Every time an industry group takes a look at the top selling games, The
Sims and its many expansion packs will undoubtedly be featured in the
upper echelons of the chart. It boggles me how these statistics are
usually gathered. Do they stand for the world market or the North
American market? The Sims is like a piece of ironic and sarcastic
comedy on the North American suburban life; white picket fences,
minivans, SUV, Krispy Kreme and all. You have to live in this world, I
think, to truly appreciate its subtleties and its puns. Anyone living
significantly abroad may have a little trouble with it, as much trouble
as we have today with puns in Shakespearean comedies.
Its popularity confounds critics as much as Deer Hunter did, although
with The Sims, I wholeheartedly believe there is some unique and genuine magic to the game. But with every successive expansion released, there will
be those who will question whether Electronic Arts is truly wringing the
life out of the series, like Fox is doing to The Simpsons and NBC to ER.
The Sims: Unleashed comes at an untimely period, when critics are
beginning to point to the tiredness of The Sims game. All the while it
comes hot on the heels of the much anticipated The Sims Online.
Unleashed, however, aptly illustrates this old dog still has some tricks
and amongst Sims fans, it is one of the more prolific efforts by Maxis
to inject life into their simulator of, well, everyday life.
The most dramatic change from Unleashed is the new neighborhood. It is
also the first one you will likely see. To really cement the suburbia
parallels, Unleashed puts your existing neighborhoods into a much larger
one; one that includes community centers, parks and quaint cafes that
dot the suburban landscape. This new place is called Old Town and it's
sprinkled amongst a few new houses and pieces of land. The residential
plot you ran earlier is now integrated into the Old Town as a district
or zone. Old Town works much like Downtown (the new place you acquired
in Hot Date) except the attractions are tamer but you can still have a
meal, wine and dine in Old Town as you did Downtown with other
neighbors. Time passes in Old Town, unlike Vacation, so you'll lose
your job if you spend too much time here.
The second fundamental change to Unleashed is the introduction of pet
animals. Pets largely come in two flavors: interactive ones, like dogs
and cats, or semi-interactive ones, like turtles, fish and birds. The
autonomous pets are individual entities. That is, they take part in
your family and you develop a relationship with every dog or cat you
encounter. By default, they will follow the master around and you can
even take them into other expansion packs, like Vacation, although pet
lodging is not immediately available. Rather than be a burden on you,
the pets themselves are pretty autonomous. They don't need constant
feeding (unlike some of the Sim characters in my stable) and can usually
amuse themselves by interacting with neighbors at home or people on the
streets. In some of my games, my pets actually had a more vibrant
social life than me, which is probably a pretty sad state of affairs.
Unleashed goes the full mile for pets. Not only are they
semi-autonomous family members, they can also be pampered and taught
tricks. Once you gain the trust of a pet, you can train them to do
things (the simplest one is jumping) but there are also practical things
too, like fetching the newspaper (very, very useful in my case) or
asking your pet to sit and stay while you go hit on some cheap floozies.
Tricks can be performed at local shows and you can win awards that adorn
a trophy cabinet at home. There are other items that you can use to
furnish your pet's home, like a dog house, a bath machine, a variety of
plush beds (including a Persian tent for a cat) and accessories to feed
him or her. Yes, there are genders and you can choose from a variety of
breeds. For the pet crazy amongst you, there is even a mini-playground
Your pets will do a lot of stupid things in the beginning. Urinating in
your house is something that you'll want to scold your pet for. My pet
dog, for example, had an infatuation with toilet water. But pets also
have a few skills that they can improve on over time, adapting to
in-house life or being obedient to your commands. As a corollary to
this, you also have some careers that revolve around animals, like a
veterinarian. Guess what kind of relationships you have to foster to
get ahead in that career.
