The most surprising thing with the Sims 3 is not that it might very well be one of the best Sims game so far out of the box, but how it manages this despite being the first Sims game not to be developed officially by Maxis.
This doesn't stop the Sims 3 from being rife with references from the Sims past, be it in the great many familiar faces that return in the new Sunset Valley and Riverview towns or via various Easter Eggs you can see left and right like the statue of the Sims 2's servo at the entrance of the Science Labs career building. Still, it doesn't prevent the Sims 3 from being its very own game, and a great addition to the Sims series at that. The Sims 3 brings quite a lot to the experience, there are many reasons for it, but here there are mainly two. The first is the open neighbourhoods, as many a Sims 2 fan will agree that the days of waiting on dozens of loading screens on each session was tiresome at best, with the new seamless neighbourhoods that is a thing of the past.
The other is that you could easily say that the Sims 3 manages to successfully merge the level of detail and open-endedness of gameplay of the PC version of past Sims games with the more objective based gameplay of the console Sims for a gratifying play experience.
Changes to the formula
Obviously, the changes don't stop there, nor is that short paragraph even a good description of how deep the system is. As such, actual changes to the game are in fact quite many. One of the first to be noticed by experienced Sims players is in the save game system. Prior to the Sims 3, all save games were reflected in the families of a single neighbourhood. Though this meant you could have many custom created families sharing a neighbourhood, it also indirectly meant that if one of these Sims were to die whilst playing another family (such as by the actions of the nefarious Sims 2 University "Cow Plant"), you would have to deal with the consequence of this. For the Sims 3, this has been tweaked a little bit. It now works on a more "conventional" save games system where you can create different separate save games using a single neighbourhood. Since elements of one save game don't carry to the other, this does not permit the same level of "shared neighbourhood" that is seen in the Sims 2 and forces you to only be able to have a single "active" playable family at a time, on the other hand this prevents the type of events that could have happened before in the Sims 2. Some actually like it, whilst others actually dislike the new system preferring the time when they could easily switch between families in a single shared neighbourhood.
Still, with an "open neighbourhood" that ages alongside your active family, getting their own job promotions, forming couples and moving on... there were little ways to do otherwise since any family you are not directly managing will be just as independent as yours.
And now, into that dynamic and open neighbourhood, we see one of the Sims 3's first and main selling point.
Let me tell you right away: It was a great idea. Before, when you needed your Sims to go anywhere... well, they would simply head toward the "exit" of their house's lot and disappear to a loading screen before reaching their destination. Not so much anymore, all the loading screens are gone and all lots are connected in one open neighbourhood. Want some Sim to go to the park? You can follow him as he walks or basically drives there... and see other townies going about their business. For a day I went to the park, and got to see picnic baskets on the floor with napkins and many people hanging around, but when I returned the day after, they were gone. So, yes, Sims outside of your activity will have lives and occupations of their own during the day and not only this, but as time passes for your family, so does it pass for them. "Townies" now age, marry, have children, and move out to other cities as new townies will move in... as I found out, a good way of keep tracks of these changes is... to read the newspaper.
Yup, for older Sims fans I can now confirm that the newspapers have now more uses than just searching for work or doing crosswords. Basically, while in the Sims 2 the "Read news" newspaper interaction pretty much did nothing else than fulfil the "fun" need of a Sim, in the Sims 3 it actually sees some practical use in providing you feedback on who just got married with whom in town, who just had kids and who recently passed away or moved out of town. In other word, the newspaper is even more useful of a tool now than ever before.
Scattered across the neighbourhoods (and thus encouraging you to explore it!) will be various "collectibles". These range from raw gems (that can be mailed to be cut into decorative gems) that be found near rocky formations in the town's outskirts to seeds near gardens, which can later re-planted by the more gardening type, gardening being a new skill included in the Sims 3.
Also, since I mentioned moments before that one of the aspects that I liked of the Sims 3 was how it merges features of both past PC and console games let met explain this a little bit more.
Basically, past Sims games were renowned for the level of freedom they possessed, which pleased many since it permitted a lot of people to basically "make the game theirs". However, some critics often mentioned that there was little "goal" in playing the Sims their way. On the console side, the main critic often was that with less options and details than the PC games (such as the inability for Sims to age on most console versions) was how "restricted" the experience felt compared to PC. However, I was one who personally liked the occasional goal based gameplay of console versions since it provided a bit more motivation to play at times than just "managing" your Sims.
