Review: Sims 4

S4 intro
In case you haven’t heard of them, the Sims franchise began in 2000 and is a sort of sandbox life simulator. The player creates little virtual people (called ‘sims’), places them in houses, and then guides them through life. When playing the game you’re effectively a guardian angel, looking after your household according to what you think is best. Some players are more whimsical about this than others. Sims 4 is the fourth “main” iteration, although there have been an innumerable number of spinoffs for consoles, mobile gaming, and so on. All of the main releases on PC have been accompanied by an equally-innumerable number of expansion packs, sets of downloadable content, updates, patches, and so on. They are basically a licence for EA Maxis to print money, since they’re one of the most successful computer game series of all time.

I came pretty late to the Sims franchise. I had vaguely been aware of their existence, but had never been sufficiently curious to try them. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked when I got a copy of Sims 3 and some expansion packs in a game bundle. Having spent some time there, I pricked up my metaphorical ears when I heard that Sims 4 was being released. Would it improve on its predecessors, or would something be missing? The answer is… yes. To those and other questions.

S4 system requirements
Will it run on my computer?
Yes. Full system requirements are found here, but any computer from the last decade ought to run it ok. There’s a “laptop” mode for systems with modest specs, but I’ve never needed it on my laptop.
Graphically, it looks smoother and more stylised than Sims 3. Colours and outlines in general seem a little bolder, which makes it easier to pick things out when you’re not zoomed in close. The music is bright and cheerful, and the sound effects are sparing but stand out enough that they satisfactorily bring things to your attention.

The biggest performance change was the loading times, however. Sims 3 took a long time to start up, and even longer to load a game (mods and custom content just made matters much, much worse). It was long enough to go and make a cup of tea, drink a cup of tea, think about having some biscuits, decide to get them, search unsuccessfully for Tim-Tams, discover you were out of chocky biccies, and eventually resign oneself to old gingernuts. Even after that, it was odds on the game still wouldn’t have finished. Sims 4, on the other hand, is much quicker. It loses the seek-and-find game on the loading screens, but then again it doesn’t need it. I’ve never waited more than a minute or so.

Unfortunately the cost for this is that you will see the loading screen a lot. In Sims 3 it may have taken a geologic era to load but once it was loaded everything in the entire town was available. This gave a palpable sense of scale, and there was always something to explore. Sims 4 in comparison feels suffocatingly cramped. Change neighbourhood? Loading screen. Go to the park? Loading screen. You can’t even visit another house in your neighbourhood without seeing a loading screen. Just to add injury to more injury, the towns are almost insultingly small. Four neighbourhoods, each only a few buildings, does not make a community.

S4 gameplay
Does it play the same way?
Yes. Anyone who’s played Sims 2 or Sims 3 will feel at home very quickly. It’s not exactly the same, though – a lot of effort has been put into streamlining the gameplay. Normally this would be a euphemism for “ripping out and dumbing down the good bits”, but in this case there are genuine improvements. Creating a sim is easier and more accurate, thanks to the elimination of the screen’o’sliders. Emotional states add an extra element to gameplay, giving you new options as a result of how your sim is feeling. And sims have also gained the ability to multitask. Now they can have a meal and talk to someone else at the same time, talk to several people, or check their phone while watching TV.

All that being said, there are some changes I’m less happy about. The ability to choose patterns and precise colours for clothes is gone – all clothes now come with a predetermined set of variations, and if you don’t like them you’re out of luck. There are a lot of items missing from the build/buy menu, and while you can now place whole premade rooms from the menu the lack of, say, swimming pools is still very noticeable. I’ve mentioned the claustrophobic aspect of the towns already, but this is exacerbated by the biggest gameplay issue of all: practically everything outside your house is a ‘rabbithole’. Your sims simply walk out the door and disappear, and although you might get a text box detailing what’s happening you never see any of it. There’s an awful lot of ‘tell, don’t show’ going on in this game, and it suffers for it.

So what’s the bottom line?

Is it any good?
Yes… and then again, no. Nothing will matter to the hardcore Sims crowd, who’ll happily grab the latest version and keep going. Nor will it convince anyone who hates The Sims that they ought to give it a shot. But on the off chance you’re interested and undecided, here’s how it breaks down.

