This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Sims 4.
Did you know that EA has repeatedly been voted "Worst company in America" by Consumerist? That's impressive for such a competitive field . It's like being voted "Worst human being attending the Grammy Awards". So hats off to EA; all that grating kittens onto their corn flakes must be its own reward to a large extent, but it's nice to get the recognition now and then. But one of the polyps on the upper portion of EA's amorphous mass has recently made some gas expulsions vaguely reminiscent of human speech, stating that they don't want to win this award anymore and that the new goal is to be a "Player First!"-company.
Well, it's very easy for a polyp to make gas expulsions, and not as much to put those gas expulsions into practice. But with this promise in mind, I can say that The Sims 4 absolutely redefines video game sequels. I always thought they were supposed to have more features and be generally better than the previous game - or indeed, any of the previous games, but that just goes to show how old my thinking is. "Player first," I'm guessing, is EA's answer to the question, "Who wants this marrow up their arse?"
So presumably, you know what The Sims is by this point; it's the best possible argument against the existence of a benevolent interventionist god, in which you direct small groups of dollhouse residents until they cease to amuse, then burn their lives to the ground and laugh at their betrayed tears. But before you start assembling your psychotic, single-white-female-esque campaign of torment, do bear in mind that there isn't any swimming in Sims 4. So you can no longer lure them into the pool and delete the ladder, which was so iconic to the series, they might as well have removed the green diamond thing.
I wonder if, in their snip-happy way, EA truly realize how devastating to the core principle removing swimming pools really is. What The Sims is is a consumerist middle-class fantasy about walling yourself off from the real world and reducing all measurement of human development and personal success to one's possessions, your dragon's hoard of crass, suburban decadence. And in that game of Top Trumps, the swimming pool is a kingly crown. It's always the first thing on my progress list when I play The Sims, after a second toilet and a TV bigger than my left bum cheek.
But that's not all, there is no end to the features that The Sims 4 obstinately does not have! Remember all that texture customization from Sims 3 that let dress in shower curtain fabric, and upholster the sofa with reindeer-patterned Christmas jumpers if you so wanted? "That's out! It's chintz and pastels, or fuck off back to Call of Duty!" What about an intervening stage between infancy and childhood, so that babies don't instantly switch from one to the other, and parents don't find themselves suddenly breastfeeding a twelve-year-old in mixed company? "Out the balloon with you, toddlers! Whoops, they didn't fly so well!" A large and seamless overworld full of workplaces, shops, entertainment and communal facilities? "Who the hell authorized that kind of extravagance? Bin it! And break out the loading transitions!"
Of course, none of the above features couldn't be returned to the game later on with content patches, but if you seriously think that the thought of charging for them hasn't slithered its way across EA's mind like a fat slug made of rancid Spam, then you've been listening to too many gas expulsions. After all, who's gonna foot the bill for all the additional work? "Player first!"
Maybe there's a guy at EA who's been nursing private resentment for years at the fact that he suggested maybe not putting so many new features into The Sims 2 all at once, and someone laughed at him and gave him a wedgie. And now he's in charge and bitterly exacting revenge upon the world, because there's one big, fat, socially-awkward question loitering around The Sims 4 with a bad case of hover-hand, and that's thus: what possible reason is there to buy it while The Sims 3 is cheaper, with more features, and available on Steam, rather than exclusively Origin, so I don't have to get my computer exorcised after using it?
Are we getting better graphics? Not really, and it hardly makes a difference when we mostly watch the characters from far away, Rear Window vision. There's a new character-building feature where you can click and drag parts of the face instead of all that messing around with sliders, but when you've clicked on an eyebrow, your guess is as good as mine as whether a mouse movement will make it thicker, or more recessed, or curl it inwards into an unimpressed frown to match my own.
Besides that, the big new feature that that one woman from the E3 presentation looked like she was ready to gush over from every orifice is the new mood system. Get this: if something makes a Sim flirty, or tense, or empathic for reindeer, then they will stay that way for a while and will walk around and work out in a flirty or tense way, or while threatening to butt people with their antlers. But this isn't much more than a difference in animation, and it might unlock some new ways to talk to another Sim, but it looks functionally identical to all the other ways.
In fact, it's curious how many of the huge variety of available activities look exactly the same as each other. In The Sims 4, for example, you can play video games casually, or play video games to a professional tournament level. You can hack money from the government, you can chat and develop friendships with anyone you've met in the world. You can write a bestselling novel that leaves housewives worldwide frigging themselves with tear-stained rolling pins. But all of these activities are conveyed by the character sitting at a computer, occasionally overreacting at a keyboard.
All the new mood system seems to do is give every single Sim essentially the same personality: they get flirty from watching romantic television; they become energized from a good day at school, "golly-gee-willikers, learning sure is fun." And that isn't helped by there having been some kind of state-mandated mass-lobotomization between games, reducing the number of personality traits for an adult Sim from five to three.
I suppose it might be shallow to pick apart every individual detail that has been cut down, and a broader perspective might appreciate the formula being streamlined a bit. But on the other hand, it's the fucking Sims! It's the poster boy for shallowness. It's about smooth-skinned Stepford Wives competing to have the nicest wallpaper, as they willfully ignore the emaciated children sucking on a rat's armpit for nourishment somewhere outside the pastel walls of their gated community. And to start removing the flatscreen tellies and power showers of gameplay features shows more blatant misunderstanding of its audience than the black-and-white minstrels' tour at the South African prison system.
So explain, Sims 4, why you shouldn't be hurled immediately into this trough of burning slurry. "Player first!"
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