Moving from one generation of The Sims to the next has always been a balancing act: the developers need to create a base game that is both enjoyable on its own and provides a solid platform for all the expansions and extra content that will be added over the game’s lifespan (about five years, based on previous Sims games), all the while ensuring that the new game feels fresh enough to satisfy long-time Simmers.
As a long-time Simmer, I did my best to avoid the hype surrounding the launch of The Sims 4, all the while hoping that it wouldn’t be a disappointment. The Sims 3 was not without its flaws – after five years worth of expansion packs, the game was slow to load and pretty laggy to play, even on a machine far beyond the recommended system requirements. Plus, after 20 expansions and stuff packs (not an exaggeration!) and piles of content from the official Sims 3 store as well as modders and designers in the community, the game had just about reached its maximum potential.
Still, stepping from a game with tons of expansions and content to a base game is always a bit of a shock. You tend to feel restricted by the presumed lack of content and options, and it’s hard to not let that colour your initial experience of the game. However, after the first couple of hours with the game, I found I was actually enjoying it more and more. My focus moved from what the game didn’t have, to what it did have. And The Sims 4 has a lot to offer.
Creating that Perfect Sim
Let’s start at the beginning. One of the main features of The Sims franchise has always been creating virtual people. The Sims 4 does not disappoint in this area, with the most intuitive and advanced Create-A-Sim (or CAS) yet. (You can try it out for yourself with The Sims 4 CAS demo, available for free on Origin). There’s a handy randomiser which can help you get started, or you can open up the Gallery if you’re online (being online is fortunately not a requirement to play the game) and see what Sims other players have uploaded. There are thousands of Sims in there already, with more being added constantly. And you can download any of them directly into your game with only a few clicks and barely any wait time.
Regardless of how you get started, you can click anywhere on a Sim and it will bring up the relevant menu. You can select predefined faces, chins, noses, eyes, etc., just like in previous Sims games, but you can manipulate them in ways impossible until now. Want your Sim to have freakily large eyes with teensy pupils? Just grab their eyes and pull – this motion takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you adjust, you’ll probably spend ages deforming your Sim’s face and body just to see what you can come up with. For the first time ever, you can also shape Sims’ bodies as well as their faces. All Sims of a given age group are still the same height, but the similarity pretty much ends there.
In addition to the impressive sculpting tools, the clothing area has been improved as well. The base game has a respectably large collection of items to wear for all age and gender categories, and loading is much faster than The Sims 3 ever was. My favourite feature in this area is the ‘styled looks’, which are pre-generated outfit combinations, down to accessories and makeup, complete with several colour options, that you can just slap on your Sim – a fantastic time-saver and something I hope will continue being expanded as new expansions and stuff packs are released.
Finally, you can choose a name for your Sim (there’s a handy randomiser for that too), select their voice, walk type, and their traits and aspirations – those last two can really affect gameplay, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
There Goes the Neighbourhood
Now that you have your Sim family ready to play, they need somewhere to live. The neighbourhoods in the base game are pretty small, and you’ll notice the map is divided into smaller sections. Still, there’s no shortage of available plots of land or ready-made houses across the two available neighbourhoods, Willow Creek and Oasis Springs. The best part is that you don’t actually have to stick with the neighbourhood you select initially. You can visit or even move to the other one at any time down the line.
Though it might seem like a step backwards, the neighbourhoods have been reduced in size for a very good reason: load times. Five to ten minute load times are something Sims fans are more than familiar with, the load screens getting longer as you added more expansions. The Sims 4 has made some major changes in that regard, and they started by removing a lot of unnecessary buildings from the neighbourhoods. Those ‘rabbit holes’ where Sims would disappear into, when they went to school or work, are now gone, and Sims now just leave for work/school and return at the end of the day. This is not much of a loss, really, as rabbit holes were just shells of buildings that the player couldn’t enter at all. They looked nice, but that was about it. Another benefit of this is that Sims can enter any career without the player needing to ensure that every single rabbit hole is added to every town.
Next, the already small neighbourhoods have been split up into small sections of four or less individual lots. When you go to that section, there is a brief load screen as the game loads that particular lot and the surrounding area. If you want to go to a neighbouring building within that section, there is another short load screen. This is a change from the open world of The Sims 3, but the load screens are actually shorter than the travel time it would have taken for your Sim to move to another lot. This is a trade-off I am very happy to make, as long load screens or travel times have always been very off-putting for me, leading to my Sims spending most of their lives at home. Saving is equally speedy, meaning you’ll probably lose less progress if things do go wrong (either through accidental death or some kind of bug) as you won’t have to go make coffee while waiting for the game to save.
Perhaps the only thing missing from the neighbourhood is some kind of story progression. The Sims that live in the houses when you start the game will grow old and die (assuming you turn on aging in the settings), but they won’t have children. In my current game, all but one of the starting families (familiar names like the Goths and the Landgraabs, plus plenty of new ones) have died out. The game does generate a large number of ‘Townies’ to populate the town, and they will move into some of the empty homes, but if you don’t play with them, or use cheats to give them children, they’ll die eventually too. Hopefully this will either be addressed officially in a patch or expansion, or some clever modders will come up with something.
