Have you heard of The Sims
? Of course you have. A significant milestone in simulation and PC gaming in general, The Sims
gave us a truly innovative way to simulate modern life itself. For many of us, one of the first three iterations of the series proved a formative experience, getting us into the sim genre or even gaming itself. Its sequels famously piled on expansion after expansion and a dedicated modding community grew around the franchise. Three years ago, the fourth version of the base game made its way to PC and for the first time, enthusiasm for the series seemed to be waning. Console players were still pining for their Sim fix, though, so EA and Maxis decided to port The Sims 4
If it’s been a while since you last stepped into the world of The Sims
, everything about the opening and loading screens will bring a nostalgic smile to your face. The worlds are as crisp and bright as ever, and the musical score has the same bombastic cheer. Even the first impressions of the character creation screen are warmly familiar. However, first impressions only take you so far, and it’s not long before you have to start interacting with the menu systems.The Sims 4
has one of the most obtuse and maddening graphical user interfaces seen from a major title on home consoles. This is an annoyance in any game, but in a simulator it can be a deal-breaker. Everything in their design feels almost intentionally frustrating and certainly leaves the impression that little effort was put into making any of it work comfortably on a controller. Tiny buttons bring up tiny text descriptors when "hovered" over. These are difficult to read unless you sit no more than a couple of feet away from a reasonably large screen and offer only a vague description of the menu's intent. Even more irritating are the tutorials. These are buggy, inconsistently controlled and bizarrely random in their appearance. Sometimes you seem to be forced to click through the entire set of tutorial sides for one system before you can try any of it out, but other times you do seem to be able to "click" out of the tutorial box and access the game screen behind them.
This is when things get really maddening. If you happen to click on another menu item that has a tutorial trigger, you'll override the current tutorial. That one is lost forever unless you reset tutorials completely. Often you'll only accidentally trigger a new tutorial because the text of the previous one is blocking your view of the menu about which it's teaching you. It's genuinely appalling stuff. While the rest of the game's menu systems never quite reach the same low, they remain incredibly clunky in a way that just isn't acceptable.
"Clicking" and "hovering" have been referenced because it's quite clear that the game's control systems have only been loosely modified from the original keyboard and mouse setup. Where on a console one would instinctively press B to back out of successive menus, half of the time you need to drag your unwieldy cursor back up to the previous sub-menu and click on it to get back to the main game screen. Again, this is inconsistent — on some menus, B works as it should. The cursor has an odd acceleration across the screen, which is particularly annoying on the character creator. Modifying your character's physical features requires a pinch-and-drag motion, which is natural on a mouse but cumbersome on the game pad.
All of this hits you before you've even finished creating your character, which is a shame because the options here are pretty good. You can choose from a range of body types and a reasonable amount of clothing, and can even micromanage your Sim's gender identity to a certain extent. Physical tweaks aren't the most flexible in the business but should be more than enough to create an approximation of someone in real life.
Sims still come with a smorgasbord of fully customisable traits and personality quirks. Aspirations replace the lifetime wishes and wants of previous games, and there's a decent amount of range and flexibility within them. This really helps you hone down exactly what you want to aim for with your Sim before you start. You select three traits to go along with your aspiration at the start, and these are quite creatively balanced as well. The game will even lock out traits that directly oppose one another, to avoid your Sim going completely insane (unless, of course, you choose the Insane trait).
Once you've created your Sim family, it's time to build your home. The new room-based building tools are a godsend, and it's certainly a lot easier to both throw together a basic home or fine tune a grand design. Corners lock together much better than in previous generations, and it's easy enough to find and place your home furnishings. This is for the best as the catalogue of templates available in the library is pretty meagre. It's still quite the fumble to try and put a house together with a controller, although it's certainly easier to adjust to the controls here than in the menus or the character creator.
Finally we move on to actually living with our Sims. Here, most things are exactly the same as they were in The Sims 3
. The major evolution is the dynamic application of emotions. Sims will now perform tasks and hold conversations in different ways depending on if they are happy, sad or energized. Even the mood traits of the house can change the way life works; give your abode a decent Wi-Fi connection and your Sims will feel energetic while performing computer-based tasks. It's a welcome layer of complexity, particularly when getting a Sim to adjust to the moods of another when having a conversation, but it is just a layer on top of a familiar formula.
