The Sims 4 is not a bad game. Really, it’s not. There are lots of words and phrases you can use to accurately describe it – “disappointing”, “cut-down”, “over-familiar” – but it’s not bad. If this was the first in the The Sims franchise, we’d likely be lauding it as a clever, unique, genre-bending game that does something new and fresh.
The problem is that The Sims 4 is not the first in the franchise (as the more observant among you probably guessed by the number at the end of the title). It follows in the footsteps of a series that, despite occasional missteps, has really only gotten better and better from its inception all the way up to The Sims 3. And The Sims 4, alas, is not as good as The Sims 3, which makes it feel more than a little pointless.
Do I have to do one of those introductory paragraphs where I explain exactly what The Sims 4 is? I mean, come on. You know what The Sims is. My mum knows what The Sims is. I have a sneaking suspicion that hermits living in caves, through some sort of psychic osmosis via the collective unconscious, have learned what The Sims is. Oh, for the love of– fine. No, it’s fine. I’ll do it.
The Sims is a horror game series aimed squarely at sadists and megalomaniacs, in which you are given a terrifying level of control over a living dollhouse. The inhabitants of this house are your toys: you build their prison, and then proceed to mess with them however you like. Re-arrange the house while they sleep! Lock them in the cellar! See what happens if you remove all the toilets! (Hint: It’s not pleasant.)
So yeah, it’s basically a life simulation game in which you create a household and then help them through their troubles and try to make them succeed at life, or torture them for your own personal amusement. As such, The Sims is a series beloved by pretty much everyone, from the more casual of gamers to total bastards like me. You can do what you like in a little virtual world, and that’s fun for basically anyone with a sliver of imagination.
Fittingly, I’d say that The Sims 4 has four big improvements: the UI, the Create-A-Sim tool, the building tool, and the emotions. The UI is the easiest to explain, because all I can really say is that it’s incredibly clean and easy to navigate. If you’re used to earlier Sims games then it might take a bit of time to get used to, and it has a few annoyances (why can’t I check the Needs of my Sims while they’re at work?) but for the most part it’s clean, uncluttered, and gives plenty of screen space to your household. Thumbs up.
Thumbs up at the new Sim creation and house building tools, too. I’ve gone over the Sim creation many times before, but in short, you can very easily mould your prospective dolls like plasticine – albeit with considerably less parts, like clothes, than you might hope. Building a house is as simple as dragging and dropping, and the new functionality lets you stretch and rotate rooms, or even move them from one side of the house to the other, all of which makes big building redesigns simplicity itself. There’s no way to build basements or lock rooms to certain Sims, although these have only ever been officially supported in expansions so that’s maybe not a big surprise.
Then there’s the emotions, which are a bit weird. These are simultaneously a huge change, and one that actually doesn’t make much difference at all. I’ll elaborate.
Basically, at any given time, each of your Sims will have an emotion. They might be Fine (which is basically Sim-speak for “no overriding emotion”), or Angry, or Sad, or Inspired, or Energised, or whatever. Each of these offer particular boosts to actions – exercising comes more easily to those who are Energised, for instance, while a Sim with the Gloomy trait gets a bonus to creativity when they’re sad. Emotions are relatively contagious, insofar as Sims can pass on their emotions via conversation. An Angry Sim shouting at other people might make them Angry, too.
These emotions feed into your Sims’ short-term aspirations; if they’re feeling Inspired, they might want to write something or jam on a guitar. Moodlets feed into these too – being happy tends to feed into whatever their current emotion might be. You get bonuses at work for turning up with certain emotions. So yes, emotions rule the world.
But… well, they also kinda don’t. They’re a major change insofar as they’re a big part of how your Sim interacts with the world around them, but it’s not exactly difficult to trigger an emotion in a Sim. Want your Sim energised? Brisk shower. Inspired? Thoughtful shower. Flirty? Bubble bath, or watch romance on TV. Which means that it’s depressingly easy to game the emotions, and as a result they don’t feel organic at all. Less organic, even, than the systems used in The Sims 2 and The Sims 3, which just gave general bonuses when the Sim was feeling particularly happy and their wants were regularly being fulfilled.
