Welcome to Sex in the "Sim" City...
Deep Silver, the same company that brought out X2: The Threat and Knightshift, has decided to throw their hats into the "real-life" simulator arena with their new game, Singles: Flirt Up Your Life. A German release that's been translated and exported to numerous countries across the globe, their apparent aim is to take on Maxis' The Sims, with the rallying cry they're finally giving what many Sims' players have been secretly craving - good, old fashioned (or not so old fashioned) sexual tension and situations!
Interested in seeing how the game stacks up and whether or not it lives up to expectations and the hype? Then read on, O'Curious Reader, and see whether the game is for you...
From the moment the game begins to load, you know instantly this is not going to be exactly like The Sims. The theme song is rather upbeat and catchy, not too unlike something you'd expect to hear on the radio - although you are probably going to get a little bit tired of the repetitious nature of the song and the fact it only seems to be about a minute long, played on infinite loop, at least whenever you have accessed the Main Menu screen. There is a certain distinct style to the menus, a style you can see from the moment you take your first look at the game's box, a vaguely cartoony image of Mike and Linda (or in the British version, at least, Enrique and Rachel), who are the "core" two characters whose life and relationship you get to play with. This stylized cartoon imagery, however, doesn't last much beyond the opening load screen, and as you'll see once you get to the Main Menu, most of your time is going to be spent gazing upon the near realistic, CGI faces of the characters.
The "objective" of the game (besides the oddly amusing ability to leer at naked CGI characters at whim) is to hook up two roommates and have them be as blissfully happy together as possible. Getting there, however, is not going to be easy! After all, besides juggling a job, taking care of one's needs, becoming friends, and having fun, you still have to find the time for romance and sensuality - otherwise, you're going to end up in trouble! You'll have to skillfully wind your way through each day of the life of the two roommates, flicking back and forth between the two of them, and trying to make the time for everything you need to get done. Oh, and these characters have minds of their own! If they don't want to do something, they won't do it. You're going to have to learn to put up with the individual character quirks to get them to fall in love or lust with one another, just as you'd have to put up with the quirks of another person in real life.
Many people are immediately going to either adore this game, or be put off by the game, based on the fact it resembles a Sims clone in many ways. However, let's tackle the game point by point and see just how well it stands on its own merits.
The very first thing you are going to want to do is start a New Game (unless you want to play around with the game's Options first). You'll immediately get to choose exactly who you get to play with. On the left are the lovely ladies, while the gentlemen are on the right. Five ladies and six men are yours to choose from. However, you can only choose "ladies" from the left and "gentlemen" on the right, you cannot simply cycle through and choose to mix Nicci with Eden, for example, or Ron and Kyle. For those players that do want to try a gay relationship, Singles instead introduces a "Rainbow" mode (activated by a little rainbow icon up in the left hand corner of the "ladies" window) and a "Lavender" mode (activated by a little icon of a pair of glowing lavender female symbols in the upper right hand corner of the "blokes" window). By clicking either of these, you can access the token gay characters of the game - James, if you want to play with two guys; or Lizzie, if you want to play with two girls. And yes, these are token gay characters. James is obviously a raging queen, and Lizzie is a pretty red headed vixen who just doesn't swing that way.
Without further ado, here are the unusual suspects of Singles. The names used here are the British characters, with their "other" names given in parentheses where I could find them! One definite bonus, in my mind, is the fact the game has been individualized for each region, with the characters having different names and even, in some cases, different backgrounds and personalities!
The Ladies -
* Amanda (Ellen): Prim, proper, and with the look of a school teacher, Amanda is a control freak. But if someone could just get her to take her hair down, they'll find the tigress hiding within the wooly sweaters.
* Eden (Red): The activist, wild-child, hellion, Eden's a firebrand that draws men like moths to flame. Unfortunately, many get burned to a crisp, but some where, someone will be able to tame that fire and they can burn together.
* Nicci (Lisa): Nicci's the sweet girl next door, the type you could easily take home to introduce to your parents without worrying about whether she'll shock or offend them. Inside though, you know there's something just waiting to be let loose.
