SLIDESHOW

The Sims 3: Breathlessly Anticipated, Masterfully Executed

The Sims 3 is EA's most flexible, customizable, user-friendly version yet of its bestselling, record-shattering strategic life simulation series.

The Sims 3, Now with 100% Cleaner Pools

It's shiny, sexy, and perplexingly emerald-green, but more than anything, The Sims 3 -- Electronic Arts' groomed and gussied-up digital dollhouse -- is intrepid and wonderful. Wonderful, because it's finally the game the original aspired to be, a sprawling valley-sized slice of virtual reality that's yours to tinker with entirely, no longer hemmed in by invisible barriers or repetitious characters. Intrepid, because its decked-out catalog of deceptively mundane activities illustrates even better how a game where you "tinker with the uneventful" can be so much more eventful than others conventionally packed with explosions, aliens, and magic swords.

Surprisingly, EA didn't mess with core series values, but then, it didn't have to. When your premise hasn't changed ("strategic life simulation") the writing's on the wall: Give your base an order of magnitude more to fiddle with, pretty it up, and make all that "extra" even easier to manipulate. Because it does, The Sims 3 represents a triumph of synthesis and style, an evolutionary leap rooted in progressive customizability, a gracefully architected interface, and several strikingly deep creative tools. Want the year's most compulsively playable, demographically far-flung PC game? You've found it.

PCW Score: 90%

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Welcome to the Hood, Neighbor

After you choose a neighborhood (the game ships with a small-town-meets-uptown municipality, though a second is downloadable, gratis) the camera glides across a glinting lake toward a sunny, surreally verdant township, finally hovering, godlike, a quarter mile up. You've been here before, of course, in games like Enix's Actraiser (1990) and Lionhead's Black and White (2001), but this time there's an entire for-virtually-real town waiting below, one teeming with fully revisable Victorian cottages and cozy mission-style homes on up to costly modern McMansions.

From here, you can either move into a household (you're allotted a small startup sum) with precreated Sims or mold a virtual up-and-comer of your own. Do you really want to use someone else's creation? Me neither. Spending half an hour or so in the new "Create a Sim" body shop preening over a Sim's physiology and disposition is probably a must, not to mention a crucial first step toward assimilating the game's most salient new feature: Traits.

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Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

If you've seen one character creation tool you've seen them all? Wrong. From eye lid height to nasolabial folds and Joan Jett's raccoon-black eyeliner to tiger-striped costume makeup, The Sims 3 offers a cosmology of anatomical and cosmetic tweaks tucked neatly into five unassuming little buttons. Just about anything can be pinched or twisted to your liking, while several advanced tools let you make fine adjustments to any facial feature. To give you an idea, you get 13 sliders to twiddle your Sim's eyes alone; another 11 for cheek, chin, and jaw. In short, with enough patience and careful fussing, you can finally cook up a Sim that's a recognizable ringer for anyone, including yourself.

From the neck down, your options are limited to lateral body size (why can't you change height, EA?), though whether you're thin, fit, or chubby, clothes now hang properly on your Sim's frame. Sorry voyeurs, no stuffing bras or jockstraps -- your sub-neckline options are relegated to clothing presets for different occasions, from everyday v-neck tees and fatigues to formal slacks, skirts, smoking jackets, blouses, wristbands, watches, and earrings. Even your Sim's audio cues have adjustable sliders. Want to change the pitch of your Sim's voice? Yep, you can.

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Gold-digger? Murderer? Mad Scientist? What Do You Want to be Today?

Arguably the most noticeable revision in The Sims 3 involves how personalities take shape. In order to craft a Sim's unique psyche, you select five out of 60 traits, each one influencing how you'll cope with the game's manifold social and economic pressures. Are you good (helpful, charitable) or evil (delight in others misfortunes)? Bookish (quick reader) or athletic (an exercise maven)? Hydrophobic (no swimming for you!) or never nude (a whimsical nod to Arrested Development's Tobias)?

Each trait has consequences -- nothing's "just for fun" -- and different combinations present unique challenges. How challenging depends on the number of paradoxes you're willing to juggle. "Family-oriented" sims make great parents, but add "light sleepers," "hot-headed," and "neurotic" to their profile and they'll suffer debilitating mood swings and growly outbursts when the baby wakes them. Ambitious sims are happier when advancing quickly in their careers, but click the "unlucky" and "loser" traits and they'll turn sullen when promotions taper off. Create a "hopeless romantic" but tag her as "inappropriate," "mean spirited," and "evil," then watch as she oscillates between craving and destroying the ones she loves.

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Go Anywhere You like, But Don't Neglect Your Sim's Ever-Cycling Needs

Welcome to the neighborhood; it sure is pretty. And big. Really big. Elegantly aligned in plausible allotments of urban and suburban structure, you'll find community theaters, wellness gyms, deep-fried diners, graveyards, fishing holes, science facilities, memorial stadiums -- even remote military complexes. Where do you want to go? Click the facility or just that random grassy knoll in the middle of anywhere, and you will.

