The Sims Medieval is the next chapter in the Sims series, and while it's not quite a full sequel, it is a step in a decidedly different direction. The Sims games generally start you off at a character creation screen and wait politely for you to create whichever character you like from any age group, shape, or size. Medieval, on the other hand, begins with a tongue-in-cheek opening movie narrated by the always-delightful Sir Patrick Stewart, who explains that in the days of old, little computer people aspired to lead lives of virtue and glory, except that they were too dumb. All seemed lost until their almighty deity, The Watcher (that's you), stepped in to help them lead better lives. GameSpot had the opportunity to dive deep into this upcoming game by hunkering down and playing it from the start, and we have much to report.
A new game of Medieval begins very differently than a new game of The Sims. Rather than suggest that you create a new character or move into an existing house, Medieval starts you out at the "kingdom ambition" screen and requires you to choose one of 12 different ambitions for your kingdom--long-term goals that include having a wealthy populace, expanding your demesne efficiently, or spreading one of the game's two religious denominations. Later ambitions unlock after you complete earlier ones--all players must start with the "new beginnings" ambition, which acts both as a full-fledged quest line and as starter material for new players. But don't worry--Medieval also has plenty of the pop-up tip help you've come to know and love from the original Sims games.
At first, your kingdom's monarch is the only character available for play, but you can at least choose to play as a pre-built character or to use Medieval's create-a-sim mode to make a new one. As we've mentioned previously, Medieval's create-a-sim mode is entirely different than what we've seen in previous games, and it comes loaded with all-new sets of clothing and hairstyles better suited to a Middle Ages-era game, including ornate armor sets, wizardly robes, and all manner of winsome new ladies' hairstyles. Medieval has a modified version of The Sims 3's trait system that lets you choose two personality traits (from a list of 21) and a fatal flaw (from a different list of 21) to add to your character. While Sims 3 favorites like evil, good, and excitable make their return to the traits list, there are plenty of new traits, like adventurous (becomes happier when seeking offscreen adventure) and "whale ate my parents," which is just what it sounds like. Fatal flaws include personality blemishes like "insecure" and "cowardly," as well as baser issues like "compulsive gambler" (which will detract from your character's focus if you don't step up to the gambling table every now and then) and "bloodthirsty" (which will make you less focused if you don't challenge someone to a fistfight or a duel sometime soon).
Focus is what determines your level of success. In Medieval, if you're not building out your kingdom, you're playing as one or more characters, and if you're playing as one or more characters, you've already accepted a quest. Character gameplay happens only once you've taken a specific quest and chosen a particular sim (and one or more assistants) to undertake it. However, once you are under way, the next step in your quest helpfully appears onscreen as an icon, and the next point of contact you need to meet in the world helpfully appears as a different floating icon--and clicking on this icon will immediately order your sim to walk right up to that quest character to complete the next step of your journey.
Quest progress is tracked by a meter on the left side of the screen that's reminiscent of The Sims 2's lifetime wish meter, and it even changes color from bronze to silver to gold to platinum the more "focused" your character gets. Focus comes from keeping your character happy and manifests itself in the form of Medieval's "moodlets"--which, just like The Sims 3's moodlets, provide minor positive and negative bonuses based on your character's actions and current needs. A compulsive gambler may suffer a moodlet that subtracts 15 focus if he hasn't hit the gambling table in a while, whereas an adventurous sim might gain a hefty positive focus bonus after going off on an adventure. The higher your focus is, the closer your meter gets to turning platinum (and if you complete your quest while your meter is platinum, you'll earn the most points for it once you've completed it). Unfortunately, characters with a negative amount of focus can't take on the next leg in their current quest, so it behooves you to keep your characters moderately happy.
As you complete quests, you'll earn kingdom points ("KP"), which you can spend to build new structures. The game's key structures, such as wizard towers, bard taverns, or guard towers, cost 40 KP (which is the usual reward for the early game's quests), and purchasing one of these structures effectively unlocks it, and the character that inhabits it, for regular play.
In keeping with the medieval European concept of caste, which separates and identifies people by their profession, all of Medieval's characters are defined by their day jobs. Each character's profession determines the character's dwelling (blacksmiths live at the smithy, knights live at the barracks, and so on). And each individual dwelling comes equipped with any individual items you may need for that character--such as an alchemy lab bench for a wizard--though depending on how much cash that character possesses, you can also open up "furnish mode" (Medieval's version of The Sims' "buy mode") and purchase new furnishings and decorations for that character's dwelling at any time.