This is the core problem with The Sims 4
. At a fundamental level, not much has changed since the very beginning of the series and, as such, anyone with less than a rabid enthusiasm for the franchise will probably get bored of the fourth instalment much quicker than previous entries. Sims still have the same basic interactivity with the world around them, and everything about their universe feels a little too familiar. Even the veteran AI bugs remain.
Despite turning on basic automation, your Sims will still pine for hours about how much they smell while standing next to a shower. Your hungry Sim will still stare at food they're supposed to be eating, while your neat-freak Sim will still put a half-eaten plate of food on the carpet rather than the bin next to it if they get distracted. The interactions with other Sims are still a little robotic. Force a Sim to divorce and they might get the Sad mood for a while, but there's not really any in-game drama. Jilted spouses simply get on with their lives without a word. There's lots of little hiccups like this that might remain charming to some, but others will surely see it as an indicator that while more and more systems have been piled on top of the GUI, the underlying gameplay hasn't evolved much in a decade or more.
In some ways one suspects that the overwhelming number of menu-based systems is a tactic to distract from a lack of actual content. Ultimately the Sim's life is limited to the houses, bars and museums of their neighbourhood, all of which you have to create for yourself. Careers still happen off-screen. The open world of The Sims 3
has been replaced with smaller neighbourhoods that were possibly meant to feel more intimate, but in practice their emptiness and restrictions break the immersion.
It all feels bare bones, and it also feels deliberate; you're never allowed to forget that there is a whole host of tantalising and expensive expansion content to be had. A quick glance at this content reveals that it's mostly cosmetic, but it will likely tempt many who don't feel satisfied with the base game. A lack of community sharing options or mods for console players is a pain point — we really are left with the sparse offerings of the base game unless we shell out considerable amounts of cash.
What little recommendations could be made for The Sims 4
were almost killed off by game-breaking bugs. A fatal save error has been patched, but there are still some severe problems. Multiple saves have intermittently disappeared from the load menu, or sometimes all update to the same time stamp at random. More than once a hard restart without saving has been necessary when the cursor can't work out which menu it's in. Sims have gotten stuck at work, or stuck at home while the game believes they are at work. It's all very tiresome and only expedites how quickly you will get bored of the game as a whole.
The achievement list isn't difficult, but if you play the game naturally most of them will take a long time to get. Our intrepid hunters have already come up with creatively savage ways to min-max, including setting up an adoption-murder factory
to efficiently live out 26 generations. Besides the long-winded achievements for maxing out all skills and career trees, probably the most difficult is to get your Sim through all major emotional states in 24 hours. Luckily, there's already a guide for that one too
. A few achievements didn't pop initially, particularly when maxing a skill level. Most of these appeared in time or worked when reloading an earlier save, but it doesn't alleviate the lingering suspicion that this entire console port was a bit of an afterthought.
If you are a fan of The Sims
and desperately want it on your console, you will probably be able to overlook this console port's abysmal user interface and controls in order to get at what is essentially the same game you've always known. The Sims themselves are still charmingly over-animated and the audio-visual design is pleasing enough. For anyone else, the struggle to overcome the nastiness of even the basic controls and menus only leads to the same old gameplay loop, albeit with a couple of interesting features bolted on. As a series, The Sims
has simply failed to evolve enough. There's barely anything to the base content, which only makes the excision of community features that much more painful. Only die-hard Sims
fans should go anywhere near this and even then you should strongly consider sticking with The Sims 4
on PC — or better yet, The Sims 3
- Reasonably diverse character customisation
- Significantly improved build mode
- Moods are a nice touch
- If you just want more of the same, this is the game for you
- The basic gameplay loop and AI are both getting tired
- Very bare catalogue of base game content
- Appalling tutorial system
- Poor controller optimisation
- Minor but irritating bugs everywhere
The reviewer spent 20 hours wrestling with menus and trying to be a good parent, earning just five of the game's 50 achievements. An Xbox One copy of the game was provided for the purposes of this review.