Maxis' popular Sims franchise made a successful transition to home consoles with the simply named The Sims last year. The console versions of the game managed to bring the core gameplay mechanics of the PC game to the GameCube, PlayStation and Xbox with nary a hitch. To follow up the successful debut, Maxis has gone back to the drawing board and cooked up an ambitious sequel that handily tops its predecessor by building on the solid foundation it provided. This time out, the game--aptly titled The Sims Bustin' Out--takes some assured strides toward achieving a unique identity that's far more console-oriented than its predecessor. We had the chance to get an exclusive look at the PlayStation 2 version of the game and are pleased by what we've seen. Whereas the original Sims console game was a bit on the conservative side in terms of tweaking with the established Sims formula, Bustin' Out is shaping up to be a much more confident evolution of the series.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Sims phenomenon, the franchise revolves around the care of a virtual person, called a "sim." In the PC and last year's console game, you played the role of an omnipotent caretaker who tended to a sim's many survival needs. Surprisingly, despite the rather needy nature of a sim, who required much management on the part of players, the franchise has become a juggernaut of "Energizer Bunny" proportions. As mentioned earlier, last year's console game was a solid, albeit somewhat conservative, evolution of the franchise for home consoles. Some minor tweaking was done to the core mechanics of the franchise, such as the inclusion of a dedicated single-player mode, a two-player mode, and the introduction of unlockable items. However, the game still bore a very close resemblance to its PC brethren. For The Sims Bustin Out, Maxis has gone and overhauled every aspect of last year's game, and, while the ultimate goal of the game is still to end up living a fabulous life in a palatial home with a lot of cool stuff, the journey leading to that has changed.
The first thing you'll notice when you fire up The Sims Bustin' Out's single-player get a life mode is that both the interface and graphics have been overhauled. The new interface does a fine job of highlighting the plethora of new options available to you as you create your sims. As always, you'll have to pick a gender, as well as decide on various attributes to assign to your sim's personality. You'll also be able to customize many aspects of your sim's appearance. Bustin' Out features a meaty character editor that surpasses last year's entry by leaps and bounds. Not only do you have more options to tweak on your sim's face, but you'll be given many more parts to choose from as you try to create just the right look for your virtual self. The creation screen also serves as an excellent taste of the new graphics engine for this year's game, which pumps out bigger and better animated sims that have much more personality. You'll notice the new animations the moment you start changing clothes on your sim, as they'll react to the new outfits as you cycle through them.
Once you've settled on the right look for your sim, you'll start the game in a fantasy sequence that finds you at a nightclub. Your brief interactions on the dance floor offer a brief taste of some of the advanced behavior you'll be engaging in later in the game. As in last year's game, just when things start to get interesting, dear old Mom sucks you out of your daydream and back to your reality of being an adult sim living with your parent.
The game will once again follow the standard goal-oriented structure the series is known for. However, the pacing has been tweaked quite a bit. Whereas you had a rather lengthy to-do list before being able to flee the nest in the previous game, Bustin' Out's pacing has been tweaked considerably and should have you out of the house pretty quickly. The game starts out by toying with your emotions in what will be an ongoing form of mental torture, as land baron Malcolm Landgrabb appears to repossess your scooter with a diabolical-looking teleporter rifle. You should get used to the abuse as Malcolm Landgrabb will appear anytime you arrive at a location where there's something remotely cool--and he'll promptly snatch it away! Getting back your stuff and thwarting his evil practices are one of the major bullet points on your to-do list.
The appearance of the scooter hints at one of the major features of The Sims Bustin' Out, which is the enhanced mobility of your sim. You'll eventually get your scooter back and be able to use it to travel to new locations as they open up. In fact, the scooter is just one of the vehicles you'll be able to use to get around in the game. Traveling also highlights the varied locales that feature quite a bit of personality and a liberal dose of the franchise's trademark humor. The new and varied locales do more than just highlight the new graphics engine, which manages to crank out some impressively high-res textures that add a lot to the new locations. You'll find that the art and design is quite a bit more whimsical in layout and use of color. You'll also find some firsts in the game, such as the wide vista seen from a mountaintop home in a massive city. In one of the many nice displays of the new lighting used in the game, you'll see the city light up as the sun sets and night falls. The game will feature 16 new locations that you'll unlock as you play. Some of these will be tied to the new careers you'll be undertaking in the game, like those of a gangster, athlete, mad scientist, and fashion victim.