* Paris (Natasha): Paris is the femme fatale, with a scarlet red dress cut revealingly low and witch-black hair. Sultry and seductive, she's the woman other woman love to hate and the one men hate to love.
* Rachel (Linda): Rachel is a free-spirit, fun-loving, trend-setting hair stylist with a quick wit, quicker grin, and boundless energy.
The Blokes -
* Bod (Deryl): The ultimate computer geek, Bod's definitely not lacking in the brain department. Yet the wild way he wears his hair reveals the wild, passionate nature lurking within him.
* DJ Morten (Bob): An exchange student from Norway, the stud with bad boy looks is charmingly cynical, tempting one to throw off their proper facade and take a walk on the wild side.
* Eddie (Nicolas): With long black hair, all black clothes, and a pale face, Eddie screams Goth, even though he never has to raise his voice. Artistic and surprisingly sensitive, he charms even when he has no idea what he's doing.
* Enrique (Mike): Who can say no to a hot Latin lover who can salsa as easily as most men walk? So what if his accent is fake, he can talk the talk and walk the walk, and few can resist.
* Kyle (Berny): Your parents would probably love him, he couldn't harm and flee, he's vegan, politically and socially active, and a cuddly teddy bear. He'll turn the other cheek if he gets smacked, open the door for woman, hold out their chair and helps little old ladies cross the street. He's a modern day hippie who only wears natural fibers, yet there's just something compelling about him.
* Ron (Mark): Successful, handsome, well dressed, and hung like the proverbial horse, Ron might not be the most charming of men, but there's no doubt that he's ALL man and will even let you get to know every inch of just how manly he really is.
The Others -
* James (I don't know, as he's not mentioned in the game material or on the website anywhere, so if he has another name, I don't know it.): Flight attendant, snazzy dresser, James is the token gay character with a wit quicker and more biting than a pack of pirahnas on crack, James is out and proud, and if you're not careful, he just might drag you out of a closet you never even knew you were standing in! (Reviewer's note: This is a 13th character that isn't mentioned in any of the advertising or even on the game box.)
* Lizzie (Pacifica): While James is the token gay character, Lizzie is the token lesbian, and unlike James, she's in the limelight. Check out the website and the advertisements for the game, and there she is. She is a sweet girl, charming, and intelligent, but with her passionate red-head nature, she's the one for all those looking for some girl-on-girl action.
Each character has a distinct look and personality, making them truly different characters. Their personality is determined by five pairs of stats, with an icon located somewhere on the scale between each one: Extroverted and Introverted, Playful and Serious, Tidy and Messy, Friendly and Frosty, Neurotic and Centered. Besides determining how often the Free Will AI will send the character you are not currently controlling off to take a shower or to clean the bathroom, this also determines the interaction between the two characters. You'll find it's easier for some characters to work on Friendship over Fun, or Romance over Sensuality, and sometimes the characters just like to have a good, rollicking argument.
With the wardrobes, you can freely have the characters change outfits, although they will always choose their default outfit if you don't choose the outfit for them. These outfits include posing trunks, boxers (guys)/negligee (women), jeans and T-shirt, towel, and naked. That's right, no annoying blur or having to go online to download a patch to make your characters look like something other than sexless dolls, each and every character can be made naked, and each one looks different while they're naked (translation, all the women and men are of different 'sizes' and 'shapes'). Now, I will take a few points off here, as even though each and every character is different, all of the other outfits are the same exact outfit for every character. All the guys wear the same jeans and T-shirt combination, same boxers, etc. With all the other personalization in the game, this was sort of jarring when I saw the Goth guy wore the same blue jeans and burgundy T-shirt as the business executive/wannabe porn star.
