Thursday, June 17, 2021

A Long and Complicated Relationship with The Sims 4

The Sims 4, the fourth main iteration of The Sims franchise, recently celebrated its sixth anniversary. Released in September 2014, the title promised us smarter Sims with bigger personalities, intuitive tools and more. Since then, the title has been released on Mac, PlayStation and Xbox and – with recent lockdown events factored it – the title is seeing its most ever players across all platforms.

For me personally, the relationship that many have with The Sims 4 is complicated, just like the journey the title has been on to get to where we are today. And this is the case for many people in the community.

Six years is an awfully long time for a Sims base game title. The Sims 2 was released four years after The Sims, The Sims 3 was released five years after The Sims 2, and The Sims 4 was released five years after The Sims 3 – and we knew about them for a good year or so before! Where is The Sims 5 when you need it?

Building Foundations

If you are a long time reader, you will know that I was very vocal about The Sims 3 – especially before the Showtime expansion pack launched. If anything, you could say that I had a long and complicated relationship with that title too.

At the time, I felt like the franchise was going in the wrong direction, such as by adding more goal-oriented gameplay (e.g. World Adventures), and many long-time players left the community. The Sims 3 was an extremely ambitious game, however, even on modern devices, it is quite a buggy and clunky game. Even with the best hardware, your game will lag, take a long time to load, freeze, crash and experience many things like routing issues in worlds. The open-world nature of the game also meant that many lots, such as nightclubs, were often deserted. For me at least, it made it very hard to immerse myself in the experience.

This year I have gone back to revisit The Sims 3 and with the gift of hindsight – and despite the many things I’ve mentioned – I appreciate how ambitious the title was for 2009. Though the ambitiousness is what led it to be clunky. Open worlds (albeit with their flaws) and near-limitless customisation were two of the major things the title brought to the franchise and are no longer in The Sims 4.

The Sims 4 was designed to try and be a blend of The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 experience with “semi-open” neighbourhoods. You can walk around an entire area of up to 5 lots, but you will hit a quick loading screen. I personally don’t mind this as the performance when the game launched was insane – in-fact, it was buttery smooth. With the removal of these features, its clear performance was a key aspect for this game and there was a solid attempt to build a strong foundation for this iteration of the franchise, which was positioned as a “live service” that will continuously receive updates. And they’ve been true to that word. If you cast your mind back to when The Sims 4 launched, we didn’t ghosts, pools, toddlers, and many many MANY more things that have come in the base of other titles.

In my review at the time, I praised the game and called it a “beautiful addition to The Sims franchise” despite these missing items, as it was an incredibly strong foundation and it was extremely fun. I still stand by that review and would argue that as a core base game, it looks beautiful, the build/CAS tools are phenomenal, it runs well and it had a lot of potential at the time. As a base game by itself, it was a breath of fresh air.

Many believed that the base game felt a bit bare, albeit a solid foundation, because of a troubled development approach – early leaks of The Sims 4 show that it was designed to have online functionality, similar to 2002’s The Sims Online/EA-Land which was retired in 2008. During the early 2010s, EA’s executives would only greenlight titles with online functionality – even The Sims 3 had online social features added. After the unfortunate bumpy launch of SimCity in 2013, which I can promise you is a fun game, this caused a change in approach. In fact, in an interview I had with the creative director of SimCity, the condition of developing that game was that it had to be an always-online service. Since then, SimCity released an offline mode and The Sims 4 launched with basic online features such as The Gallery. This change in approach could have led to development time being repositioned to remove online play and make it a single-player experience, thus leading to a lack of time to add other features.

Though, I don’t feel like this foundation and iteration has necessarily progressed to the level we would expect at this stage of its life. Some of those reasons could be the core of the game itself – it’s very rare you get any random events to influence your gameplay, for example. Whereas, when I played The Sims 3 recently, my house almost burnt down and was burgled all within a short period of playing. Expansion packs occasionally feel like they’re not as impactful as they were in previous iterations too. For example, The Sims 4 Cats & Dogs versus the breadth of The Sims 3 Pets are almost incomparable. It doesn’t make it a bad expansion, but it does raise questions, as does the existence of things like the new Sims 4 Star Wars Game Pack when people have been requesting things like cars since the game launched.

The Long: Waiting on Game Updates for Major Additions

The Sims 4 was always positioned as a live service, where it has evolved with free game updates, much like EA’s other titles. Star Wars Battlefront 2, for example, had a horrendous launch but by the time development stopped, the game updates had made it the game it initially set out to be.

Throughout the lifetime of The Sims 4, it’s clear that The Sims team have heard a lot of the things people are saying and have made a valiant effort to improve the game, including patching features that come with expansions into the base game or bringing major updates through free updates. If you were to pick up The Sims 4 in 2020, it feels closer to what many people would have expected when coming over from The Sims 3 in 2014.

As of writing this, we’ve seen over one hundred updates to the base game. Some of the things these have brought include ghosts, pools, expanded CAS gender customisation, basements, new NPCs (repairman, gardener, firefighter, nannies), toddlers, holiday objects, a change of branding, terraforming, and more. Some of these, such as pools, was announced weeks after the title launched and to this day I still wonder why the release date wasn’t pushed back to “beef up” the title at launch.