In a quite intuitive way, the Sims 3 managed to merge those "done good" aspects of both platforms in one efficient platform. Simply said, the Sims 3 keeps all the freedom and level of detail from Sims 2 (even adding more thanks to the dynamic neighbourhood), but sees a new addition in optional goals that can now crop up once in a while. Called Opportunities, these are random mini-challenges sometimes offered to one of your Sims for them to complete. They often are tied to their current career (such as co-workers in the political career challenging them to read a book related to that career or do some other errand before the next shift) or skills (such as a handy-man Sim being asked by a friend to repair some appliance). There's also some other special opportunities that will crop up on the neighbourhood map such as chess tournaments or eating contests. No matter the origins, completing these will often yield rewards for the Sim along with providing an occasional welcomed break from the more routine of sleeping, eating, and working from managing a Sim's life.
Also tying into this are some of the new random challenges you can get when purchasing a house. These can go from buying a house that was hit by a meteor to one that was built on a haunted burial ground, always with the option to "opt out" for those who would rather do without all this. Still, it offers lots of nice and potentially fun possibilities to change from your run of the mill housekeeping. There is something to be said for your Sim as they go to get a late snack in the middle of the night and waving at the "house ghost" as they do so!
And if that isn't enough of a change for you, even the game mechanics pertaining to skills were now overhauled. Before, a Sims' skills mostly represented how good he was in a given task, and were used as requirements for work promotions. They still are, but there are many new capacities added to them. For example, "handiness" (representing the old mechanical skill from past Sims) now permits a Sim to unlock the ability to upgrade items around the house, such as making an oven fireproof or self-cleaning and so on. Or for another example, a Sim with high body skills will develop more advanced ways of working out (such as "no sweat" where the person will be able to work out indefinitely without ever getting smelly). In fact, a new addition is the "skills journal" listing which skills the Sims learned and to which level. Also included will be a list of the various requirements (termed, again, "challenges") that can be fulfilled to unlock new abilities or bonuses within a skill giving added incentives to pursue various skills on top of mere job promotions.
Also pertaining to skills are varied new skills, such as gardening and fishing alongside changes to pre-existing skills such as creativity which was now split into different new skills such as painting, writing and music.
But to speak about all the skills or objectives that Sims now have access to forgets on one big important subject: The Sims themselves.
Well, the Sims of the Sims 2 were quite a step above those of the first Sims game the Sims 3 "upgrades" them in a similar style. Where the Sims 2's Sims had Aspirations and Personality points, the Sims 3 merged the two into traits. These new traits go a great way to customizing a Sims' personality to create much more of a unique Sim than ever before. With a max of 5 different traits for a given adult Sim, you can thus create a Sim who is neurotic, kleptomaniac, overemotional, creative and athletic. All these traits, many coming with "quirks" and "abilities" of their own along with the ability for a Sim to also choose a "lifetime dream" (the new lifetime aspirations, for Sims 2 players) of their choice linked to one of their traits. These traits will also determines what types of varied "wishes" a Sim will sometimes want, which can be fulfilled for "lifetime happiness" points that can be used to purchase lifetime rewards that can give access to various perks for a Sim (one, for example, is the "Mid-life crisis" which allows you to change a Sims' original traits for new ones of your choice). Also, you can now even give your Sim a favourite type of food, now giving you reasons to cook one meal over another, type of music or even colour, which so far, seems to tie into the "create-a-style" mode which I'll talk about later.
And this doesn't stop there. On the level of visual customization alone Sims now have access to even more options than before. Not only can you choose their outfit, but you can even pinpoint the very patterns of it to your utmost wishes. And that's on top of the (finally, after the consoles had had this for so long) options to be able to customize more clothing parts than before, such as shoes/socks/jewellery and so on. Even the physical characteristics of your Sims now get more sliders to determine facial features and body build than before. All in all, this heightened level of customization is greatly appreciated in a series that is widely liked by many for its customizable experience.
