After six years and numerous games on the PC, home consoles, and handheld game machines, the self-aware little computer people known as the Sims may be wearing out their welcome if the console version of The Sims 2 is any indication. The original game of the same name appeared on the PC in 2004, and that game had a lot to offer. The Sims 2 featured a genetics system that let you create long family trees with aliens from outer space, many new objects to collect, expanded house- and lot-building options, more-focused "aspiration" gameplay, and most importantly, better-developed artificial intelligence, leading to even more of the series' well-known and surprising character behavior. The Sims 2 for consoles has only some of these features, and it attempts to swap in a marginally interesting new cooking recipe system in exchange for the fascinating, advanced AI of its PC cousin. What's left is a game that's long on collecting and unlocking objects and short on truly compelling gameplay.
For some years, Maxis' team has been experimenting with console versions of The Sims, trying to figure out a way to adapt the highly successful PC series to work well in the living room. The single-player part of previous games had much more direction and many different areas to explore. However, it still kept your focus on an underlying single-player goal, like moving out of your parents' house and becoming an overnight success, or moving to the big (Sim) city and becoming the coolest sim on the streets. The Sims 2 instead features an open-ended freeplay mode that resembles the basic mode of the PC versions of The Sims and The Sims 2, as well as a seemingly mislabeled "story mode."
"Story mode" doesn't really tell much of a story. Rather than letting you tweak your family genetics directly, like in the PC version of the game, The Sims 2 for consoles' story mode forces you to roll the genetic dice to get an overall look for your sims, though you can manually adjust it later. Your sim lives in a house with two roommates and can explore a neighborhood of connected lots that have been prebuilt, but your only real goals are provided by your aspirations--a direct carryover from the PC version of The Sims 2. The aspiration system lets you choose a life goal for your sims, such as romance (the pursuit of as many stolen kisses from as many partners as possible) or knowledge (the pursuit of learning through books or studying science). Each aspiration carries with it a certain number of "wants" and "fears": wants being minor goals you can accomplish to get your sims closer to their life goals, and fears being minor pitfalls you'll want to avoid lest your sims become depressed or even neurotic. Accomplishing a want goal will cycle that particular goal out of rotation and replace it with a new one. Accomplishing many want goals consecutively will put your sim into "gold" or "platinum" mode, which indicates an exceptional level of personal fulfillment, just like in the PC game.
Unfortunately, as you play through either story or freeplay mode, one of the major differences between the PC and console versions of the game becomes painfully obvious. Previous Sims games for consoles had highly goal-oriented gameplay for a reason--because the artificial intelligence for other sims just wasn't as unpredictable, active, funny, or autonomous as in the PC version. Unfortunately, The Sims 2 for consoles has no such cohesive story or overarching goals to distract your attention from the less-responsive AI. As a result, much of the story mode boils down to following your sims' individual, unrelated wants, such as jumping on a trampoline, making a certain number of friends, buying certain objects, and so on.
And unlike other Sims games, which generally featured bustling areas full of characters to talk to (and in The Sims 2 for PC, characters that could have their own unexpected interactions, romances, fistfights, and group activities), much of your character interaction in the console game takes the form of one-on-one dialogue with other characters. In fact, in some cases, your home and the outdoor lots in The Sims 2 for consoles sometimes seem sparsely populated, especially if your sim is trying to hold down a job and is inaccessible for much of the day. When you do find someone to talk to, you repeatedly act friendly, romantic, or hostile toward the sim--and mainly because a want goal requires this of you, not because you're actually interested in talking to that other sim. Successfully completing these goals unlocks new household objects, as well as new clothing options, which you may enjoy if you're the sort of player who absolutely must unlock and collect every item.
Unfortunately, if you're not that type of player, you'll realize that you're spending most of your story mode time going from point A to point B to point C, unlocking your current goal in order to unlock the next one. Like in previous console versions of The Sims, in story mode, you must also unlock different lots before you can go visit them. So, unless you spend all your time doing nothing but completing want goals so that you can unlock new lots to visit, you'll probably grow weary of those you've already unlocked, even though some have interesting new objects, like a beach-surfing simulator, which has humorous animations and sounds when used. There's even a minor issue with the interface in story mode, since this mode constantly hits you with reminders and pointers at the top of the screen on what to do next, like The Urbz: Sims in the City did. However, this hint window usually obscures the top part of your sim's personal interface, so at times you may not be able to see what your topmost goal is, which isn't a huge concern, but it's a strange oversight in the game's otherwise good interface.
