We had the opportunity to get an updated look at the Urbz, the latest console evolution of the Sims franchise, at a demo during Electronic Arts' press event today. Although we saw an early version of the game at E3 this past May, today's version incorporated a number of improvements. The PlayStation 2 incarnation of the game was used to show off the latest progress on the game and its unique gameplay, which is a departure from last year's Sims Bustin' Out.
The demo walked us through some of the 'hoods in the game and showed off the key aspects about its gameplay. Simply put, The Urbz is about gaining a high rep and impressing the locals of the neighborhood you're in. The game features a total of nine unique districts to turn heads in. Aside from having its own distinct residents and locales, each district will feature special elite areas that you can access only by having an appropriately high reputation to impress the locals.
As you'd expect, your reputation plays a major role in the gameplay. To build your rep, you'll have to interact with and impress the locals in various ways, such as by performing "power socials," which are special social interactions you're able to perform by using items you find or pick up in shops. Interacting with the characters in each region also helps build your rep with them, but, as in real life, if you can't socialize properly, you can end up lowering your reputation as well. If you can't be suave, the game gives you the option of being a bully and intimidating folk into liking you.
The painful similarities to life don't end there, either. Your physical appearance will also have an effect on people's perceptions of you, so if you're not wearing the hippest gear, don't plan on making much of an impression. Fortunately each district will feature shops specializing in the stuff you need to be down...well, at least in that particular part of town. Hipness and fashion being what they are, every district will have its own perceptions of "cool," forcing you to be a slave to fashion. The downside is, of course, that in order to have the coolest gear you'll need to have a sizable bank account. You'll be able to earn change by taking on various jobs in the game, which will take the shape of twitch-style minigames. In addition to the more obvious new gameplay elements, The Urbz will also include three new skills--currently called creative, mental, and physical--that will affect your chances of promotion at a job.
The graphics in the work-in-progress version of the game are looking good. The game uses a new camera system that brings the in-game camera up close and personal to your character. Besides making it much easier to appreciate the impressively detailed environments, the new camera lets you admire your virtual persona. The ability to fawn over your virtual self is a big thing this year, as The Urbz features the most advanced character creation system in the console series to date. The only slight blemish on the impressive graphical package is an inconsistent frame rate, which is pretty much par for the course, considering the game's current unfinished state. Reps on hand made it clear that frame rate optimization is on the team's "to do" list as development progresses.
As far as unique content across the platforms goes, the PlayStation 2 game will feature EyeToy support and will let you incorporate images taken with the USB peripheral into the game. While this feature will be simulated on the GameCube and Xbox by letting you snap shots of you Urb in the game, the PlayStation 2 will be the only version to let you import images of yourself. However, there will be exclusive features available to GameCube and Xbox owners--in the form of extra items that can only be found in the GameCube version and 720p HDTV support in the Xbox game.
Based on the demo we saw, The Urbz looks as though it's going to successfully take the Sims franchise yet another step away from the now-familiar gameplay style it's known for, hopefully without compromising its core appeal. The rejiggered approach to its core elements, such as motives and interacting with other sims, opens the gameplay up to make it more accessible. We'll be curious to see how the package ends up working as a whole with so many different styles of gameplay. The Urbz is currently slated to ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming months.