The Sims was the most phenomenally successful computer game of all time and the first relatively sophisticated social simulator for the PC. Its obvious gameplay faults have been torn apart -- by people experienced with simulations, and computer games in general -- in its node, but they ended up being irrellevant.

The overlooked key to The Sims's popularity among the non-simulation-savy was that it's a virtual pet game in which the pets are human-shaped: people read complex inner lives into the very simple AI models.

The sequel corrects most of the gameplay faults and rachets the realism up several notches. Maxis spent a fortune (and several years) making the characters' expressions and interactions realistic (and avoiding the uncanny valley), and now watching them tugs at your synapses. You can't help empathizing; your brain is hard-wired to empathize with things that act this human. Mostly, it's the cumulative effect of a hundred small touches, but the obvious improvements are

  • Aging, from birth to death. Some aging is automatic; some is triggered by goal events (a first kiss, for example).
  • Better graphics and greater visual differentiation between sims. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can design a sim that looks exactly like you, down to the cheekbone shape and indy clothes.
  • Memories and motives. The development team formalized and duct taped together several psychological theories to create the mathematical model governing sim behavior; sims will, for example, form associations between events, locations, and people (and can even develop phobias in some cases).

Realism aside, it's worth mentioning how big the Sims 2 conceptual space is. Its house-design tools are better than those in most dedicated house-design programs; there are a bunch of what are effectively minigames (aliens! ghosts!) to lure in people not much interested in the virtual social interaction.

The original spawned 7 expansion packs and dozens of free and fee-based (!) websites hosting additions. This game will be much bigger, and its effects will reach further into society at large. People will use it to plan (or reenact) their weddings. The first machine to pass the Turing test might be made by Electronic Arts. And brace yourself for an onlaught of CG porn in several years' time.

The Sims 2, when compared with the original, provides both a lot more and a lot less. Surprisingly for EA, they have changed a lot of features from the original and removed even more. Although some might call this streamlining, many call it irritating as stuff they took for granted is now gone.

What's been added

  • limited food supplies. Food no longer magically appears in the fridge; your Sims have to go shopping or have it delivered.
  • social interactions. Romantically inclined Sims now have many more varied kisses, hugs and gropes. You can choose how in-depth your Sims' conversations will be.
  • cooking options. You can choose what to serve for meals, although your choice is limited until the Sim in question gains cooking skill.
  • detailed construction options. You can now make split-level houses with the marvellous foundation and joining stairs, have a house larger than a mere two floors, and basically build everything from trailer parks to tower blocks, townhouses and duplexes.
  • colour co-ordination. Most objects come in a variety of colours, to help make everything in your house match and look more pleasing.
  • 'power-up' items. Bought by filling your Sim's aspiration points, these limited-use items boost their skills, stats or finances, helping you bend the world to their will.
  • neighbourhood people. Randomly generated Sims now wander around your neighbourhood, as options for you to befriend or flirt with - this brilliantly saves you the trouble of having to make an eight-Sim family just to get your own family's friend rating up. It also means there are strangers and new faces to meet. This also means you can now become friends with your maid or repairman, and even marry them!
  • community lots. These serve as shops and and parks for your Sims. You can go shopping for food and clothing, or take the family and friends for a barby and ride on the swings via the taxi option carried over from The Sims: Hot Date. Note that no pre-designed shops are included.
  • vehicles. Services like the gardener and pizza delivery no longer just randomly wander down the street to see you; they now arrive in their appropriate vehicle. Especially impressive are the police and fire vehicles, which screech up in a blaze of lights and sirens. Sadly, you still cannot buy a car to put on your driveway.
  • aspirations. Each Sim aspires to something, be it wealth, knowlege, romance, popularity or family. Each Sim needs to be given an aspiration, and they are much happier if, say, a wealth-seeking sim gets a well-paid job and buys lots of expensive junk. Bizarrely, the romance aspiration is more of a slut aspiration, as the aim is not so much an exciting relationship as relations with as many Sims as possible.
  • aging. Sims now develop from infants into babies (I hate the word 'toddler'), then on via children and teenagers to become adults and then elders. Each stage, apart from adulthood needing a month, takes about a week of game time. Life is therefore very hectic as you have to meet the goals for each stage of life as quickly as possible. Thankfully, you can turn off the aging process with a cheat code, but why there isn't merely a toggle on the options menu for a feature which is very much a matter of taste is beyond me (your painstakingly raised Sims die, see)
  • customizable Sims. No more the small selection of angular faces, you can now stretch, twist and distort your chosen Sim's face until it is a perfect rendition of your own (the missus and I have made spookily accurate replicas of ourselves) and then watch as characteristics are shared when two Sims have parents. Or, add a bit of chlorine to the gene pool and adopt a child.
  • schooling. Children now need to attend regularly and do their homework, although they can get help from siblings or parents. You can even get them into a private school if you can impress the headmaster.
  • weekdays. There are now seven days to the week - and some careers have working weekends and days off mid-week.
  • obesity. Sims who laze around all day or eat too much will now become fat. Meanwhile, the Sim who works out or swims and is generally active will become ripped. This is a good new use for the body skill and exercise equipment (as well as something for Sims to fear) but fat children can seemingly only be slimmed by access to a pool.