Also changed from past Sims is a much lessened emphasis on managing a Sims' "needs" (such as when you used to order your Sims to go to the bathroom, to eat, to bath, etc). They are still there, but their impact is lessened due to the new "mood lets" system. Basically, mood lets are "buffs" or "debuffs" (to use RPG terms) that can positively or negatively affects a Sims' moods. Some of them are "timed" in that they will last a given duration, others are "environmental" in that they will last as long as the Sim is close to the source of the mood let (an example is the "disgusted" mood let which you get when surrounded by filth and other such trash). They can also be acquired from needs, but will only negatively affect you when in a "critical" state for that need (such as when starving) and will often be preceded by a neutral mood let which won't affect your mood but serves as a warning that the need should be fulfilled soon... though Sims are apt at answering such neutral mood lets on their own often. Conversely, you'll even get a positive mood let such as when a Sim is satisfied after a full meal giving him a "well fed" mood lets that'll improve his mood for 6 hours more than if he had just taken a quick snack. Despite how this sounds, this actually makes managing a Sim easier since the focus is to generally keep them happy. With enough different mood lets, you probably could even offset the negative effects of the mood lets from a need that has to be addressed.
Of course, it wouldn't be the Sims if you didn't get to build your own houses. And though on first look the Sims 3 don't seem to offer that much that is new, some players have complained about there being seemingly less furniture and such than in the Sims 2, what additions that were made are far to be scoffed at.
Though, there might not seem to be as many items than one could expect, the great majority of them are fully customizable. Meaning that, thanks to the new "create-a-style" mode, you can design the exact range of colours, materials and patterns of an object to your utmost liking, which is definitely something that is very easy and satisfying to do. Not only that, but if you have a Sim that is in a room mainly decorated with elements of his favourite colour, he would get a mood let called "well decorated" improving his mood whenever he was in the room. I found this to be a very nice touch and it is a nice way of giving a reason to improve houses as well on putting an emphasis on how every Sim is even more unique than in previous games.
Graphics and Sounds
The graphics in the Sims 3 are decent. They are not trying to push any benchmark but will still remain relatively stylized in a nice and pleasant way, giving the game a style of its own even with the customability. Similarly, sounds and music do their jobs quite decently, the new music actually even helping to set the Sims 3 as separate from the rest of the series.
As a bit of a final note, one of the things often talked about concerning the Sims 3 is the new "Sims stores" where players can buy new furniture models and other varied objects and clothes to import into their game. Using "sims points" which are bought with real dollars, this store has been criticized by members of the community as an attempt by EA to introduce paid DLCs into the Sims. This is far from being that "new" because even the Sims 2 prior to this had included their own "Sims store" and even before that Maxis already was selling "Stuff packs" on cds, which contained only groups of themed furniture without adding new gameplay mechanics or elements other than these. And, in fact, towards the end of the Sims 2's lifespan, EA had released a dozen of such "stuff packs" which included likes of "IKEA Stuff" and "H&M Stuff" packs. In the light of this, the Sims 3 store seems like a natural evolution of things, and ones that permits you to pay a mere 75 points (barely 75 cents in Canada where I come from) for an item, compared to a full-blown stuff pack that could be sold between $25 and $30 that might contain a few dozen items, most of which you probably didn't even want. Some might agree, some might disagree, though with myriad of "stuff packs" released for the Sims 2, one must assume there must have been a market for it.
Also, as has often been discussed by many, there were great worries surrounding the Sims 3 in regard to the DRM it would make use of. Many players, many of them Sims fans, worried that the game would be straddled with a limited activation type of DRM as was seen on Mass Effect and Spore. You'll be glad to hear that this is not the case with the Sims 3, in fact a couple of groups have gone to great lengths to check what sort of DRM the game contained and have yet to find anything dire. EA seem to be taking a cue from Stardock and taking the "carrot" approach with players who owns legitimate copies of the game by giving them 1000 Sims points to spend in the Sims Store along with a free new town (including many exclusives items and a small background story) called Riverview, all for free by registering the game online on EA's website.
All in all, I would consider the Sims 3 a great purchase for anyone who is a fan of the Sims already or those wanting to take their first steps in the Sims universe, in what is probably the best game so far in the series.
On a more personal thought, there is so much in the Sims 3 already that I can only imagine what kind of themed expansions will come out for this game (this reviewer digging for a purely hypothetical "horrorville" pack adding a new town with a vampire castle, forested areas where werewolves could hang out and varied mad scientist gears and tricks. It is probably wishful thinking, but one can dream, and if the Sims 3 does offer something, it is certainly dreaming about the possibilities the future will offer).