Building a Dream House
Once you’ve chosen a place for your Sims to live, things get really interesting. Before we get into Live mode, let’s look at the much improved and now combined Build/Buy mode. Besides downloading a house or individual rooms from the gallery (again, something that takes just a few clicks and very little waiting), you have an array of intuitive tools at your disposal to build that perfect home.
Houses and other buildings are separated into rooms, which can be adjusted and moved around with ease. This makes renovating that humble one-room starter home into something more grand a cinch. Want to move the master bedroom upstairs? No problem. Need to resize the study? Just drag the walls to the desired size and the furniture will move to suit the new size – if something can’t fit, it will just move to your household inventory. Decided you wanted a foundation after all? Just add one – something impossible before now.
There’s a nice variety of furniture available, nicely categorised and, for the first time, searchable! In addition to the normal furnishings, there is unlockable content as well, gained as rewards for advancing in the various careers. The only drawback here is the fact that this content is only unlocked for the current family – I had hoped it would be account-wide, but perhaps they will change this in future or add a ‘cheat’ to unlock things. Either way, it’s a nice little bonus for climbing the career ladder, as these items are generally themed to that particular job.
There are also styled rooms, which are ready-made, matching rooms that you can buy and plop directly into your house – a dream come true for lazy builders like me. You can even enter Build mode when your Sims are visiting community lots, adjust the lot to your liking, and carry on playing. Sure, there are no pools or landscaping tools yet, but I must admit, I hardly even noticed.
Living the Dream
Now that your family has a place to live, you can finally let them start living their simulated lives. Believe it or not, after the fantastic CAS and Build mode, Live mode is where The Sims 4 truly shines. EA’s advertising has highlighted emotions as the core of The Sims 4’s gameplay, and I thought they were overdoing it a bit until I actually started playing the game. Part of the fun of a new Sims base game is seeing all the new animations and interactions that can take place, and The Sims 4 delivers in bucketloads.
Emotions affect how Sims act and react, from falling asleep in the tub to stomping around while angry. Their personality traits determine how they react to a given situation, and it also determines their moods. An outgoing Sim will get tense if they haven’t had any social interactions for a while, while a shy Sim will feel stressed when in a group of strangers, and a hot-headed Sim may get angry over nothing, but Sims of all types will drag themselves into bed when they’re exhausted. Generally a Sim’s needs will affect which emotion is dominant, but certain emotions, like sadness due to the death of the loved one, may take preference for a while.
Doing creative activities will make your Sim feel inspired, while programming will get them focussed. Certain decor, particularly the unlockable content, can influence their moods further. When a Sim is experiencing a certain emotion, they will open up new wishes and interactions that weren’t available before. Angry Sims will be keen to start arguments, flirty Sims will be more open to romantic options, while embarrassed Sims will want to run and hide. I even had a Sim die of embarrassment!
Aspirations and careers have also been revamped for The Sims 4. A Sim chooses a lifetime aspiration when he or she grows up, while children have unique ‘mini-aspirations’. These aspirations are divided into smaller parts, each with a handful of goals that need to be achieved, such as ‘Obtain violin level 6’ and ‘Write 4 songs’ and so on. Completing these goals will earn aspiration points, which can be used to purchase rewards like the essential ‘Steel Bladder’ or mood enhancing potions. Completing an aspiration fully rewards your Sim with a special trait.
Jobs are similarly separated into specific goals that need to be completed to advance up the ladder. These include skill requirements, friend requirements, and other things, like having one Sim despise your Sim. There are also daily ‘homework’ tasks to improve general job performance, like cooking several meals or practising an instrument. Some of these can be quite challenging, but I enjoy having specific targets to meet. A Sim’s emotions, when he goes to work, also affects his performance. The available jobs in The Sims 4 are quite different from previous games, with new careers like Tech Guru or Secret Agent alongside familiar ones like Culinary or Criminal.
The Sims 4 includes a huge number of skills for a base game. Children have their own small set of skills, which can help them in later life when combined with their childhood aspirations. Teens and adults have a vast array of skills, from the usual cooking, handiness, logic and painting, to entirely new skills like programming, video gaming, gourmet cooking and more. It’s nice to see some modern skills mixed in with the traditional ones. Improving skills opens up all sorts of new interactions and abilities. This, combined with the emotional system and the huge number of animations, Sims in The Sims 4 really feel like individuals. And they’re individuals that can multi-task, perhaps watching TV and having dinner and chatting to their family, all the same time. Easy for us humans, but a first for Sims.
There may be features missing from The Sims 4 when compared to previous base games, but in most cases I feel that that is a good thing for the franchise. Removing toddlers as a life stage, something that caused a huge uproar when it was announced, allowed the developers to create great content for children, instead of trying to create animations, outfits and interactions for two similar life stages. In the many hours I’ve played The Sims 4, I never once thought, ‘If only there were toddlers’. Others may feel differently about this, but for me, the trade off is well worth it.
What EA/Maxis have created with The Sims 4 is a fantastic platform for future expansions and stuff packs, as well as custom content from the community. The more time I’ve spent with The Sims 4, the more I’ve enjoyed it. Whether it’s watching a master chef artfully prepare a meal or having a grieving family member water the garden with their tears, there is a lot to do and discover here. I’m looking forward to the next few years with The Sims franchise.