Ok, so many years ago the Sims took the world by storm, and Will Wright and his buddies at Maxis have been working ever since, coming up with more and more goodies to add to the original before Sims 2 comes out next year. Ignoring the whole Sims Online experiment, there have been several expansion packs this year; two of the most recent are Superstar and Makin’ Magic. Superstar allows your sims to attempt a career that will make them famous; Makin’ Magic adds magic to the mix, and is intriguing enough that it might as well be a career path by itself.
If you don’t know the basic idea of The Sims, you’ve been living under a rock and should be dropped from whatever gaming societies to which you belong. Whether or not you like playing supreme deity to a bunch of little things that might look just like you (if you’re self-aggrandizing enough to do that), you probably know of the Sims. The countless expansion packs started out adding new features to the game; lately the packs have been themed: Hot Date gave us lover Sims and a town in which they date, Vacation gave us places to send our Sims to get away from their daily grind (Has anyone ever noticed that Sims work seven days a week unless you specifically arrange for them to ditch work? That can’t be promoting healthy work habits…), Unleashed gave us pets. Superstar and Makin’ Magic follow the trend. Each provides the Sim-Deity who controls all (in other words, you) with a new world to visit, new toys for the sims, new home decorations (Does Will Wright hire interior decorators to develop stuff for this game?), and new activities.
Superstar gives you Studio Town and the career path of fame. This career path is just as easy to get into as the others (Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just read an ad in the paper or on the Net and select “Yes, I will take this job” and you’d get it?), but much harder to succeed in (ok, so maybe it’s not so different from real life…). You now receive a Studio Insider paper, which seems to be some kind of cross between a tabloid and the Hollywood trade papers. It has gossip columns and also gives you a way to start a career – you can sign with a talent agency. You do not have to have any talent to do this, but they will drop you if you don’t develop some soon. To do this, you have to visit Studio Town. On its various lots you can shop for clothes, eat expensive food, go to health spas, play with exotic and very expensive toys like sky diving simulators and scuba diving tanks… and oh yeah, you can hone those abilities that will make you famous. You start out very bad, but by improving those charisma, body, or creativity skills you can eventually get better. You earn stars, which are tracked on your career screen much the way promotions are tracked in other fields. Superstar also gives you some striking new looks for the Sims, including a few complete with sunglasses for that ‘star incognito’ look and even a couple female ones wearing a head scarf and glasses over big hair a la Marilyn Monroe; there are also new styles for the Sim Star Mansion and new gadgets to play with at home.
Makin’ Magic is the most intriguing addition to the Sims toy chest in quite some time. Your sims can indulge their Harry Potter fantasies with magic objects; build their own abilities to cast spells, create charms, and earn Magicoins; and visit Magic Town. There are the usual new variations on the home décor front, including some more pseudo-creepy looks (wallpaper of flying bats, anyone?) and a real carnival theme, in case you wanted more brightly striped items in your house or floors that look like bales of straw. Makin’ Magic also allows new home-based activities, including churning butter, spinning thread, harvesting beeswax and honey, growing vines and berries, baking bread in a bread oven, and pressing fruit to make nectar. Apparently the Sims people see some connection between homeopathic and organic homemade goodness and magic… anyway, it’s fun. For you aspiring magician types, you can get a magic starter kit from the Mystery Man (no, not Ben Stiller in tights, thank God!) that provides you with a spellbook that has both electronic and paper varieties, a charm maker with the cutesy name of the EverAfter Crafter, a wand charger (don’t ask!), and a hole in the ground with a lighted arrow pointing to it. While this looks like something P.T. Barnum would invent – “This way to the Egress, everybody” – it is, in fact, your personal route to Magic Town. Like every outside-of-neighborhood location you can visit, Magic Town has its variety of lots, which you can survey from a bird’s eye view camera that shows you the entire town as a kind of not-really-scary-but-slightly-creepy Haunted Mansion/Haunted Side Show looking-thing with a striped balloon floating as what is apparently the Magic Town version of the Goodyear Blimp. You can talk to the magical NPCs here, who primarily are vendors hawking magical items that you can only buy with MagiCoins. You earn MagiCoins by performing acts in Magic Town; you can practice with a magic table at home until you can do some basic tricks. You also need to build your career skills; in fact, magic seems to be a career-like process except that you aren’t actually required to show up every day. You will need to show up regularly to earn enough MagiCoins to buy the ingredients you need to make your charms and charge the wand you buy in Magic Town with spells to cast. You can also compete in spell duels here, or do some fun stuff too, like ride roller coasters, buy weird foods like goulash and gumbo (apparently they really dig the “g” foods in MagicTown), or watch the Snake Charmer and try your own Charming Skills. If you’re really good, you can actually earn enough MagiCoins to buy a home in Magic Town – an interesting new variation to the Town system developed in previous expansion packs. Wouldn’t it be fun to own a vacation home or a palatial residence near the Studio in Studio Town?