And honestly, even with the emotions, you’re still doing the same stuff – it’s just one extra step in between, and manipulating emotions doesn’t feel particularly clever or interesting. So, like I said, it’s a big change that’s also not a big change. It might change some of the underlying mechanics, but it doesn’t do much to change what you’re actually doing.
But hey, The Sims 4 is still The Sims. It still gives you the ability to toy with tiny virtual people like an uncaring god, and there are some serious under-the-hood improvements that means it loads faster, runs faster, and doesn’t suffer the ridiculous stuttering and slowdown of earlier titles.
The problem is that, if you’ve played any other The Sims games, this one feels very, very lacking.
Unlike The Sims 3, the cities here aren’t a big, freeform open area, instead confining you to smaller lots. These lots do contain multiple buildings and you can see other buildings in the distance, but on a purely mental level, it still feels small and cramped. The Sims 3 felt like a big, wide world ripe for exploring and interacting with, and The Sims 4 feels like a big step back. There are no burglars and no gardeners; there’s no-one tending bar at the nightclub unless a random Sim just walks behind there to do it. There’s no sense that you’re in a living world that makes sense.
And… well, there isn’t much to do. Yes, parties and dates are revised and now give you little mini-objectives. All of the careers present have their own little quirks – eSports gamers can livestream for a continual flow of income, for instance, and secret agents can hack intelligence databases to find out the traits of other Sims quickly – but these don’t really do much.
Yes, you can take cuttings and graft plants if you level up Gardening, and so on, but all of this is incidental detail rather than anything big and major, and a few of the missing features really hurt. It might not sound like much, but it feels wrong for my cutthroat, cash-obsessed asshole Sim to be in anything but business. He’s not an artist, or an entertainer, or a secret agent, or a rocket pilot. He just wants money.
But all of this pales a bit compared to the slightly bigger problem: I’m bored of The Sims 4.
It’s obviously not fair to compare The Sims 4 to The Sims 3 plus expansions, but that’s inevitably what we’re all going to do. Historically, this hasn’t been much of a problem because each base game has added on a whole lot from its predecessor – I’d rather play The Sims 3 vanilla than play The Sims 2 with all expansions, and I doubt I’m alone in that. But The Sims 4? Nah.
I’ve started about five households. There’s the obligatory “one guy on his own” house while I explored the systems. There’s the one with two roommates with vastly different personalities. There’s the single father and his precocious daughter, and the big family. And I don’t want to go back to any of them.
In an attempt to quell my burgeoning boredom I switched over to cheating. I created six Sims pretty much by picking things off a list at random, gave myself an insane amount of money, and created a huge dorm-like house for them. I loaded it with just about everything I could think of, controlled them briefly to get them jobs that just about fit, then took my hands off the mouse and waited for fireworks to erupt.
Nothing much happened. The gloomy guy made someone sad, and the angry girl shouted at someone else. Then they just sat down and played computer games for a bit and then went to bed. I’ll be honest: I expected a bit more after the pre-release talk about how emotions changed everything.
Like I said, The Sims 4 isn’t a bad game – it’s just disappointing when compared to its superb predecessor, which had a ludicrous amount of stuff to do and systems to explore. If you haven’t played that, then hey, you’ll probably love this! But you could also just buy the vastly superior The Sims 3 for less.
As a starting point this isn’t too bad, but I’m not entirely convinced that the inevitable expansion packs can polish this up to The Sims 3 standard. I think the best we can hope for is that EA take The Sims 4 in a genuinely unique direction, using the building blocks here to craft something that’s its own Sims experience which can stand alongside The Sims 3 rather than replacing it – but right now, it’s not there. Instead it’s bland and limited, and those are two words that should never apply to The Sims.