Hands on with The Sims 2: Castaway DS
It was only supposed to be a three-hour trip around the bay…
Who wouldn't love a three-month break in the Pacific? Sunny beaches, hula garlands and drinks from a hollowed-out coconut… But be careful what you wish for – you may just get it with a twist that's more than just lime.
A tropical vacation isn't as enjoyable when, say, it's spent as a cruise ship castaway. Indeed, there are only sun-baked beaches and dried-up coconuts in The Sims 2 Castaway, the survival spin-off that puts the life of a Sim in your hands.
Before setting out on the seven seas, Castaway prompts you to create your Sim. Man or woman, they embark on a cruise that ends up with them overboard and swimming for their life to the nearest island, where you're forced to help them survive with just the clothes on their back.
Survival dictates meeting basic needs in terms of food, clothing, and shelter. Accordingly, Castaway denotes six factors which must be managed at all times: hunger, energy, comfort, social, hygiene and bladder. When first arrived on the island, fulfilling these can be quite challenging. Finding food is most difficult, which means your energy is often zapped. Our first few days consisted of foraging for any edible items we could find, building a fire and a shelter (the latter by collecting wood and palm leaves and then combining them in one of the many inventory menus). Exploring the island was limited by what little energy we had left.
Everything is handled via the stylus. To interact with an object, simply touch it. You move your Sim indirectly by tapping the touchscreen on the desired location. But since the island isn't an open world, travelling between locations is done by walking to the edge of the current area and tapping the exit (which is helpfully marked by an arrow on the ground).
It's a slightly awkward mechanic – it involves a brief loading time – but it does help in terms of providing hints about what you can do in each area, as well as restricting your passage to new areas until you've completed certain tasks. This is especially important early on in the game when it's all too easy to become overwhelmed with the available options and menus (there are plenty of the latter).
Yet, as you unlock more areas, a map enables you to move at will to any opened locations. This, combined with the hand interaction icon, makes Castaway feels a bit like a classic click-and-point adventure game, albeit a 3D one with the touchscreen replacing a mouse.
As you become acquainted with the surroundings, you can begin to create a sustainable life. Food, which initially you just find on the beach, can be cultivated from seeds or hunted down in the jungle. Additionally, fishing becomes an option once you're created a spear. Mini-games accompany each of these activities. In spear fishing, you're positioned in a top-down perspective over shallow water and asked to tap the touchscreen in order to bring in the day's catch.
Getting sustenance takes up a huge part of the game, but Castaway requires attention to other needs as well. Hygiene, which some people seem to neglect regardless of where they are, can be tricky, especially since it's affected by your diet and clothing. Ingesting raw or unclean foods like freshly-caught fish and bugs lowers your hygiene level. Keeping clean is best done by preparing cooked meals and weaving yourself clothes. You can even add a bit of style by collecting special bugs and grinding them up to create dyes.
And as you start to overcome the necessities of life, an enormous number of things to see, do, collect and discover become available. For example, building a raft midway through the game enables you to explore neighbouring islands, which naturally contain their own unique features. Remnants of a lost civilisation and evidence of alien visitors add a bit of Lost-style atmosphere to the adventure, while the tattered pieces of a treasure map hint at riches and a possible escape.
So if nothing else, we're impressed with the copious amount of content packed into The Sims 2 Castaway. Exploring every nook and cranny of the islands ought to be fairly challenging, particularly while having to manage your Sim's needs at the same time.
But as similar games such as Konami's Lost in Blue series have proved, unless such experiences are extremely well paced, everything can quickly become bogged down in following a daily to-do checklist – which is about as much fun as being shipwrecked for real.
Equally, while we enjoyed The Sims 2 on DS, it also suffered from this type of problem. Hopefully, touches such as the ability to press down the left shoulder button to double the game speed, plus the promised mysterious plot elements of the game, demonstrate that EA's on top of the situation.
Still, we'll find out more when The Sims 2 Castaway is released for DS (and, subsequently, PSP) on October 26th.