiful refinement of that ingenious concept, and what we really have here on the iPhone is a pristine adaptation of The Sims 2, with a good share of new features to freshen it up.
One of the things EA has been touting as The Sims 3’s advancement is the characters' personality, which is applied during the character creation system. Here you’re given the usual aesthetic customisation options (changing your Sim’s T-shirt, haircut, shoes, eyeballs) followed by the application of five personality traits that shape their psychological makeup.
A manic Sim, for instance, could also have a good sense of humour, making him particularly good at telling jokes and goofing around, while miserable, reclusive Sims will fare much better when it comes to making the rest of the neighbourhood hate them.
But, although this is the feature EA has chosen to underline as The Sims 3’s greatest enhancement, it really doesn’t feel all that prevalent in play. The core duties in maintaining a Sim remain the same, such as feeding, cleaning, socialising - the lifestyle elements woven throughout the series - are independent of personality and seem to consume much more of the gameplay.
What these personality traits really offer The Sims 3 is replay value. A happy, outgoing Sim has relevant objectives, desires and abilities, useful when you want to play a game in which you climb the social ladder and build a big house. But a great alternative style of play is to become a complete nutcase - kicking over dustbins in the middle of the night, creeping out the other Sims, sneaking into their houses to use their toilets and becoming the scourge of this disgustingly utopian community.
The trouble with a sandbox game is finding this purpose for your character, and it seems to me that this is the area where The Sims 3 is actually superior. Trolling around the house, buying lamps, refurbishing the garden and redecorating the bath tub are no longer the sole activities that occupy a Sim’s virtual life (although they are still present).
Instead, their personalities will help them dream up weird and wonderful desires, which you can choose to act on or ignore. As surreal as many of these desires are, they’re also ingeniously human.
A Sim doesn’t just find himself daydreaming about how to work his way towards a promotion so he can afford the new sound system that will allow him to throw a dinner party.
Genuinely organic and random thoughts - the kind we have ourselves, but rarely vocalise - crop up at regular intervals. The desire to know how to make minestrone soup, to see what your neighbour's bathroom looks like, to make someone laugh, or to catch 15 fish in the lake – these are the thoughts that occupy a Sim’s mind.
You’re given the option of locking in a few of these desires and turning them into objectives to complete as you guide your Sim through everyday life. Often enough you’ll complete an objective quite transparently while talking to a computer controlled Sim, or visiting one of the town’s establishments.
There are plenty of objectives to ensure you’re not repeating yourself or predicting the next task, and they don’t so much dominate the gameplay as enrich it. You’re still required to play the typical round of Sims, getting a job, earning some cash, buying new goods and extending the house, but it’s now a more exploratory process.
Rather than being confined to the house, you’ve got a modest neighbourhood to trek. If you want to make minestrone soup, for example, you’ll need to visit the Corsican bistro to buy the recipe, then stop by the market to buy the ingredients (and buy yourself a bit of a cooker, too).
Heading off into the town does incur a small loading time, as the view switches from eye level to a zoomed out perspective, which presents the neighbourhood in a far more accessible bird’s eye view. From here you can choose where you want to visit with a simple touch, which offers up context sensitive menus where required, or sets your Sim off walking to that point.
The same control method is employed when up close, making interaction with items and other Sims a complete doddle. Touch where you want them to walk, and off they go. Touch a lamp, and you can turn it on or off. Touch a Sim, and the menu offers a well structured system for interacting in every way possible.
The zoom function feels a little odd, since it uses a slider rather than the pinch and pull mechanics we’ve become accustomed to: using two fingers on the display allows you to rotate and tilt the camera angle. Sliding a finger on the screen pans the camera, so you’ve got an immediate and accessible method of controlling the view and ensuring you can see every detail required.
Which is particularly welcome, since The Sims 3 is a beautiful looking game. Despite the superb detail and animation, the iPhone handles the game’s extensive use of 3D graphics with ease, and all the incomprehensible sound effects of the PC version are seamless at all times.
In the end, The Sims 3 is not a revolution in terms of its lifestyle simulator gameplay, and I’m very glad of that fact. This is an immaculate rendition of the PC game we’ve come to know and love, made without a single concession for being on a handheld platform.
EA is selling The Sims 3 on the strength of some nebulous, pretend personality system and the idea that it’s built in such a large sandbox you’ll never see the sides. But try to forget all that. It’s The Sims in your pocket, in full, with all the character building and virtual life you could want.
It’s as rich and inventive as ever, and needn’t be trivialised with talk of evolution, or transformation, or groundbreaking technical achievement. This is The Sims, and it’s on your iPhone.