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Life-management game is Sim-ply wonderful
(CNN) -- Miss Berry Cooler came to the neighborhood a young medical student. She didn't know anyone, just started a new job as a medical technician, and had just enough money to build her first home. It was simple, with the bare minimum of appliances and furniture, but it was hers.
In time, she began to meet her neighbors. There was the Newbie family, the Goths, a Bachelor across the street, and others. She slowly became friends with Bella Goth, who came over with her husband and a young child. The child wasn't Bella's daughter, Berry found, but wasn't quite sure what was going on in that family. She decided not to judge, because she needed all the friends she could get.
One day, Bella brought her husband Mortimer over to hang out with Berry. As the radio played, Mortimer began to dance with Berry. To Berry's surprise, Bella became jealous and stalked out of the house. Mortimer wouldn't talk to Berry after that, though she eventually patched things up with Bella.
Berry soon made another friend, Darth. Darth was a young army officer. He was tired all the time, and desperately wanted to switch careers. Berry eventually fell in love with Darth, and wasn't frustrated by his continual refusal of her marriage proposals. Finally, after wining and dining him all evening, he relented. In a flash, he moved in and they were married.
That's not the end of the story, of course. They had a child of their own, but through a fit of bad planning they both rushed off to work right after the baby appeared. The baby cried for hours, and was taken away by social services before either of them returned from work. Oddly, they didn't seem to notice.
Of respectable lineage
As you can guess by now, this is a game -- albeit an incredibly detailed one. Maxis' "The Sims," the latest title in designer Will Wright's overwhelmingly popular series of "god-games" that include "SimCity 3000" and "SimAnt," is bound to be just as popular as its predecessors. As in all the other Sim games, "The Sims" is open-ended and challenges the player to create and manage.
But unlike the SimCity games where the player had to plan and build a town, "The Sims" takes a much smaller scale. The entire game world is a single neighborhood. The player controls a family -- which can be one person or many -- buys a lot and builds a house. From planning their careers to buying appliances to telling them to go to the bathroom, the player never has a lack of things to do.
There are short cuts for many parts of the game -- you can just pick a Sim based on an astrological sign or buy a pre-built house -- but the real fun lies in doing it yourself. You'll find yourself quickly attached to your Sim, as you choose whether he or she is nice, active and clean or mean, lazy and a slob. The personality points you spend in different categories place your Sim in an astrological sign, and will govern how the Sim behaves and, more importantly, how he or she plays with others.
SimStaples: Build and buy
Once you've got a family, it's time to build a house. Building can be just as fun as the rest of the game. There are plenty of options to choose here, including different types of floor tiles, walls, windows, doors and shrubbery. All of it is done to soothing piano melodies that belie the frantic pace of much of the game.
After building, it's time to buy. The wise player will buy the essentials first: bed, refrigerator, microwave and phone. A stove isn't absolutely necessary at first, and your culinary-challenged Sim will probably just start a fire anyway. Not only will you buy fun things like a TV and stereo, but you'll have to remember to get tables and counter space. Otherwise, your little dude will just leave things all over the floor, not know where to drop the newspaper and not be very comfortable in his home -- or perhaps not mind so much if he's a slob, it's up to you.
An unfortunately reality at the beginning of the game -- again, just like in real life -- is that you'll need a job. Job-hunting comes in the form of perusing the newspaper or checking on your computer. Chances are, you'll be pretty poor at the beginning of the game and not have a computer. Still, it's a good idea to save enough money that you can live for three or four days unemployed. The newspaper only has one listing per day, and the only way to quit your job is to get yourself fired by not showing up two days in a row. If you do that, you have to start all over again at the bottom of another career track. Sadly, "The Sims" doesn't recognize a simple resignation.
Get a job
There are many different career tracks, such as medical, police, military, business, acting, sports and even a life of crime. You'll start at the bottom rung and have to work your way up. Two main factors dictate the success at your job. First, you'll need to exercise certain skills have a certain number of friends. The first one makes sense -- a new army recruit will need to practice cooking for all that KP duty -- but the second is a bit strange. Perhaps the game wants to make sure you don't get married to your job. Second, you'll need to leave for work in a good mood. This usually means eating, getting enough rest, feeling clean and going to the bathroom. Time at work is lost time; your Sim leaves in the carpool and just vanishes until work is done. This is presumably to give the player a rest and queue up commands before the Sim returns.
Most of the time you'll be preoccupied with keeping your Sim happy. To do this, you'll need to monitor and satiate his needs: hunger, comfort, energy, bladder, social, fun, hygiene and room. If he's hungry, eat. If he's socially-deprived, call a friend and have her come over. If he's bored, do something that makes him happy. A Sim left alone can go off autonomously doing what he wants to do, but it's usually counter to your plan for him. If you fail to fulfill his needs, bad things occur. Bored Sims throw little temper tantrums, tired Sims can fall asleep on the floor, lonely Sims break down crying, hungry Sims can die and a Sim with a full bladder may have an embarrassing and messy accident.
Despite your intimate closeness with your Sim family, this is very much a family game. When your Sim goes to take a bath or shower, her nakedness is fuzzed by an amusing television-like pixelation. Intimacy is confined to backrubs or kisses, and babies are made with a particularly passionate kiss and "pop." Even death is handled with this in mind: an urn or tombstone replaces the unlucky or neglected Sim. But be careful, sometimes the dead don't go quietly.
Sims are social animals, and need friends. While you don't actually pick conversational topics for them, you will need to be aware of the other Sim's needs. An uncomfortable guest Sim in your home may leave, and they can easily get jealous or hurt. Their activities are practically limitless. You can go so far as to plan a cookout, chess tournament or black-tie ball.
The only limit in the game is time. Just like in real life, you'll never have enough of it in "The Sims." Sometimes you have to skimp -- taking a shower instead of a bath or grabbing a quick snack before work -- but your Sim's needs will suffer for it. As you make more money, though, you'll be able to buy nicer appliances and furniture that fill more of your Sim's needs and take less time.
The time problem is exacerbated by the game's one large fault, and it's a classic one. The pathfinding is quite bad. You can easily lose an hour when two Sims bump into each other, each one too stubborn to get out of the way. Plan to scratch your head as you watch your Sim waste 30 minutes checking the mailbox because he left through the back door and decided to walk around the entire house. A patch for this is the greatest need in the game, before any expansions.
The game was built from the ground up in a modular fashion. Already Maxis has released a tool on the game's Web site to build custom faces and wallpaper, and more tools are coming. They're also offering more appliances, toys, floor tiles and more.
The ingenious design doesn't end with just adding another trinket as eye candy. All of the additions are fully functional. For example, if you import a soccer ball, suddenly every Sim seeing the ball knows how to play soccer. Even the music tracks are simple MP3 files, so you can add your own in-game music by yourself. Wright has also said that the designers plan to add extra code to each download without telling the users. These little Trojan horses may take the game in a whole new direction. A downloaded lamp, for example, may also alter the emotion algorithms and allow another social option the player won't immediately notice. By the end of the year, Wright says, the original game code on the CD will only comprise 20 percent of the total game when the downloads are added in.
At first glance, a game about managing a career, cooking dinner and going to the bathroom may not seem like much fun. But instead of playing it "straight," you can play out little soap opera stories. What would happen if your male Sim started flirting with the housewife next door -- or even the husband? The social interactions are where this game's at, and the game makes it easy to output a Web site complete with snapshots of memorable Sim moments. "The Sims" continues the SimCity tradition with a deep, witty and complex game that will appeal to casual and hard-core gamers alike.
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