There is one significant career that Unleashed adds to the fold and
that's the job of the farmer. Now, you can create plots of land in your
backyard, buy seeds and then proceed to plant crops. The crops
themselves take a few days to mature, provided you weed and water them
on a regular basis. Any field of significant size will take you most of
the day to tend to so this is, for all intents and purposes, your day
job. Afterwards, you simply take it to Old Town and hijack (or borrow)
someone's vegetable cart to sell your goods. The pay isn't spectacular
but it is the first Sims career where you'll be able to actually monitor
their work progress, with all the comforts of working at home. After
tending to six fields, you can always tell your farmer to go to the
bathroom instead of tending another six.
If you think about it, a lot of these things were already done before.
Old Town, for example, merely looks like a dressed up suburb of Downtown
features. Pets, in the form of fish, were around before. Now, you
simply get dogs, cats, iguanas, birds, turtles and even more fish.
Finally, the new career path of the farmer is more hands-on indeed. But
I've also had soccer moms in my Sims games simply paint pictures for a
living. It wasn't as lucrative as a 14-hour work day on the farm but it
got me by.
So are all these new things really all that new? After playing with
Unleashed, I think there are significant advancements. I remember, upon
the release of The Sims back in 2000, the developers were asked, "Why
didn't you let Sims go to work?" They answered something to the effect
of it would be boring. But then, slowly, they added Downtown and
Vacation spots, until one day, we now even have an option to watch a Sim
go to work, albeit, only one line of work. Thus, all the restrictions
and preconceptions of what The Sims can't do, is now out of the door.
The new Old Town neighborhood is a visceral testament to that.
There are a few minor quirks with the game. For example, upon
introducing the pets, you also have a lot of stray pets or neighbor pets
who come and visit you. Once you initiate contact with one, you'll have
a relationship meter with them. I don't know about you, but more than
half a dozen fuzzy animals dominating my relationships screen tells me
something queer about my Sim's social life. Not only do they count as
significant relationships, but the strays will come in, use your
facilities (to put it lightly), eat your pet's food and simply live in
your house for a few hours before moving on.
Unleashed also introduces skunk problems to the game, to which you'll
have to call an animal pest control unit to remove. However, the
existing helper aids really need to be expanded on to reduce the
monotony of the game, especially if you're not cheating and you need to
hold down some kind of day job. Maids, for example, don't fill up your
pet's bowls or walk the dog. Similarly, gardeners skip right by your
vegetable garden and/or your crops.
In larger families, pets only add to the tedium of the game as you
struggle to get everyone to dressed, fed and go do what they need to do.
With every rule almost broken in The Sims, save for the sunny weather
day in and day out, I think Maxis seriously needs to consider making
another distinction within families. Instead of direct control over
anyone, there should be those who are considered autonomous and those
Sims whom you want to play, should become semi-autonomous. That way, if
you want to focus on the drama between your dog Skip and little boy
Bobby, you won't have to worry about the basic necessities of mommy,
daddy and grandpa.
The pets do add a new dimension to the game, though, and so does Old
Town. The farming career is a glimpse of something that I hope Maxis
will capitalize on in later packs. Still, I can foresee a barrage of
negative critiques, especially when The Sims Online is right around the
corner. But I have to allude to the perennial NBC sitcom, Friends.
Some people hate that show for its shallowness while others embrace it.
The Sims, in effect, is much similar and the haters will be the ones who
will play this game on fast-fast forward most of the time, only stopping
to queue up more events for their character. One hopes they don't
critique Friends in the same fast-forwarding manner.
It is the human comedy, the interactions, however ridiculous, ordinary
or clichéd or stupid, between people, that we crave most. Great epic
stories and interesting sci-fi premises will always come and go (yes,
even Lord of the Rings and War of the Worlds) but the joy of watching
people interact, connect and explore each other is something that will
always be timeless. It is something that we will never stop being
fascinated in, until one day we all become hermits and live in solitary
Now that I think of it, even Friends had their own pets on the show to
add to the comedy. And that's what Unleashed brings to The Sims too. I
still have hopes for the nearly three-year old The Sims. Maybe one day,
they will fulfill my dream of having valets, butlers, footmen, maids and
cooks work for my Sim, not unlike the upstairs characters in Robert
Altman's Gosford Park. A Sims household where the British
upstairs/downstairs drama is simulated--now that would be a fine piece