Once you've chosen your characters, you're taken to the Game Mode select screen. My advice, for the first time, is to play through the Tutorial Mode - consider it foreplay, if you'd like. You can't miss it - it's the large window on the left. The tutorial will walk you through the basics of the game, from how to communicate with one another, to how to place new objects and furnishings in the house, as well as how to interact with the environment - like making something to eat, taking a shower, changing clothes, etc. Although many people will immediately begin making comparisons (and there are some rather obvious similarities in even the mini-menu) with The Sims, it's in the tutorial that something very different will jump out - the characters actually can, and will, Talk to one another. Yes, they typically speak a language suspiciously unintelligible, like Simlish in The Sims, but every once in awhile, submenus will pop up with "translated" text, signifying important interactions between the two characters. (Note, this "interaction" only occurs in the Tutorial and Standard Game mode, not in any of the Free Game modes). Once you've gotten the hang of the game (and Sims players are going to get the hang pretty quickly!), you're ready to really start playing.
Once you're doing playing around in the Tutorial, go back to the Main Menu, choose to start a new game then select from your options on the right: Standard Game, Free Game/Loft, or Free Game/Villa.
Standard Game is the primary mode of gameplay for Singles, the "story" mode so to speak. You start where the two characters have just moved in together, the female character you've selected now renting a room from the male character. You are able to flick back and forth between the characters via a button located in the upper right hand of the screen, just beneath the "living" portrait of the active character. The living portrait is great, a close-up headshot of the character that animates in different ways, depending upon the character's current activity.
The flat you start off with is very basic, utilizing second hand furnishings. One of your objectives is to build the flat up, making it a place the characters are content living in (as indicated by the Surroundings level; more on that below). The flat is located atop of a building, with plenty of room to add on to, once you've made some money! The primary objective, though, is to make your two characters fall for one another, and that is going to take a bit of working! However, there is another objective as well! If you complete the Standard Game you unlock a new option - the Beach House! You'll be able to visit the Beach House on the weekends, but it also needs some work, so once more, you'll hafta keep an eye on your pennies!
In the Free Games, you start with just the basics. The Loft has four walls and windows and that's about it, you're given a ton of cash to build from there, while the Villa is located in a beautiful grassy area that gives you plenty of building space. The building space is a dream for those Sims players; there is a LOT of room. Unfortunately, it's all level. That is to say, don't even think about mentally deciding you want to build a multilevel flat, as it's simply not even an option. However, given the amount of room you have available to build outwards, that's not really a problem except for aesthetically. I haven't taken a peek at the Beach House yet, but from some of the stuff I have seen, I expect it'll be incredible!
Like all living simulation games, the gameplay is pretty basic and once you get the hang of it, you'll probably find yourself giving the same set of commands over and over and over again, repeated ad nauseum. However, in Standard Game mode, they've broken things up a bit by introducing "Talk." When you've accomplished certain tasks in the game, particularly in getting the relationship stats of the characters up, the two characters will initiate a dialogue. While most of the time the characters are speaking Babble (or whatever they decided to dub the nonsensical language used by the characters), in the dialogues you'll actually see and understand what they're saying. This is often the precursor to unlocking new social interactions between the two characters and is a good sign you're on the right path.
There are five relationship areas, ranked from zero through nine: Friendship, Romance, Sensuality, Fun, and Trouble. Each is really self-explanatory, so I won't describe what is what, and you'll figure it out pretty quickly once you get into the game.
Depending on your computer, there are going to be quite a few slightly annoying pauses (you'll grow to hate the sight of your cursor looking like a bunch of Zs) as you shift between menus, when it shifts from one time to another (morning, day, evening, and night), or when the clock appears and it's time for your characters to go to work. But this is one place that Singles stands head and shoulders over the original Sims game!
Like in the Sims, your characters will have to go to work to make money, which you can in turn use to spruce up the place. As they go to work, they earn experience. Every five points of experience gained, you go up a level and earn a skill point. This skill point can then be used to increase one of eight different skills: Career, Cleaning, Cooking, Flirting, Humour, Repair, Romance, and Slacking. Putting points in these skills comes in right handy, as increasing them gives you various benefits in game. For example, increasing your Career means you earn more money, while increasing Slacking means you have to work shorter hours! Finding the right balance of skills can be quite enjoyable as you figure out just what your priorities are: fixing up the house, working on your character relationships, etc. But the truly brilliant thing about the job system can be summed up in one word: WEEKENDS! That's right, unlike the Sims, where once you go to work the character works 7 days a week, your characters in Singles will only work from Monday through Friday. So even if you don't really get to work on the relationship during the week, you can spend the entire weekend doing so.
