We've been checking in on Electronic Arts' The Urbz frequently since the game was first announced earlier this year. Those looks have been fine at offering us overviews of the game, but we haven't had the opportunity to dig into it until now. We finally got our hands on a work-in-progress build of the PlayStation 2 version and have been able to have a look 'round the urban playground that the Maxis team is crafting.
If you're not familiar with what's being cooked up for The Urbz, the game puts an urban twist on the familiar The Sims premise. You'll still be tasked with caring for a virtual being, but the experience is different from that of the PC games, which paired you with a high-maintenance and moody charge. The console-exclusive The Sims games have maintained the key elements from their PC cousins but made the experience far more accessible. The Urbz represents the latest evolution of that approach, with an even more-refined system that makes meeting your character's needs a key part of the gameplay without letting it get in the way of having a good time.
The Urbz tweaks The Sims formula by fundamentally altering the goal system. Whereas the previous games had you working your way through an often-entertaining parody of daily life in a quest to get the best stuff, The Urbz revolves around your reputation. If you're going to make any kind of headway in scoring the cool stuff locked away in The Urbz, you'll have to do more than work--you'll have to bust out with a slick sense of style that will impress the locals in the several different districts in the game.
In creating an urb, you'll first choose which district you want to begin in. Each district has its own distinct style and flavor. For example, Kicktail Park is a skater haven where casual style rules the day, Diamond Heights is home to people who prefer upscale living and designer threads, while the Foundry is an urban commune populated with hip artists for whom black is the new black. Once you decide on a region to move into, you'll go about designing your urb. Once you've got your urb all fitted with the right body type, skin tone, hairstyle, and facial features, you can name him or her and head off to your designated home.
Upon reaching your new apartment, you'll meet up with your good friend Will, who introduces you to Darius, the most happening urb in the whole city. As befitting a man with such a fine reputation, the first thing he does is ask you to perform a power social move by jamming on your electric guitar. When you've completed this act to his satisfaction, you'll gain a bit of reputation on your own, and then Will and Darius will head out, leaving you free to explore your district. You'll need to find a job to earn yourself some cash, and depending on which district you're in, you can do anything from working as a sculptor in a converted warehouse to taking a job as a fashion model. These jobs consist of simple minigames that usually revolve around pressing certain buttons on the controller at certain times, and they can be pretty addictive, as you queue up the button presses to strike a pose for a camera, or feed pottery into a kiln. The jobs usually have prerequisites, too. You can't be a model if your urb isn't in a smiling good mood, or if she hasn't showered lately and is getting a tad gross. Similarly, you can't work the kiln if you're getting too hot, as the proprietor of the studio would really rather not have to explain to the authorities why his young charges are keeling over.
Dress to Impress
Money will pay the rent and let you clothe your urb in the latest styles, but the interactions with the other urbs are where your real time will be spent. The various interactions you can perform are color-coded according to their probability to succeed, and different urbs appreciate different kinds of interaction. For example, many of the urbs in the casual districts find a joke to be a nice icebreaker, while in the more glamorous areas, it's a good brag that brings urbs together in friendship.
As you impress the urbs you meet by conversing with them, performing the tasks they ask of you, and wowing them with your power social moves, you'll earn reputation points. After getting a certain amount of rep, you'll move up the social ladder, start to be noticed, and begin to get invitations to new areas in the district. Some of these areas have other requirements--if you're given an exclusive invite to a club, but you're not bringing the right style with your attire, you'll be snubbed at the door. It's a combination of reputation, style, and mastering the various types of social interactions that will bring you your urban notoriety and pave your way to the ultimate victory of being the hippest urb alive.
The graphics in the game owe a bit to the presentation style of last year's The Sims Bustin' Out in that the camera has been brought in much closer to the characters, putting you right in the middle of the action. The change in perspective will allow you to better appreciate the game's visuals, which sport an impressive face-lift when compared with the previous games. The character models have been fleshed out considerably with a level of detail that's probably an all-time high for the franchise. The higher level of detail is easy to appreciate from the moment you start the game, due to the robust character-creation system.
The audio in our build was still coming together, but the game will take the same approach as its predecessors. The Urbz will feature all-new brand of simlish that has a distinctly different feel, which is actually quite an accomplishment, considering that it's basically a gibberish language. The music will also be a unique treat, thanks to the input of the Black Eyed Peas.
So far The Urbz is shaping up very nicely. While the game is the third entry in the console branch of The Sims family tree, The Urbz actually offers a very different experience. The streamlined gameplay and flexible pacing give the game a unique feel that retains the appeal of the previous console entries in the series but keeps the action fresh. If you're a fan of the previous console games, you'll definitely want to check The Urbz out, and if you found them a bit too daunting, this may not be a bad time to check in on the series. Our time with the game left us wanting more and certainly kept us entertained, which bodes well for the promising game's final release. The Urbz is currently slated to ship this November for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. A Game Boy Advance version of the game is also slated to hit at the same time--for more on that version, check out our preview. Finally, a Nintendo DS version will be also be available at that system's launch, which is still expected this year.