The Sims 2 remains a popular and difficult-to-describe strategy game that lets you control the lives of little computer people in the house you build for them, as they love, grow old, have families, chase their dreams, and occasionally use the potty. The series is known for offering zany humor, colorful graphics, a gibberish language that its "sim" characters speak (known as "simlish"), cheerful music, and numerous retail expansion packs. And the most recent expansion, The Sims 2: Pets, doesn't break with tradition, so to speak. It adds domestic dogs, cats, birds, and rodents to The Sims 2, along with plenty of new items. If you weren't already a fan of the series, it seems doubtful that Pets will change your mind, but the expansion still adds plenty of content that will definitely be of interest to experienced players looking to add more to their Sims 2 experience in any way they can.
Pets act as brand-new family members, although hamsters and birds generally stay put in their cages. For these smaller pets, you can feed them; play with them to give your sims some social contact; and in the case of birds, teach them to talk to improve your charisma. Dogs and cats can be much more interesting. You can create canines and felines from a great number of different breeds and are given tons of different customization options that let you choose size, age, different ear types, fur color patterns, and even some minor pet accoutrements, like collars. You can also determine your pet's personality, such as whether your pet is friendly or aloof, neat or messy, and quick to learn new tricks or a bit slower on the draw. If those last sentences got you excited, there's a good chance that The Sims 2: Pets is for you.
That's because pets--dogs and cats, anyway--function like limited people in the game. You can't take direct control of dogs or cats, but you can teach them new skills (pet tricks) by spending virtual hours (which equates to several minutes of real time) of your day training them until they learn how to sit, shake hands, and roll over. This system is similar to how you can improve your sims' marketability by spending virtual hours repeatedly training at skills like charisma, repair, and cleaning. You can use interactions with them to fulfill your sims' social needs (so yes, you can play as a "crazy cat lady" who associates only with her house cats), just like you can with live-in family members. And you can even send your pets off on different career paths. If you care to, you can have Fido pursue an exciting career in show biz, for instance, and just like in the original Sims games, in Pets an increasingly nice car will pull up to your sims' house to pick them up as they climb the professional ladder and whisk them away for hours on end, until they return home later that day with an honest-to-goodness paycheck. These new options open up a slightly different avenue for gameplay than having just another roommate.
Cats and dogs can also interact with each other, and based on the personality you've given them, they may get into fights with the neighbors' pets or get friendly with them, even to the point of building up a relationship that leads to a new litter of puppies or kittens. In the meantime, if you happen to care about your house's property value, your dogs and cats are always works in progress, since you must constantly catch even the best-behaved pets in the act of destroying furniture, digging up the yard, or relieving themselves in the house so that you can scold them--which teaches them not to do such things. (Alternately, if you care to, you can try to breed the biggest jerk of a cat or dog in SimCity by repeatedly praising your pet for destructive behavior and then turning it loose downtown.) Either way, patterning your pets' behavior is surprisingly time consuming and not always convenient--if you want to have a well-behaved pet, you have to always keep an eye on it and constantly drop what you're doing to dash over and scold or praise it--and once you get there, actually giving your pet that feedback takes a little while, too. It also seems to take quite some time before constant scolding or praising sinks in with even the brightest pets...and if you decide to have any of your sims take a job, or to send you pet out to the workforce, that just means less time for your sims to spend together teaching your pets.
This is the main issue with the way cats and dogs work in the game--trying to create the perfect pet, or even a decent one, is difficult to schedule in the bustling world of The Sims 2, where your sims are also trying to make it in the working world themselves, build up their own skill points, pursue their wants and life goals, and take care of their own personal needs for food, rest, and social interaction. This is to say nothing of the other Sims 2 expansions' gameplay features, like University's influence system, Nightlife's group outing and dating system, or Open for Business' start-your-own-company system. If you try to pursue any or all these different gameplay styles, they'll just put even more time constraints between you and nurturing and developing your pet. You can try to either double up on pets, or on family members, and micromanage each sim, and experienced Sims 2 players may indeed take that approach as the toughest challenge yet--juggling a household, a cadre of cronies, a steady girlfriend, a burgeoning home business, and a happy dog or cat. Most other players will probably have trouble keeping up with the conflicting needs of both their sims and pets, which are both demanding and require separate blocks of time in any given virtual day.
Otherwise, the expansion adds some welcome new music tracks that fit in just fine with the game, along with well-suited animal noises (dogs barking, cats purring, and so on) that are just as expressive as the still-upbeat gibberish "simlish" language that sims use to communicate with each other, and now to coo at and criticize their animal friends. While the expansion doesn't add a new set of out-of-home "lots," the out-of-home areas that sims can visit by calling a cab, it does add plenty of new objects both for lots, such as pet-shop stalls if you own Open for Business; pet supplies, including scratching posts, doggie chew toys, aviaries, and so on; plus new household items. The new additions look just fine and seem to fit in very well with The Sims 2's colorful, if perhaps no longer cutting-edge, appearance.
Even though it does add a decent-sized chunk of new content to the original game, The Sims 2: Pets isn't about redefining the Sims 2 experience or winning over any new converts. It seems to be for players who already know and love The Sims 2, who will actually spend time layering spots and colored patches onto a dog's fur, or who find the idea of having a starlet house cat bringing home the bacon (while the deadbeat family sits at home and plays pinball all day) to be hilarious.
Editor's note 10/25/06: The original text of this review implied that the expansion included new clothing items for human characters, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.