Review: The Sims 3 (DS)

Third time the charm?

When the original PC title The Sims saw release, Maxis treated it as a spin-off of their popular SimCity franchise, the 3000 edition of which included a teaser for upcoming title SimMars. Before Will Wright could say "(insert Sim gibberish here)," though, it proved a sensational success both critically and commercially. SimMars was cancelled in favour of endless expansion packs and eventually EA founded the separate development house The Sims Studio. They're responsible for the other editions of The Sims 3, but EA shopped out the DS version to Exient, known for the unforgivably downgraded Wii port of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Fortunately, this doesn't suffer the same fate and instead proves to be the Sims game for which DS owners have been waiting.

The Sims is an advanced virtual pet, except the subject is a human being. The inevitable follow-up question is whether it can possibly emulate the endless intricacies of real life, and the answer, of course, is no. Whittling down a personality to six basic needs has its problems, but that manageable lack of complexity is part of the series' appeal.

Rather than the wants and fears of The Sims 2, here you pick from, along with a decent sized selection of physical attributes, an extensive list of personality traits that calculate out to a choice between four lifetime wishes, which can vary from the simple "success at work" to more interesting choices like "marry a rich Sim," "have ten short term relationships instead of settling down," or "catch 13 types of huge fish." Achieving this will greatly improve your lifetime happiness score and mood, and thus the ease at which life is lived day to day – and, of course, a great feeling of accomplishment, as with any game that you "beat."

Along the way, different opportunities and desires will pop up; the former are reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto style missions where a player must befriend or be-foe a certain Sim, convince ten Sims to invest in a business or some such thing, feats that often have monetary rewards attached. The latter gives your Sim a boost in their mood and can involve taking a painting class, getting in a fight and more. You might even impress your boss by running errands. In this way, you design your own game, each session is different and rarely does it feel like you're stuck as different goals and opportunities are almost always readily available to you.

A maximum of two Sims can reside in a home, and if you start from scratch, you start with just one. It may seem like an unforgivable reduction, but it's a big step forward from the original PC title, where a family of three was more like an aggregate of strangers that happened to live in a house together than a family. You'll grow attached to your Sim, identify with them and feel compelled to live their life with all the subtlety that exploring the town and interacting with its residents can afford. Still, when everything is boiled down to a medium-sized list of traits and action commands, interactions with other Sims can only get so complex. How you treat others will make a bigger difference than peoples' built-in proclivities, and it's always a lot of fun to woo, fight, boast or complain and see what happens.

There are some hiccups that remind you that you're playing a video game – you can chat on the sofa with someone else, but try anything more subtle and both Sims will have to stand up to get anything done, for example. Additionally, in the midst of friendly conversation, a computer-controlled Sim urinated all over the floor, then continued the chat. Talk about the golden years!

The developer pitch here is that "what you do outside your home now matters as much as what you do within," and that's true of the handheld version – visiting others is a joy, and trips to the gym, library and dance club can provide some fun as well. There's also a lot to do outdoors; you can jog, explore a graveyard or climb a lighthouse, for example. Too few buildings create an immersive experience, however; most of the time, your Sim will simply travel to a spot – to take a class, go on a date or explore the wasted opportunity of a haunted house – and you'll find yourself simply waiting outside, watching time pass and a progress meter fill. The same goes for your job; while the ability to choose and change your tone from "slack off" to "work hard" and a number of options in between, and thus the effect your work has on your progress up the career ladder, your status meters and mood, it just feels a bit too mechanical.

One aspect that separates this handheld version from its console- and computer-based brethren is the predictable cut-back in content. You can't change the terrain levels, for example, and the shop, build and character creation portions are slimmed down, but all the essentials are there and there's still a good selection of options available. We actually enjoyed the paring down; it's so easy to get carried away collecting everything possible or designing a Sim beyond anything you'll ever notice in-game, and judged on its own merits, the content does not seem lacking. Another change is that this version is safe for the whole family; no Sims will woo-hoo here.

Unique to The Sims 3 are karma powers, which the tutorial and loading screens constantly remind you of but which vary greatly in usefulness. They'll either help or hurt your Sim to different degrees of superficiality, and are described as "superpowers for your Sim." You unlock them by accomplishing certain tasks, and then must follow a limited set of relatively ineffectual clues to find the object ("something that seems out of place") used to activate one. It's clumsily implemented and the game somewhat overhypes it, but in the end it's just an extra bit of fun to hold your interest.

The graphics and sound are what you would expect – nothing to blow you away or terribly impress in either category. The menu layout is one of the biggest problems; everything is a text-free picture, and it can be tricky to remember what's what. There's no easy way to find or identify buildings on the main map, including your home, and the top screen, which displays your info, features as many important sections as bits at which you'll rarely look, so scrolling through them can be a pain – particularly if your shoulder buttons don't work. Besides these hang-ups, the game controls quite smoothly and for the most part you won't have too much trouble.

As good as The Sims 3 is, and as many things as there are to do, it can still become tedious after a while as you'll find yourself performing the same actions repeatedly, many of which boil down to choosing a task and waiting to see its effect on your status bars. So many actions are similar to one another in this regard that it all seems to run together after a while, but this still doesn't hurt the game to a great degree and as long as you take a break now and then, you can still have a lot of fun with it.

Conclusion

The Sims 3 provides the first open-world experience in the series for a Nintendo handheld, and does quite a good job of it, with enough options, subtlety, neighbours and mini-objectives that there's always something interesting to do. However, the content is limited to a somewhat narrow framework, and overall it's not immersive enough to provide anything much more complex than the original PC game. It's still a lot of fun, though, and while it's more limited and streamlined than its console-based siblings, it's anything but a thoughtlessly reduced port.

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