As far as gameplay goes, the core sims mechanics are still on tap. You'll use an onscreen cursor to direct your sim to move about or interact with objects and people. Social interaction is a big component in this year's game, as you'll be able to learn a variety of different actions from the 25 new characters in the game. The assorted behaviors will vary in tact, so you'll have to be wary about asking just anyone to pull your finger, for fear of ticking off a new acquaintance. Unlockable items also return for you to discover and range from cool stuff for your house to quirkier fare like Venus flytraps. Anyone hankering for a monkey butler may be in for a surprise as, while the old boy is in the game, it's not in a way you might expect. One of the coolest aspects of the game--branching paths--are something that you may not pick up on until your second play through of the game. The get a life mode will actually change, based on your sims personality, ensuring that you'll rarely have the same exact experience twice, which adds a good amount of replay value to the proceedings.
Another key element to the replay value of The Sims Bustin' Out is its multiplayer mode, which differs from last year's game quite a bit. You'll now be able to play cooperative games in both the regular "live mode" (in which sims live and work normally) and the mission-based get a life mode. Players will even be able to trade unlocked items. So, for instance, if you happen to be playing a character in the music career path and you've unlocked an expensive guitar, while your friend is playing as a jock and has unlocked a basketball hoop, the two of you can trade items by swapping memory cards.
The PlayStation 2 version also features an extra bonus in the form of an exclusive gameplay mode that lets you play with a friend online. For the first time, your Sims will be able to enjoy weekends with no work and all fun by going online. You can invite another player over to check out your customized locations, trade objects, build skills, and exchange tips for getting through the game. The game even supports voice chat, like the rest of Electronic Arts' online games this year. While the GameCube and Xbox owners won't get the online mode, each platform will have an exclusive feature. GameCube owners will be treated to connectivity features with the upcoming Sims Bustin' Out Game Boy Advance game. Xbox owners get a more modest exclusive, HDTV 480p support.
While the Xbox game will be the best-looking of the console versions, especially since it supports 720p display, that's not to say the PlayStation 2 game is a dog by any means. In fact, every version of the game looks comparable thanks to the versatile game engine. The graphics in the PlayStation 2 game stand up easily to the other two versions, with the main differences being subtle changes in color, lighting, and texture resolution. The improved graphics engine ensures the game runs more smoothly than last year's version despite all the graphical enhancements; this is quite an impressive feat.
The audio is top-notch and actually surpasses the level of quality we've come to expect from a Sims game. The game features all new simlish, the gibberish language of the virtual folk in the game. A nice mix of familiar intonations and new over-the-top entries have been added to the growing simlish lexicon. The comical game sound effects are used to underscore your sim's actions, or interactions, between characters and capably walks the fine line between subtle (such as the noises that utensils make when you're in the kitchen) and out of control (such as the shrieking and other mayhem that occurs when things in the game go wrong).
While these elements of the game's audio were expected, we have to say we're quite surprised by the game's original soundtrack, which is a catchy and eclectic mix of tunes drawn from a variety of genres. The end result adds one more facet to the game's distinct personality, which sets it apart from its PC cousins.
From what we've played The Sims Bustin' Out is shaping up to be a polished entry in what can now be considered a full-fledged console offshoot of the franchise. The gameplay is most definitely different from the PC games and is better tailored to the tastes of console players. Fans of the franchise, or any console gamers who were smitten with Animal Crossing, will definitely want to check out The Sims Bustin' Out when it ships this December for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox. Look for more on the game soon.