For those of you, like me, who played the Sims more to satisfy the frustrated architect and interior designer lurking inside of you, Singles does offer you the opportunity to do so, although perhaps not quite to the extent that Sims does. Interior design-wise, you have 25 Living Room objects, 29 Kitchen objects, 25 Electrical equipment objects, 18 Study objects, 11 Bedroom objects, 13 Bathroom objects, 52 Decor objects, along with 12 Build options (wall, remove wall, balustrade, 5 doors and 4 windows), 41 wallpapers and 3 exterior wallpapers, 30 Flooring designs, and 24 Garden objects. Quite a bit, really, although without the downloadable and expandable nature of the Sims, in the end, I think many people will end up getting bored pretty quickly of the same old things over and over again. I haven't seen any information about downloadable and expanding these options (just like I haven't seen anything for the characters) in the game, so that's a weakness it has against the Sims.
Graphics, Models & Animation
The graphics in Singles are, in a word, stunning! Each character is beautifully animated, both in miniature and in the living portrait head shot window. The dynamic shadows are beautiful, as are the lighting effects from everything, including lamps, candlelight, and even the shifting lighting of dawn, day, evening and nighttime. The zoom in and out functions let you get up close and personal with the game. To give you an example on just how detailed the environment is, when the characters are playing a game (accessible from the bookshelf), you can zoom in to the table and see the packaging on the box of the game matches the packaging of the Singles game itself.
Everything about the characters is animated, reflecting in both the full figure and in the living portrait window in the upper right hand corner. The animation is smooth, the movements interesting to watch, and when the characters get close to another, the living portrait window will show you a close-up view of just what they are doing.
The zoom in and out ability is relatively smooth, with being able to zoom in 4 times (you can see the grain in the wood) or zoom out 4 times from the standard (bird's eye view of everything). Unfortunately, if you flick between the characters during a zoom in or out, it automatically reverts to the standard view and jerks the camera over, so expect to do a lot of zooming and moving the mouse away from the characters!
Graphically, Singles is superior to the original Sims game in just about every respect. However, with Sims 2 lurking on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how it stacks up then.
You don't play living simulation games for the sound or music. Or if you do, I advise reevaluating your game play choices. This is definitely not to say that Singles doesn't deliver. From the catchy (though oft repeated) theme song to the background music of the game, to even the music of the Building menu, the melodies are not all that annoying. However, what I found quite nice is that since there is a Windows mode (meaning you can have the game going on in the background while you're mucking about in other Windows), you can turn the music volume down in your Options menu and simply have your own music going in one of the various media players.
The character speech is smooth, and though it's an unitelligible babel (much like Simlish for the Sims), you'll find yourself picking up a few words here and there. Heck, I've found myself saying 'kuna masa' quite often over the last few weeks. (Reviewer note: You'll know what I mean once you play the game... consider it a "You have to be a Singles player to understand code phrase!)
There are many, many things I haven't even touched upon in this review, but in the end it all boils down to this: I really enjoyed playing Singles. Yeah, it was enough like the Sims to be familiar, but there are enough differences and quirks to make it a separate game entirely. And in the end, all I cared about was playing a bit longer to earn a bit better relationship score between my two characters before I went to bed; one hour turned into four hours, and I was still playing. That to me is a sign of an engaging game.
With its release poised between the last expansion for the Sims and the introduction of Sims 2 still a few months away, it has the opportunity of securing a following for itself. And if they do a Singles 2 and give it a lot more personalization process (such as downloadables, or the ability to create your own character skins, objects, etc.), then there's the chance that they will prove to be a healthy competition for Maxis. Myself, I'm hoping they do so. I liked Singles, but I think I might love Singles 2.