Want to customize your holdings? While the "buy" and "build" modes are essentially the same, the new "Create a Style" option turns out to be staggeringly powerful, allowing for sweeping stylistic substitution. In this mode, a few beveled panels slide in and allow you to quickly tinker with any textured surfaces that belongs to you. Want your fridge to match your Sim's plaid skirt? A carpet with zebra stripes? A kid's room with eye-catching spaceships or under-the-sea thematics? Purple trash cans? Leather doorsteps? Wicker counters? Anything's possible here.

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I Can Do Anything You Can Do Better

While win or lose states are still somewhat subjective -- simply keeping your Sims happy and their "mood meter" topped off by helping them fulfill basic needs (eating, socializing, showering, etc.) still comprise the game's nucleus -- EA has added several alternative social and economic indices to offer advanced players more to do.

Take wishes -- context-relative mini-goals that pop up periodically for each Sim. They're optional, and there's no penalty for failing or canceling one out, so you never feel hounded. Fulfill wishes like "buy something worth 1,000 simoleons" (the game's currency) or "read three books" and you'll rack up "lifetime happiness" points. Those points then allow you to buy "lifetime rewards" that bolster your Sim's efficiency in dozens of areas. Finish off a Sim's career path -- often tied to their "lifetime wish" -- and you'll receive a massive points bonus, perhaps even enough to buy the game's wildest rewards like the "teleportation pad" and "food replicator."

It's all reflective of The Sims 3's deftly weighted mechanics. Your failures are short-lived and easily reversed, but you have to think and act strategically to advance. If you're bored or overwhelmed by minutia, you can pull back and focus on the highlights, letting the simulation manage run-of-the-mill activities. In short, the game accommodates your hands-on, hands-off approach, and does it so seamlessly you're scarcely aware of its skillful behind-the-scenes noodling.

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Keep Your Boss Happy and Your Coworkers Socially in the Loop to Advance Quickly

Getting a job's even easier, now that you can apply at leisure (in person) instead of waiting for a gig to appear in newspapers or on in-game Websites. Getting around is context-sensitive -- click on any object or individual and your current options are displayed. A handful of color-coded map tags let you access primary structures without a hint of visual clutter, and the only mild downer is that EA opted for a two-scale approach to interaction instead of continuous scrolling with the mouse wheel. You're either zoomed out to cloud base level or zoomed down to just above rooftop height.

As you progress toward career pinnacles like "star news anchor" or "illustrious author," you'll have the option to advance supplemental skills like "painting" and "athletics" or "cooking" and "logic" by performing activities like reading books or playing chess. Occasionally work and career opportunities (outflank the military, play a concert for gifted children, clean a bug cage at school) crop up, which generate special rewards that boost your Sim's career performance or pocketbook. In other words, it's unlikely you'll ever run out of things to do or start to repeat yourself.

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Sims 3 Downloaded 180,000 Times in 4 Days

Stand Back, Filming in Progress

Although The Sims 3 remains a "massively single-player" game, it's still possible to interact with other players by sharing and exchanging creations online. That's not a new feature -- The Sims 2's "Exchange" allowed players to share sims, lots, and stories -- but now you can swap custom patterns or view others' pictures and videos as well. All that's missing? A world-shaping tool. You can modify what's already been positioned in each map, but you're stuck with its topography and placement bookmarks.

Feeling directorial? There's a movie-making tool built around a Web interface that you can feed stock videos and images of your own, captured with a simplistic recording interface from within the game. It's fairly primitive compared to something like Lionhead's The Movies -- more of a mash-up tool than a serious editor -- but it's a start, and above all else, a snap to pick up. My only request? It'd be nice to see this integrated with the game, so you're not dropping to the desktop repeatedly while working out your "perfect" shots.

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Watch Me Crack Your Puny DRM Before I Try to Take Over the World!

Everyone's heard about the unfortunate Spore/Digital Rights Management fiasco. How did EA handle The Sim 3? After installing, you'll only have to pop online once to activate the game. After that, you'll just need to keep the CD in the drive. No unsettling or unseemly DRM in sight.

Did the decision contribute to the game's pre-launch pirating? It's doubtful. Spore's DRM didn't prevent the game's illegal circulation at record rates. That, and EA's finally recognized what a public relations debacle DRM can be, so the company laudably chose to come down in favor of not inconveniencing legitimate consumers.

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I Came, I Saw, I Died, and All I Got Was This Lousy Tombstone

Though it's not an intrinsically different game from its predecessors, The Sims 3 turns out to be a much more fully realized one. Sure, it's still laser-focused on middle-class America (maybe it's time to think a trifle more internationally guys?) but in a tripping-over-itself-to-please-its-base way that's almost touching. Whether you're part of that base or no, it's the most inviting, gratifying version of the game that makes the utmost in everyday banality utterly seductive.

I dare you to not be seduced.

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Sims 3 Downloaded 180,000 Times in 4 Days