What's been removed

  • heaps of useful objects. Remember the little black and white TV set? It's gone. The lovely chest of drawers? Gone too. I'm going to assume everyone who played the original game had The Sims: Livin' Large addon, so the loss of so many items is incredibly jarring. The selection of beds is paltry, there are no nice and large dining tables, and much of the more expensive furniture is horrendously ugly. There isn't even an office chair any more! This is the single biggest flaw, as your Sim houses will now look woefully generic in terms of furnishing and decoration.
  • torture options. Until they're children, Sims can no longer be killed. What's more, children are resistant to many kinds of death, and escape others thanks to the social worker. Frustrating. Other methods (like walling them in or removing the pool ladders) still work on adults, though.
  • random fires. Not so much removed as severely toned down. A talentless chef no longer sets the oven on fire every time. Only extremely willful negligence when cooking (such as ordering the Sim to stop immediately after placing something on the hob) will set the oven alight, and wooden objects can be placed at the hearthside without fear of them erupting into flame. Life is a bit less exciting as a result (it also means my hilarious 'child piano prodigy plays the ivories furiously as the family stands and watches the living room burn' parties are gone forever).
  • several career paths. Given they are little more than descriptions, start times and salary ladders, why cut out almost half the jobs your Sims could take?
  • easy modding. Perhaps the community hasn't gotten up to speed, but there is nowhere near the variety or quantity of user-made furniture, outfits and other objects. Instead, we're lumbered with an offical EA database filled with reams of other people's houses.
  • frequent special encounters. The random stuff from the first game like ghosts and burglars happen far more rarely. There are meant to be aliens that you can induce down, but again, it seems to take a lot longer to trigger this (which, combined with your Sim's lifespan of about two months of game time, seems downright stingy)

What still grates

  • controls. The game is far harder to play for long periods than the original because you're struggling with the camera as well as the manipulation of the Sims and objects.
  • baffling 'free will'. Your Sims still do hopelessly illogical things, like going to the fridge to cook a giant meal when their husband has just served up a feast. They switch off the stereo in the middle of a party, go to the furthest chair in the house to sit and eat, and generally can't be left alone, ever. I'm reminded of the Sim in the original who stood tantruming about being woken at 2am (a burglar was stealing everything) and then went off to play with their train set rather than phone the police.
  • home alone. Adult sims will refuse to go to work if it means children will be left unsupervised. Somehow, it's okay for them to be unsupervised when they get home from school. Screaming rage follows when an adult sim refuses to take their 7am carpool and loses their job because the school bus doesn't come until 8am.
  • the aging process. Aside from the frustration of your Sims getting old and dying, the neighbourhood Sims don't appear to age. The result is your daughter grows up into a teen, but her best friend remains a child. Whether it's possible to go all the way to old and feeble and then die while your buddy remains a 10 year old is not clear (I'll have to see what happens)

