Casually Gaming: The Sims 3

There are $3 million sitting in my imaginary bank account, which I like to pretend is in some storefront bank in whatever passes for the Grand Caymans. If mysim, a slightly fitter clone of myself, squints hard enough he can just imagine seeing that bank from the window of his palatial ocean-side villa.

This is the third pass at the franchise, which has constantly dominated the best seller lists of PC games (sometimes taking up multiple slots as expansions came and went) since it first appeared almost a decade ago. Should you sacrifice some of your real life to build up a brilliant virtual one with this latest iteration?

Chances are if you've played the first two games, at some point you're going to play The Sims 3. There's no way around it unless you want to live in a hole for the rest of your life. For many it's like the elaborate dollhouse of their dreams, allowing to play out stories and soap operas and then share them with their friends either throughMachinima(that is animation produced by recording in game activity) and photo albums. They can also play out architect and interior designer, or whatever else floats their boat in this incredibly open ended game.

On the other hand if you hated the last two games, you can just move along now because there's nothing here for you. While changes were made it's nothing that will draw in the so-called "hardcore" gamers.

The real question is not whether you should buy it, but when?

The answer depends on how satisfied you are with your current Sims experience. The most compelling reason to switch is the overall improvement of game performance.

With The Sims 2, loading the game became incrementally slower with each new expansion pack. By the time you had three or four installed, you could pretty much start up the game, go run some errands, and be back in time for it to finish loading. This was a frustrating experience to say the least, and it was compounded by the fact that even on faster computers the game would run slowly as it tried to run all the novel little systems from the myriad of expansions.

The Sims 3 is a lot snappier, and that alone might make it worth the switch because you won't have to wait fifteen minutes to start the game and then fifteen more minutes if you want to explore other parts of the game like downtown (Nightlife), college (University) or the local shopping district (Open for Business). Now you can explore the entire world without hitting a load screen.

That ability to explore is also one of the big changes in the franchise. Instead of waiting for people to come to you, you can step outside of your front door and go around to visit your neighbors to mooch a meal or make a new friend. You can even jog to work or to the local grocery store to meet even more people or take advantage of different locations like the gym or the library. The exploration also extends to hidden objects throughout the world that you can collect from meteorites to fish. Apart from getting rare ingredients for recipes (that can help bring somesimsback from the dead) there is little benefit to picking up these pieces, especially before you can afford a special lifetime reward that shows you right where they are.

Other changes include streamlined needs (comfort and environment have been changed to mood modifiers) and new skills (writing, painting and guitar rather than just creativity). Inside all of these are little achievements and milestones that give you different bonuses, for example after you tell 100 jokes you'll find them falling flat less with othersimsand they won't mind hearing them repeated so much. All of this makes game play a little more rewarding and a little easier (no more juggling to maintain all your friendships while climbing up the corporate ladder).

Still, The Sims 3 is not a perfect product. Graphically it looks a lot like the Sims 2. This lead many users to wonder why many of the objects and abilities from the last game couldn't be brought forward to the next generation, at least as a reward for people who had been loyal to the series.

The question comes up, because in spite of all the ability to customize objects, the inventory of objects and decor is rather limited compared to the wealth of the Sims 2. There's enough to put together a household, but at any given price point there are only a few objects so if you were picturing a great stone castle or something out of a sci-fimovie then you might have to do a lot of pretending. The Sims 2 also supported a robust online community providing custom content, but almost a month into the game's life there's little of interest on the popular fan Web site The Sims Resource, apart from some interesting house designs.

That's part of the way that Electronic Arts would probably like it. Based on the success of other systems of micro-transactions anddownloadablecontent, EA launched The Sims Store to sell packs of furniture and objects (and even new hairstyles). It's not different from the stuff packs that were sold for previous versions of the game for only a few dollars, but with a shallow selection to start with in a $60 game (based largely around interior decorating) the store raises my hackles. 

Like other systems, you buy points with real world money and then you use the points to pick out objects in the games (which generally cost 75 or 100 points). For buying and registering the game you get $10 worth of points (approximately 1,000) meaning that window you want for your foyer will cost you $1 (though you can get items cheaper if you purchase them as part of a set). At the moment there isn't all that much in the official Sims store, and the most interesting object is an in-game ToyotaPriuswhich says more about the potential for product placement going forward.

Overall, The Sims 3 looks like it will be an interesting platform for exploring our doll house fantasies but at the moment its appeal is limited because the amount of content is so limited. So those $3 million will continue to sit in that bank account, and the game will continue to sit idly on my hard drive until the first expansion pack.

The Sims 3 was developed and published by Electronic Arts and is available for Windows and OS X.