Then again, just like in previous versions of The Sims, you still need to keep track of your sims' personal needs, or "motives," such as their hunger for food, their desire for human contact, and their infamous need to go to the potty. In order to keep unlocking new objects and lots, you'll also invariably need to buy new items to complete certain want goals. To do that, you'll need money, which will require your sims to take on day jobs. And just like in previous games, these day jobs cause your sim to become completely inaccessible for several hours until he or she returns home with a paycheck. The repeated process of eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, showering, going to the office, coming home, and immediately setting to work on your next goals feels much less like you're playing an enjoyable, open-ended game and much more like, well, work. Even though you can actually take control of other sim characters you meet once you become their friends, it just means that you get a new character with more unfulfilled wants and more skill points you need to develop.
The freeplay mode attempts to model The Sims 2's core gameplay by starting you out in a mostly empty neighborhood with a custom family and an empty plot on which to build a house. Unfortunately, because of the lacking AI and the controller-based control scheme, this mode ends up seeming like a stripped-down version of story mode, in which you must first build your own house, too. The process of building is mostly the same as it has been in most console versions of The Sims: You use your analog sticks to scroll and zoom around your house, while opening up build and buy menus to purchase and move items, walls, floors, doors, and windows. Though after using the PC version of The Sims 2's build and buy modes--which keep objects nested in easily accessible menus, and have click-and-drag functionality--it seems a bit more difficult to go back to trying to build houses with a controller. And for some crazy reason, the freeplay and story modes share the same saved game data files even though previous games kept them separate. This doesn't seem like much of a problem for the Xbox version, thanks to the hard drive, but PS2 and GameCube owners have to worry about overwriting their freeplay saves.
The Sims 2 for consoles otherwise offers a few other brand-new options, like the cooking system, which lets you try to collect rare foodstuffs from around town (like scrounged vegetables or caught fish) to make equally rare and nourishing food recipes, as well as a few secret magic potions. This feature is apparently tied to the cooking skill (like previous Sims games, this one has various skills that can be learned through repetition), and it seems that the best way to unlock all recipes the most quickly is to practice your cooking skill. Diligently studying cookbooks while carefully searching every nook and cranny of every lot you visit may seem like fun for serious collectors. For everyone else, this new feature doesn't seem all that exciting. The console game also offers a new "direct control" mode that lets you move your character manually with your left analog stick, though you can also optionally switch to the mouselike pointer from the previous games. The new control scheme is handy, but it also isn't perfect, since you can't pan the camera when your character is engaged in a shower, a nap, or cooking a pot of soup, so your best bet is to switch between both control schemes.
It should probably go without saying that the Xbox version of The Sims 2 looks the best on consoles, though the GameCube version also looks almost as sharp and clean. The PS2 version of the game, as you'd also expect, fares the worst, and it has a slightly blurrier look and shows a few more jaggies, especially in wide shots of houses and open lots. It also has noticeably longer load times, though this shouldn't be surprising to any PS2 owners. All three versions of the game at least look colorful, and they feature different animations for the 60-plus social interactions. However, in some cases, the sounds of your sims' expressive simlish chatter don't seem to be in sync with the animations.
Still, The Sims 2 sounds pretty great and has a new, more-contemporary music soundtrack that includes trance and nu metal tracks--though it also features several songs that were lifted straight out of the PC version of The Sims 2. Unless you've played so much of The Sims 2 on the PC that you're sick of that music, the reuse isn't really an issue in the console game. It's still good music that works well. Plus, since the interfaces are so similar (they also have identical game logos), the music provides some sense of continuity between the two versions. At least all three versions feature support for simultaneous split-screen multiplayer for two players. This feature seems to work well enough, but it doesn't appear to be much more compelling. The PS2 version also features support for the EyeToy peripheral to take photos of yourself and import them into the game as wall posters, much like you could in The Urbz: Sims in the City. Unfortunately, all the EyeToy support does is import static images into the game--not exactly a huge addition for a game that seems to be missing a point.
And rather than attempt to help focus the single-player play on interesting, cohesive goals, The Sims 2 for consoles seems content to try to offer the same open-ended gameplay as the PC. Unfortunately, it also keeps the unlocking scheme from the previous console versions, which actually makes these options more restrictive overall. This isn't the same game as the PC version of The Sims; this one's "adapted" for consoles with fewer and different features, such as apparently not having any child sims, only adults. And really, the only way to advance through the game is to constantly hammer away at your assigned goals. You won't be distracted by much in the way of surprising and unique AI behavior along the way, because here The Sims 2's AI just isn't that great when left to its own devices. What's left is a game that offers a fairly good presentation and improved control, but it ultimately holds the most appeal for obsessive collectors with its many unlockable objects, unlockable clothing sets, and hidden cooking recipes. Unless you fit that fairly niche description, The Sims 2 on consoles probably isn't for you.