What the game needs

  • Support for flats and shared housing. Not everyone who lives in the same building are roomies. However, a block of flats or a row ot townhouses or whatever is still considered one house and one family, which kind of spoils the effect when someone who should be a 'neighbour' randomly wanders into your flat and starts playing on your game console.
  • A less fussy construction program. Will Wright himself lives in a split-level house, but constructing one is a nightmare, as is building a house with a basement, a house on a slope, adding a loft conversion without it messing your roof up. What's the point in demanding I support an overhang with columns if I can just remove them once the overhang is built?
  • Cars! I don't care what kind of fluffy-bunny happy hippy world they're trying to make the Sims seem like, but in the industrialized world, you are very likely to own a car, or have the potential to. I always build my houses with garages and driveways - let the Sims buy a car so they don't have to rely on taxis all the time!
  • Laundry! I hate to think how many hours I've wasted doing laundry in real life, this should be a must for my poor Sims too (pun not intended). It would also mean that sims wouldn't wear the exact same outfit every day (much as I like my sim's Ugg Boots, I wish she'd change them)

All in all, the Sims 2 is a worthy if flawed sequel. While EA and Maxis are to be commended for trying to expand the universe and take the gameplay in new directions, they have tweaked or ignored far too many facets of the original. What's more, the TV ads depict scenes and events not present in the game (the children with Nerf bats smacking a TV off the counter, or the unlucky casanova being rejected by numerous women until one rips her blouse off for him!) which makes me wonder if the game has been left intentionally incomplete so EA can milk us for another seven expansion packs.

A sadly overlooked feature of The Sims 2 is its intricate character editor. The sims are extremely detailed and adjustable, and the game's decent set of features is supplemented by massive fan-made online collections. It has its weaknesses - few body types, an adulthood consisting solely of age categories "adult" and "elder" though an expansion adds "young adult", no way to simulate missing body parts - but aside from those, some effort can make a sim look like almost anything. Or, to put it another way, some effort can make a sim look like almost anyone.

The potential is massive. With familiar people as gamepieces the failures can become that much more harrowing, succumbing to the inevitable far more fun and morally suspect. Players can see how different hairstyles, ages or skin colours would look like, re-enact or enact events, or as metalangel noted just shack people up and see what the children would be like. As usual, though, the folks of Looneywood get the best of things.

An illustrative tale: It's no secret that I'm slightly original, and my 18-year-old little sister's recent trip to Japan was an opportunity to turn bugging her into an artform. In roughly two hours I made her as meticulously as possible, consulting photographs, picking out a hairstyle and clothes she'd use. Eventually I had a teenaged sim immediately recognizable as my sister.

Then I hit the gender change button.

The outcome actually suited her, her somewhat angular features easily translating into masculine ones. There's no point in discussing her appearance in detail, but bystanders - mostly blissfully ignorant - quite liked him. Our mother even helped with choosing a hairstyle, having seen the humor in the situation (or at least she kept nodding and smiling.) Was this enough? Of course not. I consulted some of my superiors for ideas and set out to see how strange the game could go, crafting these:

  • A household made entirely out of her. A large living room decorated with the kind of styles and items she likes, with a kindly-faced silver-haired her sitting down and chatting with a career-woman her starting to approach middle age, her somewhat older husband (complete with early male pattern baldness) looking on, a boy glued to the television and his dreadlocked girl twin playing with an utterly adorable little baby. Most had looks that she'd used or would want to use.
  • A first kiss. After a long, turbulent teenage courtship, she decides to allow her relationship with himself to go a step further. As it turns out, this triggers an in-game cutscene. The young lovers' movements are thrilled, yet awkward, as they stare into each others' eyes and share a quick peck before laughing and flying into tongue-wrestling. It was almost as cute as it was disturbing.

I admit that this was rather more than I bargained for, the cutscene landing outside my comfort zone, but at least I got to create something excellently mad. Not to mention making her look like she'd taken the mental equivalent of a large brick to the head.

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