OK, the Steam Summer Sale has been over for a few weeks. I bought a few games that turned out to have little appeal once I sat down behind the keyboard with them, but that’s kind of how it goes sometimes. It’s not that they were bad games, just that they weren’t really my cup of tea. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing some of them at a later point, but “if you can’t say anything nice…” does have a certain applicability here. One game that I picked up on a lark was EA’s “The Sims 3”. Well, the $6 price tag definitely added to that, but it was almost completely an impulse purchase.
Not having played “The Sims” or “The Sims 2”, the only life-sim experience that I have to compare it to are a couple of offerings from Deep Silver called “Singles” and “Singles 2: Triple Trouble”. There is a guide for Singles 2 on my game guides site (“Singles” was only kind of “meh” for me), but it isn’t linked from anywhere other than Deep Silver’s forums due to its AO rating and my lack of interest in implementing the necessary code for making my other guides work with parental controls. If anyone is interested in looking, it’s not hard to find if you think about the URL directory structure of my main site. But that’s kind of an aside to the point that I have very little experience with life-sim games, so my look at “The Sims 3” is from a fairly inexperienced perspective. With that in mind, here is the quick-n-dirty short version:
Story: n/a (there really is no story – you make up your own as you go)
Technical: 5 (there are lots of unpatched “gotchas” in there – on a 5-year-old game)
Overall: 8.5 (Very Good for the price I paid)
First out of the chute is the issue of game clients. I purchased the game and a couple of expansion packs from Steam at the time of the Summer Sale. They installed and ran with no problems aside from the game not recognizing my 1920×1080 screen resolution and not knowing what to do with quality settings due to my card being newer than the game. Once launched, it took all of about a minute to fix that problem. A week or so later, Origin had a 70% off sale on The Sims 3 and its related goodies. Whether this was in competition with Steam or in preparation for the launch of The Sims 4 around Labor Day is irrelevant. The base game was good enough and their sale prices were low enough that I picked up most of the other expansion packs and ran into my first major headache: game version incompatibilities.
This had not been a problem with games released prior to Origin’s launch. DLC for other EA games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2, Neverwinter Nights and the like installed just fine regardless of which client was used for the base game, so I have some of those games running through Steam and some running through Origin and have had almost zero problems with this kind of setup. Not so with The Sims 3. Content purchased through Steam will only install on top of the Steam-installed game and content purchased through Origin will only install on top of the Origin-based game. Major aggravation!
There were a couple of things that made this less of a headache. First, I already had an Origin account and didn’t have a problem with using the Origin client. But some gamers absolutely detest Origin. If you fall into this category, then this is an issue that will be important to you and I’d recommend passing up this game until such a time as you can pick it up cheaply on Steam. The normal retail pricing of the game and its expansions is frankly way too high to be buying it at this point in its development cycle (buying everything at normal pricing will set you back about $400). Second, EA recognized my Steam product keys when I registered the game and expansions at The Sims 3 website, so my Steam purchases were available through Origin, too. In order to use the new expansions, I had to migrate the game to Origin, ran into several headaches in the process and ended up writing a Steam Guide on how to do it with a minimum of pain and suffering.
On the initial installation, I ran into problems installing bonus content from the Sims 3 Store. This eventually required that I completely uninstall the game (which is a tedious process under Origin), download everything again (an 8-10 hour process which required a bit of babysitting), reinstalled it and got the problem mostly fixed. Not “fixed” or “completely fixed” because there are still five or six things that will not install, but it’s not worth the pain to get them into the game.
Once reinstalled, I ran into several unpatched glitches. If this were a newly released game, I’d be a bit more forgiving of them, but we’re talking about a game that was released close to five years ago. That some of these issues remain unpatched is completely unacceptable, hence the abysmal “Technical” rating.
For example, the “Generations” expansion pack added a “Grounded” punishment for teen Sims who get into serious trouble (in my teen’s case, it was being busted by the police for being out after curfew). This confines them to the home lot. If they want/need to leave the home lot, they go into a sneaking animation. Since going to school involves leaving the home lot, my teen had to sneak off to school and got stuck in that sneaking animation, even after being let off the hook on the grounding. As another example, my Sims’ mailbox would not empty (the “Get Mail” option would not go away in spite of my getting mail about 30 times in a row) and the only way I could clear the problem was to move to a new house. Some of the character pathing is horrendous. For example, the shortest route to a community lot might be to get out of the car and walk onto the lot, but my Sim gets out of the car, runs to the corner of the lot and then runs halfway around the lot to the other corner to find an “acceptable” entrance. Under normal circumstances this might not be such an issue, but since Sims age up and eventually die, time is a finite resource and a lot of it is wasted on inefficient pathing. So on the whole, I’m not horribly thrilled at EA’s lack of effort on fixing these issues. None of them is really game-breaking, but they’re all horribly annoying and seriously detract from the experience of the game.
Graphically, the game is great. I’ve run into a few minor clipping issues on pieces of clothing or hair and a few water-reflection oddities, but on the whole, it’s superbly done. I get excellent performance out of my GTX 760 with everything cranked up to max settings. The minimum specs aren’t much higher than whatever is needed for the underlying operating system and go as low as GT 5900 for nVidia, so the game should run fairly well on just about any rig made in the last ten or twelve years. I should caution, though, that low-end systems are going to run at low-end settings.