As always, the two Sims expansions look really good. The graphics continue to be clean and sharp – and funny, which is always a plus. Magic Town in particular is very intriguing to observe, even from the overall town screen which is ordinarily pretty boring. Studio Town’s NPC antics are an entertaining comment on its creators’ perceptions of Hollywood, which are pretty accurate, I must admit, but Magic Town is interesting enough that you will repeatedly find yourself zooming in to observe something in great detail and then zooming back out to better manage your sims. The graphic presentation of the magic is outstanding, including the hazy green version of your sim that you see when you cast a spell to turn yourself into a ghost – a green sim that walks through walls and objects. Another favorite is Bonehilda, your new maid – a walking skeleton in a maid’s outfit and head scarf who lives in a coffin and comes out to clean whenever you knock on her door. For having no face to show facial expression, she has a definite personality. Speaking of the dead, the spells you perform in Magic Town include Spectral Spouses, which raises a dead couple who riverdance around you, and the spell which draws out a Mummy from its case who then tries to throw you into the case with it (I guess it was lonely?!?). These in particular are hilariously animated and very detailed. The biggest disappointment of the game’s visual aspect is that these hilarious animations are so detailed that you have to zoom in very close to see them. Of course, as you Sim experts know, the close zoom-in screen is not the most effective way to manage your sims, so you have to spend quite a bit of time using those little plus and minus buttons on your camera control. The zoom control is still excellent, but I’d rather not have gotten so familiar with it, and if you choose to simply stay on the zoomed-out view you will miss out on some of the best details of the new packs.
Sims sounds continue as always. I always return to a sims pack with a fond sense of nostalgia for the same little musical tunes, but after taking the time to set up my newest house – after all, it’s more fun to build new houses with all the new toys for each new pack – I am soon ready to rip out my speakers just so I don’t have to hear that same little melody every time I go to the buy screen. Hopefully in future versions of Sims – like, I don’t know, Sims 2? – maybe we’ll have some new music and maybe a few new Sim conversation noises, since I feel like I’ve heard the same ones forever now! Some sounds in Superstar and Makin’ Magic are good ways to gauge your skill improvement – as your skills improve, you play your instrument (or whatever) better. The musical accompaniment for the Town Screen for Magic Town is particularly suitable, but unfortunately the sound effects for the magic tend to be pretty straightforward and predictable. With all the humor present in the visuals, one could only hope the sound would match, but no such luck…
Gameplay has not shifted significantly, either. One great addition in Makin’ Magic is the creation of a character inventory, which allows you to keep MagiCoins and ingredients for spells and charms. It will be interesting to see if they elaborate on this in future versions. It is managed in your character screen, along with relationships, career, and personal needs like food, bathroom, fun, or sleep. Travel to the various towns is exhausting, which makes time management, always a challenge in these games, that much more difficult. If you haven’t played since the original Sims, you will find that your relationships decay more quickly now, as there are daily relationship bars as well as lifetime bars. Between maintaining relationships, building career skills, and maintaining a home (unless you have Bonehilda, a human maid, or a member of your family who just stays home and cleans all day), it’s hard to know how we’ll ever have the time to try all the fun stuff they’ve created. In fact, that’s the biggest difficulty about The Sims now – they’ve added so much with all the expansion packs that the sheer size of the game is overwhelming. Building a house is very time-consuming; even with unlimited money you’d still have all those options to page through and try out. Creating your family can be equally complex, especially since changing a character’s skin color can have a fairly drastic effect on what outfits, hairstyles, etc are available. The career path of fame is too difficult; I played for days before I even started to earn my stars. The time involved in developing your magic skills is much more reasonable; I certainly wasn’t up there with Gandalf and Saruman, but I was able to get my foot in the door fairly successfully after only a few hours. A final issue with gameplay is the load time. With all the expansions installed, load time to get started and to get to the town screens is too long and puts the entire game on hold. If you’re playing obsessively enough to conquer the fame path or experience everything these packs have to offer, you may find yourself dozing off while waiting to get to the next location.
The Sims earned its place in the gaming pantheon quite a while ago, and it was well-deserved. While its magnitude of options can be excessive for the casual gamer (or even the serious gamer who happens to have a real life to manage in addition to a sim life!), there are no doubt many fans out there rejoicing in each and every addition. With few exceptions, the expansion packs as a whole have been useful and entertaining extensions, rather than mere stalling devices to hold off the wrath of the gaming addict. Superstar and Makin’ Magic are two of the more effective packs they’ve done, and Makin’ Magic is easily the most innovative since the original Sims was created. Even if you haven’t tried anything since the first Sims game, give Makin’ Magic a try. You just might find yourself spellbound enough to keep going until Sims 2 comes out in 2004.