On the plus side, all the streamlining really does make it quicker and easier to get started, without taking away much from previous versions. Genuine improvements have been made to both creating a household and a house, and even if you’re completely new to the franchise you’ll be up and running in short order. It’s easier to take care of important tasks once you’re playing, too. Everything comes together in quite a neat way: the emotional states, aspirations and so on are all integrated into a fairly seamless package. As a result you don’t have to spend so much brainpower constantly checking status indicators, and your sims can look after themselves better than before. It successfully straddles the divide between simplifying the interface into something manageable while at the same time dealing with some fairly complex gameplay and situations. So far, so good.

But it won’t take long before you’ve seen all there is to offer, and once you have there’s not much in the way of incentive to start a new game. I still have a list of sims I want to play in Sims 3 – Tom Braider, world-travelling archaeologist; Marcus Kincaid, owner of a dilapidated island resort with blackjack and hookers; or the teenage girl rockstar; the fairy who runs a potion shop; the ghosthunter; the inventor; or… well, you get the idea. There’s still plenty to keep me coming back.
Sims 4… not so much. Partly that’s not its fault: Sims 3 has had 6 years of additions, so it’s only natural that it has more possibilities. However there’s more to it than that – the tiny neighbourhoods and towns, the heavily restricted clothing and building choices, and even the options you have in gameplay for dealing with some events. There’s just less to Sims 4, even after taking it’s newness into account.

Don’t believe the hype.

Don’t believe the hype.

Will this keep being an issue?
Yes. Were I a suspicious and cynical type (which of course I am not), I would say that this is not accidental. I strongly suspect that Sims 4 was deliberately pared back to the barest minimums: just enough to qualify as a game, leaving the maximum possible amount available for DLC and expansions which can be sold for cashy money. EA (the producers of the game) are notorious for milking every last drop from a franchise, continuing to tug at its blackened and shrivelled teats until it rolls its eyes and makes desperate mooing sounds, and it will not have escaped their attention that Sims fans are willing to pay for additional content.

But I also get the feeling that Sims 4 may not have been originally intended as a PC game. The bold and simple graphics, the limitations on towns, and all the loading screens make me think it might have been planned as a browser game or for tablets. The fiasco surrounding the latest SimCity game could have caused that to be reconsidered, but we’re still left with a lot of things which don’t quite fit with what PC gamers have come to expect. The good news, if you can call it that, is I suspect it will be gradually be patched into something less crippled.

If you really want to play Sims 4, then my advice is… don’t. Shop around, get a cheap copy of Sims 3, and play that while we wait for Sims 4 to be finished. In a few years there’ll be enough material to make a decent game and the worst flaws will have been patched. But at the moment, I cannot in good conscience advise anyone to shell out the exorbitant price when they’ll be getting such a slender product.

Now let’s turn to ace reporter Rance Freely!

Now let’s turn to ace reporter Rance Freely!

Is there anything else that bothers you about the game?
Yes. The Sims games as a whole have some aspects which may not be problems as such, but they do concern me a bit.

Firstly, and most obviously, the entire franchise is based around a very specific view of what life and a person’s living circumstances are like. The towns are spacious and widely spread out with separate areas, everyone owns their own property, cars are the only way to get around… you get the idea. And it goes deeper than that too. The idea of life stages, the way in which one will get and perform a job, what one can do in one’s spare time… all of this is part of it. This can be quite subtle, because so much is what we’ve been trained to regard as “normal” for the idealised life The Sims offers us. But simply looking out of my window here in Japan shows a neighbourhood which does not subscribe to all of the same expectations about what life is like. I understand that The Sims is a game, and it has to simplify and make decisions about what it will present and the manner in which to do so. But it also normalises certain forms of life while relegating others to being alternate textures for a set of core models, and that makes me a little uncomfortable.

The second thing that bothers me is the set of assumptions made about what people are like. For example one of the easiest ways to give your sims a mood boost is to buy something new for their house and stick it in front of them. Anything will do, their individual tastes don’t seem to matter. And once again the narrative of “happiness through consumption” gets reinforced. Sims may have memories, but they don’t seem to care about anything which has had the novelty worn off. Speaking personally, my memories of people or places or things are part of what goes into shaping my responses to them, so to see them more or less ignored seems a bit strange.