But is all of this enough six years on? Yes, it’s great they’ve addressed a lot of the items that people were shouting for but, arguably, The Sims 4 doesn’t feel as complete as it should by now. And I worry that when the generation comes to an end, it will forever feel unfinished. Many people agree that the title is missing that “something” and, for me, I think it boils down to the core gameplay.

The Complicated: The Sims 4 is Not Bad

It is important to note that The Sims 4 has brought a lot of great addition to the franchise and these are still impressive six years on. Despite many of the things that people may feel about the game, this is undeniable. This is what makes it a complicated relationship because it has so many really good things and arguably the best in the entire franchise.

Create A Sim, for example, has provided us with the most customisation options yet in a Sims game (minus Create A Style, of course). You can drag, push, and pull to make their features however you want without the need of any sliders, like in previous games. You can customise walk styles, voices, take advantage of the pre-made outfit selections, and even now use the new story tool. While Create a Sim has never been my favourite thing – as I always just zoom through it to get playing –

Build & Buy Mode really is the most intuitive it has ever been in the franchise, especially now that we have things like pools and terraforming. My two favourite things about this mode in The Sims 4 is the search bar, being able to pick up and move rooms, and styled rooms. Who remembers a time where you had to go through every single category in buy/build to find what you were looking for? I always find this one of the hardest things when I go back to older iterations of the franchise! Likewise, styled rooms are a fantastic way to get inspiration and quickly get building for non-builders like me. And, of course, moving rooms without having to destroy your creation and start again. But that really is just scratching the surface.

The Gallery is one of my favourite things as it’s so much smoother than The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 exchange websites. And the fact it is now compatible with PS4 and Xbox is even better. I love being able to quickly download Sims, lots and rooms into my game that other people have made and can not imagine going without this feature.

Graphics, performance and overall stability of the title is also at its best in The Sims 4. There’s no denying the beauty of the neighbourhoods, especially places like Sylvan Glade in Willow Creek or Del Sol Valley. Whilst we lost the open-world aspect, this has meant that the game is buttery smooth for the majority of the time too and therefore more playable too, plus you no longer have to wait for your Sim to travel across an entire world – a quick loading screen and they’re there! At the same time, I do wish it was a hybrid of both – maybe open neighbourhoods?

To be able to say that the title is fairly stable six years on is quite impressive, especially when you consider the launcher for The Sims 3 encourages you to disable packs to try and help the game perform better.

For me, when The Sims 4 launched, I was absolutely hooked. It was so great to fall in love with a new base game and enjoy the new features – from multi-tasking to the new build tools. I think the problem is that something is missing at its core and perhaps this is why the insane amount of stuff, game and expansion packs we have received over the last six years haven’t quite filled the gap or feel half-baked. And, at the stage of life the game is in, I personally do not think we will see it fixed.

For me, that “something” missing at the core is things like the backstory to pre-made Sims, consequences for doing/not doing things, random events, and times when you lose control of everything. The Sims 4 has little to no consequences and you are in control of everything – and everything is way too easy and it makes every single Sim day feel the same and repetitive. For some, this is a dream come true, if you enjoy having full control over absolutely everything that is happening. For a player like me, and it seems like many others from what I see online, it leads to the game getting a bit repetitive.

Where’s my social bunny? Tragic clown? Claire the bear? That well-known Maxis humour and craziness.

Take the example of relationships where there is no challenge in The Sims 4. You can go from being strangers at the start of a day to being married by the end. This is without any cheats and I’ve tried this many times. If I go back to The Sims 1, I remember it being so difficult to get your Sims to like each other just so they’d share a bed in a day, let alone get married!

Voices from the Community

The Sims community is known for being one of the most passionate and vocal communities in gaming, which I am sure can be both a blessing and a curse for the developers. Many of the development team are on Twitter and interact with players, and they also keep an eye on what people are saying in the forums too.

I posted a tweet the other month asking what people’s thoughts were on The Sims 4 – both good and bad – and also whether their view had changed over time. Here are some of the snippets of what people are saying, and I am beyond thankful to those who interacted and shared their thoughts, as it seems like many of us have mixed feelings.


What about the future?

The Sims 4 is that game that I love but am regularly disappointed by. There have been so many great things from this generation, but also plenty of shortfalls.

Well, in short, hopefully onto The Sims 5 sooner rather than later. I really don’t feel like The Sims 4 has met the potential that it had when it launched, where it peaked for me around Cats & Dogs or Seasons, and perhaps it’s too late for it to do that now. Though I am ready to be surprised.

The latest expansion pack, Snowy Escape, is the first expansion pack that I had little to no interest in playing on launch day. Maybe it’s the fatigue from the craziness of 2020/being on a computer all day working at home, but regardless, as a lifetime Simmer that is a big deal.

The Sims as a franchise is something I will always be passionate about and this post of rambling comes from that passion. I have had so many life opportunities because of The Sims and EA, and met so many people, and I am sure the team will surprise us. I have every confidence in that.

What are your thoughts on The Sims 4 and this generation of the franchise compared to previous ones? I still think The Sims 2 still stands undefeated. Nostalgia probably has a big say there but it’s so detailed, so fun, and the deepest Sims game we’ve ever had to date.

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