The Sims may have been a PC phenomenon, but The Sims Bustin’ Out just didn’t work on the consoles. Part of it is a difference in gaming style, for lack of a better term console games even the truly odd ones are pretty goal-based and organized, as opposed to the free-for-all play of most PC successes. After all, the quintessential PC experiences are sim games like, well, The Sims, and the massive RPGs that date all the way back to Myst. Now the Sims are taking on the consoles again and the big city in The Urbz: Sims in the City.
The name isn’t the only thing that’s changed. The Sims grew up or down, as the case may be and got hip. If the fun of the original Sims lies in recreating the challenges of daily adult life, the Urbz focuses on life as presented through your favorite MTV style show or trendy magazine. The Sims is reality TV; the Urbz is the Style channel. The gameplay is radically altered, with a tighter, limited set of goals; home is nothing, while image is everything, and the game moves much more quickly. How you feel about it may depend on your previous experience with the Sims.
Sims fans, brace yourselves. In some ways, playing the Urbz makes you feel like Sims 2 never even happened. The graphics are still 3D, yes, but all that lovely flexibility in Sims 2 is long gone. The music is vastly improved, though, compared to the obnoxious but familiar elevator muzak of the original Sims. Instead you will recognize the tunes but what language are they speaking? It’s Simlish, of course! Adding in “real” songs from artists like the Black Eyes Peas is vital for a game so based on pop culture. It’s a real sign of how popular a game franchise is when an artist will let you re-record his/her songs in a gibberish language just for the game. Then again, these artists would be at the top of the Urbz food chain already.
You see, the point of the Urbz is social success, plain and simple. Your urb must follow a series of steps to achieve that ultimate pinnacle of social superiority your face on posters all over town, invitations to every private party, a crowd of adoring followers, and a glamorous penthouse. You have no traditional job you take periodic assignments to pay the bills and you go through a series of apartments that you almost never visit. A note to the game designers why it is set up that buying furniture unlocks a pet in each apartment? I was waiting for someone to call the humane society on me because I had a bulldog in one apartment and a cat in the other and I never visited them. As far as I can tell, they got fed by people stopping by to try to find me, and I had almost no interaction with them except cleaning up after they used my floor as a toilet. If the Urbz have to be absentee parents to their pets, couldn’t the pets be potty-trained? Or couldn’t we at least buy a litter box? A color-coordinated, designer litter box, of course
Yes, designer everything rules in the Urbz but designer you, not designer furniture. No matter how popular you are, you can’t get in to the hottest clubs without the right threads. You will spend a large amount of time buying clothes and changing clothes, which starts out being mildly entertaining and ends up being pretty frustrating. The choices are funny, but very limited, and you have to change from outfit to outfit every time you go to a new neighborhood (did I mention there are nine neighborhoods?). This isn’t a problem when you’re just getting started and can only get in to one or two districts, but when you’ve unlocked them all which a few steady hours of gameplay can manage for you you spend more time in the closet than anywhere else. There’s really no trick to figuring out which clothes will help you succeed buy the most expensive ones you can and you’re in. The far more difficult trick is remembering which clothes fit with which district after you’ve already bought them. See, all your clothes hang in a closet and they all start to look alike, so it becomes difficult to match up the appropriate tops and bottoms and shoes though mistakes in this area don’t seem to make much difference either. You also get to change hair, makeup (for ladies), facial hair (for men), piercings and tattoos. These choices are narrow, and the ones you can actually put on your character without laughing at him/her are ever fewer. The create-a-sim process in Sims 1 was more detailed, and Sims 2 is far superior. This is especially disappointing in a game that is so focused on appearance. It would be like building your house in Sims but having only one-third of the options the original game provided.
There are limited options in the gameplay as well, though this seems more logical. You earn just enough money to buy the things you need, like new clothes and machines to upgrade your skills (so you can earn more money so you can buy new clothes ). You need to build your reputation through social interaction, though lasting relationships really don’t seem to matter much, so forget that hard-earned collection of friendships from Sims. Your social interaction options are color-coded on your menu green will definitely succeed, red will definitely not succeed, yellow (like a traffic signal) means caution. Using this as a guide, it’s pretty easy to rack up the points and be a big success. You use a cell phone/pda to manage your messages, receive calls, stay on top of your goals, and track your relationships. Some of these things work well, but the message center feature needs to be radically re-worked. The messages show up in chronological order and are deleted in the same way sometime deleting material you really needed to complete a goal later on in the game.
On the positive side, Urbz makes a good transition to the goal-oriented play that works best for a console. It would be a great game to use to introduce your girlfriend to gaming, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if she’s already a gamer. I also would advise against the two player game. A Sims game is simply not meant to have two players it’s way too confusing and ultimately less fun that a single player. For example, in single player mode, you can fast-forward through sleeping or taking a shower or going to the bathroom in two player mode you can’t, whether it’s your character or your partner’s character involved.
On the downside, Urbz has its share of issues. The control is difficult at best; using the analog stick to highlight things that you want to interact with can be frustrating. There is a button-masher element which comes up in connection with completing jobs and building your skills. Completing the job is as simple as pressing a series of buttons in a required order, like Dance Dance Revolution for your fingertips, but this speeds up as you get harder jobs until it becomes almost impossible. You earn skills by smashing the X button repeatedly while using one of the skill-improving machines you can buy, but as you upgrade the machines you have to hit the button so fast it is beyond human capacity.
There are bugs in the game, most of which are minor. The most frustrating one is when a computer-controlled character (like your bathroom-needing pet) sits in front of a door you need to get through. You can’t move the offending creature and if the room has only one door, you’re basically stuck until they move. Other things, like hearing your in-game cell phone ring when there’s no one there, are manageable.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the game is that things are not explained well at all, mostly because of the total lack of a manual. There are a variety of different techniques, tactics, and features in the game that are absolutely confusing because no one ever explains them! A good example of this is the “power social”. This is a special tool you earn by meeting the big time social mover and shaker, Darius, at the private parties around town. Power socials are used to defeat villains (don’t ask me why we’re defeating villains, but we are ) or to improve your rep. I’ve played the game quite a bit preparing for this review, but have yet to understand how the power socials work. I’ll have characters tell me to use a specific power social on a specific character, only to have a menu for interaction with that character that doesn’t offer the option I need. There seems to be something about pressing the X button to set the power level for the power social, but whether I press it or not, the social seems to work the same way every time.
Overall, the Urbz probably will not be the overwhelming success that the Sims was, and frankly, it shouldn’t be. It’s a pretty good game and a significant step forward for Sim-type gaming on the consoles, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as the original Sims, or even Sims 2. It’s fun, but a shallow fun, based on shallow characters maybe the perfect game for the kids from Clueless or The OC. For those of you who never worried about the trendy clothes or the “happenin” night spot, it can be entertaining, but there’s only so much excitement we can generate over cute clothes and social soap operas, particularly when there are a couple of pretty noticeable flaws in the gameplay. If the Urbz makes it to Urbz 2 and some of these problems get fixed, there just might be a new audience out there waiting for it.