I’m not as thrilled about the gameplay, though, mainly because the user interface leaves a lot to be desired. For example, edge-scrolling is almost a must if you’re going to be able to see any reasonable level of detail, but EA insisted on sticking notifications in a place that either demands immediate action or risk scrolling away from your Sim’s location. Your Sim has a multi-function cell phone that is accessed from the inventory screen. But you’ll be spending most of your time on the other screens, at least until the phone starts ringing. Your phone always seems to ring right in the middle of something that you’re trying to do (like fixing a broken faucet, keeping your Sim from starving, or Woo-hoo’ing with your significant other), requiring more clicking around to deal with that issue so you can continue dealing with the more important matters at hand. Oh, and your phone has a tendency to randomly break, kind of like any other usable object in the game, but it’s the one item that you cannot fix, regardless of your Handiness skill level.
Objects that you pick up immediately switch you to your inventory, even if you already know what it is that you picked up and didn’t need to see it again. Multi-level buildings/lots present their own set of challenges since your mouse’s scroll wheel controls the zoom level, forcing you to do even more clicking around to bring stuff into view. And there is no scrolling out to map view or in from map view. I’m not sure why the devs didn’t include that feature, but its absence forces a bit more unnecessary clicking around. All in all, the user interface could have been much better and it can really break your game immersion at times. It’s not completely horrid, but it’s annoying enough to warrant its own “honorable” mention and did count heavily in the grade for gameplay.
The game includes lots of little side-quests, mostly of the “go there and do that” variety that most RPG-ers are familiar with. Depending on which expansions you have installed, a few of them are glitched to the point of unplayability (they can be cancelled, but cannot be completed). Some are still not patched by EA, but the vast majority work as intended.
About the only other major gameplay detractors are the loading screens and the time it takes to save your game. You won’t have mess with loading screens unless you have expansions like “University Life”, “World Adventures”, “Island Paradise” or “Into the Future” installed as your Sim can’t travel to a different neighborhood (although you have the option of moving to another city). In those cases, the loading times involved with travel are horribly long. And this was apparently seen as a problem because the developers gave you eye candy and “find the object” loading screens to keep you occupied while it happens (you can opt out of that in settings, but it will make those load times even more annoying).
Saving your game takes about a minute or more (real time). My understanding is that the game saves the entire game world rather than just object states and locations like other games and this is what causes the long save times. That was a design decision, knowing that expansions were going to be marketed, rather than an unanticipated consequence, so points off for that. Also, there is no autosave feature. This may be either a blessing or a curse, depending on your game’s stability. I’ve had a few CTD’s which have cost me several hours of play. The game is somewhat modable and there is a mod out there that will pop up a reminder every so often, but the decision to go with this kind of a save system can definitely work to your disadvantage and the devs did not plan accordingly.
The game’s sound is outstanding. There is enough variety in the background music that it doesn’t become completely mind-numbing and there is enough of a selection of genres that almost every player will find something that will appeal to them. Depending on which expansions you have installed, the musical offerings will vary. The ambient sounds are realistic to each situation, so major kudos to the sound design team for tying it together so seamlessly. One addition from “University Life” (the ability of Sims to get up on soapboxes and shout through megaphones) is completely annoying at times and should likely have been confined to the campus, but that’s a gameplay issue rather than a sound issue. I can hear those megaphones just fine; I often wish that I couldn’t.
Each Sim has a voice, but they’re drawn from a very limited pool of voice talent, so that part gets a little repetitive. Also, I’m not a huge fan of the contralto range and there is one female voice that I find a bit grating at times, but it’s not something that seriously detracts from my gaming experience; it’s just rather distinctive so it stands out from the crowd. Overall, though, the voicing is superb and I have no idea how the voice actors manage to pull it off so well in a completely nonsense “language”.
Considering that there is no story to follow other than the one that you’re making up as you go along, the game probably has more replayability than almost anything else out there. You’re only limited by a few factors: the number of towns that you can start in (which depends on which and how many expansions you add on – only two through the base game and one’s a download) and the limits of your own imagination. Beyond that, the game’s design and mechanics let you weave your own tale that stops only when you do. The game is engaging enough that it will match up with almost any playing style from the casual gamer who wants to goof around for a little while (keep those loading times in mind) to the obsessive gamer who won’t budge from the keyboard for hours at a time to anything in between. All in all, gamers who are interested in this kind of game will have found yet another bottomless hole into which to pour their time (and money – we’re talking EA here).
If we were looking at normal retail pricing, I would not recommend this game except to true Sim-fanatics. The bang-for-the-buck just isn’t there when you consider that MSRP was about $40 a pop for the expansion packs and stuff packs. But the game is now five years old and it can be had on-sale at $10 a pop or less, so I’ll move it to the “highly recommended” list. Keep in mind that the whole shooting match will cost about $400 at non-sale prices today, but only a bit more than $125 if you can wait for sales.
I should point out that “The Sims Medieval” is not an expansion pack for “The Sims 3”, even though it was released after “The Sims 3”. Rather it is a stand-alone game that uses the same engine and gaming mechanics.
The Sims 4 is due out in about six weeks at a MSRP of $70. EA will likely follow their previous strategy of expansion packs and stuff packs every few months, so Simmers who gotta have it all will likely sink close to a thousand into it by the time it’s all said and done. On a price-per-hour of entertainment basis, MSRP just doesn’t hold up in my mind.
Final judgment: 8.5. It’s a great game at sale prices and well worth the addition to your game library. If I had paid AAA prices, I’d be much less forgiving and only give it a resounding “meh”.