The ownership of pets, we're often told, is one of the secrets to a long life, and that's a secret that Electronic Arts has taken full advantage of in extending the life span of each of its Sims games for the last 11 years. The Sims 3: Pets marks the third pet-based expansion for the franchise, and like the others, it makes its appearance just as the parent title shows signs of losing momentum after the release of multiple expansions. While The Sims 3: Pets doesn't change much of the core gameplay aside from extending many of the properties of human sims to their animal companions, its wealth of customization options and its welcome focus on horses make this expansion a treat for any animal lover.
While the console version takes place in a cramped suburban community and requires enduring loading screens every time you want to move behind the immediate cluster of houses, its PC counterpart centers on the spacious expanses of the Appaloosa Plains. It's a nice place to hang around, particularly if you're in the mood to try out the horse content. Not only are there a decent number of ranch-style country homes available to move into, but facilities specifically aimed at improving the lives of your equine friends dot the landscape. Horses can learn how to jump at the equestrian training grounds, for instance, and they can match their skills in racing and jumping against other horses at the equestrian center.
Unsurprisingly, dogs and cats make up a lot of the pet-related content beyond horses, although you can also own low-maintenance pets such as chinchillas, birds, fish, and snakes. Players seeking an overdose of cuteness might balk at the realization that you can't create puppies and kittens--that's an option exclusive to console players--but you can use the extensive customization options to create almost any type of pet imaginable, provided it's at least somewhat based on pets that real people would have in their homes. More than 100 core breeds are available for cats and dogs alone, for instance, and you can customize these according to fur length, traits, and the color and texture of their coats. Later on, if you're of a mind to breed your pets, the physical attributes you chose at the create-a-pet screen sometimes appear in their offspring.
Pets also have skills such as digging and hunting, but they're more grounded in reality than the oddball pet careers that featured prominently in The Sims 2: Pets. That's not to say that they can't bring in money. Dogs, for instance, can occasionally dig up valuable chunks of meteorite worth several thousand simoleans. Meanwhile, cats can exercise their predatory skills on rodents and beetles and even the occasional low-maintenance pet. Best of all, dogs, cats, and horses are all individually controllable, which means that you can focus a lot of your attention on the pets at the expense of your human sims if you're so inclined. This goes a long way toward filling the waiting periods that occur when the pets' owners are at work.
But nothing distinguishes the PC version from its console counterparts quite like the inclusion of horses. Not only can you customize horses with an array of options approaching those allowed for cats and dogs, but you can also train them to run in races or take part in jumping competitions. And since your human sim can learn how to ride as well, it's possible for horse and rider to train together and start raking in masses of simoleans that would have been unheard of in previous expansions. You don't even have to wait to take advantage of this system since The Sims 3: Pets lets you adopt a horse much as you would a dog or a cat. If you don't mind waiting, however, you can also search for stray horses in the wild (not to mention unicorns), many of which reward you with certain skills already prepared. The only drawback is that they take a bit longer to train.
If rewards are what you're after, though, you might be better served by breeding your beloved cats, dogs, or horses and selling them for a profit. Skills play heavily into their worth, so your sims need to teach them how to hunt or race effectively if you expect to benefit from your experiments in genetics. But you shouldn't expect the operation to turn into a digital puppy mill. Pets require a lot of love and attention to their wishes, and horses in particular require specialty chores, such as hoof maintenance and stall cleanup. It's hard work, but it's worth it. If you fulfill enough of your horse's wishes, you gain access to a special lifetime reward that increases the chances of wild animals visiting your home.
Beyond that, The Sims 3: Pets does an excellent job of making the pets feel like pets. The animations are masterful, and they provide enough spirit that you could watch a cat hunt or play with his toys for minutes at a time. In addition, pets can grow old and die, which inevitably throws your sims into fits of grief once they discover the tragedy. And most of the time, you won't even have to worry about technical issues marring the presentation. Over a month has passed since the game's initial release, and EA has taken the time to clean up virtually all of the few glitches that appeared at launch.
The Sims 3: Pets is a worthy addition to the franchise's contemporary generation, and it walks a comfortable middle line between the wacky pet careers of The Sims 2: Pets and the disappointing animals found in The Sims: Unleashed. Here, almost everything works as it should, and the pets themselves add a dose of realism that probably should have shipped with the first game in 2009. But it's important to understand that this expansion is primarily aimed at enhancing the experience of your existing sims. Much as with the console versions, the impact the pets have on the world at large is negligible. Take the time to get to know them, however, and you'll find yourself in one of the better expansions for the game. Pets enrich our daily lives, so it's only fitting that they should enrich the lives of our sims as well.