And fortunately, each newly unlocked character dwelling also comes equipped with all the furnishings you need for basic survival. Keeping your characters alive and happy is a bit simpler in Medieval since all characters have only two "motives" (personal needs), as opposed to the traditional socializing, bathroom, and fun motives of more-traditional Sims games. This time around, all you need to worry about are hunger and energy, which can be addressed by food and bed rest, respectively. And if your character is at home, filling both of these depleted needs can be done in mere moments by using the cooking fire to serve up a bowl of bland gruel (or something better, if your sims have better ingredients in their inventory) and then hopping into a nearby bed.
While any character can socialize normally by chatting or just inquiring "how fare thee," different characters also have unique skills, social options, and responsibilities. Responsibilities are a bit like The Sims 3's task system, but unlike in that game, they aren't optional in Medieval. Each day at 9:00 a.m., your character gets two new profession-specific responsibilities to perform. Monarchs get responsibilities like holding court for a certain amount of time or proposing new edicts. Bards get responsibilities like writing poems or playing the lyre onstage at the tavern. Pulling off both jobs in time nets you positive moodlets and bonus focus points and, depending on the job, may also net your character experience points and even a little extra cash. Failing to do one or both will get your character a negative moodlet that subtracts from his or her focus level, and consistently shirking your duties will eventually lead to a trip to the stocks--the classic detainment device that binds its prisoners at the neck and wrists, leaving them vulnerable to the jeers of the local populace, as well as to the occasional hurled tomato or egg.
You start off the game playing only as the monarch. Kingly duties and abilities are available to this character, such as holding court, which is a special social option that seats your monarch on the throne to hear the pleas of the common people--and is basically a way to trade money for influence (agreeing to buy the local shepherd a new sheep for 50 "simoles" will cost you some cash but will cement your status as a beloved ruler). Then again, if someone looks at you the wrong way, you can choose to send that person to the stocks, which is great for a cheap laugh but isn't something that will make people particularly happy. Monarchs can also visit their royal treasury, which houses the kingdom's strategic maps--which they can use to practice military strategy sociably with a visiting dignitary or use to propose an edict. Pushing a bill into law requires buy-in from surrounding provinces, and whether or not you get enough votes to pass your edicts into law depends on your relationships with dignitaries, those dignitaries' motivations, and how many riders you attach to the bill. Yes, there's even pork-barrel politics in The Sims Medieval, but unlike in real politics, in the game, it actually seems best to attach as few riders as possible to get a bill passed. Go figure.
Perhaps in keeping with the game's theme, playing as a monarch seems a bit easier than playing as any other profession in the game, since your nation's ruler both lives and works in the castle and can get a lot of work done there. However, at some point, even the monarch must eventually leave the confines of the kingdom and enter the nearby forest to take on an adventure--an offscreen event that temporarily pulls your character out of the world (similar to the way going to your day job in The Sims 3 removes you from the world). While this made him happy, what made us happier was that we earned enough kingdom points to unlock a new structure and a new playable character. Over the course of our session, we went on to unlock the wizard's tower and the bard's tavern and were able to get some more questing under our belts.
What we found was that with all characters, Medieval seems to be a much more focused experience than your average game of The Sims 3. Have you ever tried to play The Sims purely as a goal-focused experience, fixating only on objectives like climbing the career ladder or becoming intimately friendly with as many other sims as possible? Medieval seems a bit like that, but it's perhaps an even more directed experience. Each day, you have only 24 in-game hours (which still pass like seconds of real time) to accomplish both of your responsibilities and to do your best at making some progress with your characters' overarching quests.
So long as you keep them fed and well-rested (you really need only one solid meal and one good rest session per in-game day), your characters will be functional, but the longer you dally from your quest, the faster your quest meter drops from platinum to gold to silver and down to bronze, and the fewer points you'll receive for completing your quest. While that might seem like a big deal for more accomplishment-oriented people, Medieval seems to have plenty of other meaningful things to do. There's an in-game achievement system that racks up piles and piles of achievements organically as you go about your business with different characters, and there are also resources you can harvest from the world (herbal reagents and metal deposits) that can be used for crafting or cooking. However, if you really drag your feet on your current quest objectives, your characters will start to receive negative moodlets because of their lack of progress, and they may also take moodlet hits if your kingdom isn't advancing in its security, knowledge, culture, or well-being statistics--a direct result of your characters not hustling to complete their quests and earn your kingdom more KP.
The Sims Medieval does have much of what you know and love about The Sims, but it also takes a very brave step in a very new direction. A very directed direction, in fact. The game will be released on March 22.