Finally, and this is at a meta-cognitive level, the sims’ motivations seem to be following a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lower (physiological) levels being deficient will reduce their mood, but once those are taken care of their happiness is more strongly affected by the presence or absence of the higher (social/intellectual) levels. Which is all well and good as far as it goes, but notice what’s at the top of the pyramid – self-actualisation. I suppose this is intended to be represented by the aspiration you choose for them during the creation process, however there are things about this which seem a bit weird.
Should we be forced to choose a lifetime aspiration right at the start of their life? Should it be so easy to change during the game? And, most importantly, why don’t our sims ever have an opinion about it? There’s nothing tying the aspirations to their skills, jobs, or experiences during the game – it might be interesting if a sim who spends a lot of time doing a particular thing decides that they want something relating to it as an aspiration (or alternatively they become set against it). From a gameplay perspective it would be as annoying as all hell to have the sims making up their own minds about that side of things, but surely it wouldn’t break the game to have it offered as a suggestion. It would be another piece of emergent gameplay, and since Sims 4 is advertising “smarter sims, weirder stories” it seems like a natural addition.

Quick, post that on the forums!

Quick, post that on the forums!

Got a TL;DR version of all that?
Yes. Sims 4 is a decent game. Not great, and not currently up to the standard set by its predecessors, but that might change as time goes by. The assumptions that it comes freighted with aren’t enough to put me off, although they deserve more contemplation and should be addressed in the future. After dabbling my toes in the game, however, I’ll leave it alone for now. There just isn’t enough to it at this stage to make it worthwhile, especially when older games offer so much more.

Question of the post: Have you played any of the Sims games? What did you think of them? What attracts you to them or puts you off?

About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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2 Responses to Review: Sims 4

  1. Mike says:

    I think, given time, an organisation other than EA would probably take this particular game and RUN with it. EA probably seemed most into the Sims around Sims 2 or 3 (as I think you alluded to). Maybe their incessant reach for cash hurt them here (if you already have Sims3 and lots of expansions – it had about 18, at least 5-6 were major) then buying 4 will necessarily be a step down) since you’ll have neither the same functionality, nor the same amount of stuff. Your suggestion to wait a while works in multiple ways, the longer you wait the lower the price (hopefully) and the more expansions will become available.

    However, the expansions over time (even in Sims 3) seemed to get smaller, with fewer items in each, for the same amount of money. This kind of behaviour by a developer is appalling, most parasites need to live in equilibrium with their host, sucking it dry is of help to neither. This is probably why EA gets such a bad rap. There are currently two add-ons for Sims 4, “Outdoor Retreat” and “Get to Work”. The latter allowing you to follow your sim into their job. However, it costs a large amount of money, when the price drops perhaps it will be worthwhile.

    The limits to the model (idealised lives, limited home/property types, etc.) may simply be that it’s _hard_ to write this kind of thing, the more options a dev adds to a piece of software, the more testing is needed. And, yes, the devs are based in an area, and live in a class of people, where this kind of model _is_ the idealised norm. Having more flexible sims, with a more “real” mind, has us heading very quickly toward the idea of AI proper and that’s a very difficult proposition. Hell, maybe games will be what gets us Strong AI eventually, only because nobody told them it wasn’t possible 🙂

    As for the “only way to make them happy” aspect. My partner has played a LOT of these games and finds that part of the fun is _not_ playing by the rules. That flexibility allows you a lot more options. Try _not_ keeping your sims happy, favouring one sim over another, etc.

    Eventually another company might come along and take EA’s cake, just like recently happened with SimCity vs. Cities: Skylines. This is what happens when someone realises there’s money to be made by someone else’s failure. Here’s hoping.

    Anyway, I think this is enough commentary from someone who has merely watched someone else play this game a LOT 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • If that is what happens to the Sims idea then I can’t say I’d be sorry. There’s a good deal of potential in it despite the constant paring back, and the modding community does a lot to realise it (as they always do if the developers let them). But the extortionate fees that one has to pay for the official add-ons, to say nothing of the base game, make it simply unaffordable for any except the truly dedicated. Personally I’m hoping for a “base game and all expansions” package in a few years time; that one might be worth picking up.

      A lot of the fun in these games does come from deciding on your own rules to live by. Enough stuffed rabbits can keep a sims mood ok no matter what sort of bizarre household you’ve trapped them in, so there are still plenty of possibilities along those lines. Perhaps there’s even more incentive to do so in Sims 4, simply because the base game is so sparsely furnished.


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