There are three things you can count on: death, taxes, and Sims expansion packs. We can do without the first two, but we'll happily take the latter. The original The Sims received a whopping seven expansions, and now The Sims 2 receives its first pack in the form of The Sims 2 University. Cynics might argue that this is all overkill, but when a game is a huge creative and commercial success like The Sims 2, who wouldn't want more? The Sims 2 University sure gives you more. You get a whole new young adult life stage, plus a new influence system, new careers, new interactions, new items and decorating schemes, and, of course, a whole new experience: university life. That new life experience is something of a letdown, but the new items and strategic options more than make up for it.
Many fans were skeptical when the theme of this expansion pack was first announced, but have no fear. Even if the college-lifestyle angle doesn't appeal to you, you'll still get plenty of features that apply to the core game, too. There's a new influence system that lets your sims make other characters do their bidding, from sprucing up the yard to picking a fight with someone to playing with a sibling. Your sims gain influence points by fulfilling "wants," which is akin to how the existing aspiration system works. Now, many familiar goals, like a sim's child making good grades, grant both aspiration and influence points. The maximum number of influence points your sims can store depends on the number of friends they have. In the past, sims who reached the top of their career paths could forget about the hard work of constantly cultivating numerous friendships. But if you want to use the influence system to its fullest, you'll need to keep a bunch of friends throughout the lives of your sims.
The new features in The Sims 2 University aren't just about points and strategies. There's a lot of stuff that's just plain fun. Tired of the same old TV shows and stereo tunes? Well, now there's a new sim sports channel, so your sims can laze away on a Sunday afternoon, munching chips and watching the game. You get two new styles of music for the stereos, too. You get catchy college rock and, for something more sophisticated, straight-ahead acoustic jazz in a number of authentic styles, like soulful '60s hard bop. As with the existing The Sims 2 music, the tunes are well played and filled with great hooks, regardless of the gibberish lyrics. The expansion sports catchy new menu music to boot.
Speaking of music, your sims can now play cool new instruments. You can buy an electric upright bass, a drum kit, and a guitar, replete with effects pedal board, and more. As ever, the animations for the new items are a kick to watch, so you'll see show-off guitarists playing behind their backs and drummers flipping their sticks into the air midsong. Not only can your sims practice to earn creativity points, but also they can perform for tips by playing rock, country, or jazz tunes, though you can't actually load the instruments into a taxi for a gig at a community lot. Oddly and inexplicably, child sims can't use these neat new instruments. (So much for starting your own sims Partridge Family.) For that matter, they can't use some other new items, like the pool table, which serves as a new solo or group activity. At the pool table, sims can not only play, but also perform tricks or hustle for simoleons.
Along with new items, like the pool table, a bonfire, treadmill, cell phone, MP3 player, and arcade games, such as Pimp Viking (quirky Maxis humor at work), The Sims 2 University also boasts new decorating schemes. There's a small collection of medieval-style items, a battered-and-tattered college dorm theme, and a psychedelic '60s theme with colors so garish you'll need sunglasses to look at them. One problem with The Sims 2 is that your interior design options are rather limited, so getting new chairs, wallpaper, and so forth is great...in theory. The new ones just aren't particularly practical, unless you're creating a swinging bachelor pad for an Austin Powers sim.
In addition to the new design elements, you get new gamewide interactions. Now sims can "hang out" (laze about and chat), introduce one sim to another, play a few new games, like pillow fights or "kicky bag" (Hacky Sack), and pull pranks. The pranks were supposed to be a selling point of the expansion, but they're a big bust. Coming from the fertile minds at Maxis, the pranks are surprisingly unimaginative and boring. Water balloons? Joy buzzers? That's just weak. It would have been better if Maxis had spent time fixing problems with existing actions, because it can still take ages to perform simple tasks, like getting kids off the school bus or accepting grocery deliveries.
As for the college portion of The Sims 2 University, it has to be said that it bears only a vague resemblance to the real thing. It's college as a 12-year-old might imagine it. The pressure cooker of rigorous course schedules and intense studying is replaced by fairly easy academic demands, though balancing those with a social life is realistically challenging. The alcohol-fueled adult antics that many students use to unwind are replaced by drinking juice and pulling those lame, PG-rated pranks. This is a bland version of college.
Nevertheless, the college portion of the game has interesting things to offer. The Sims 2 University ships with three ready-made universities, each with its own layout and vibe, though the differences are mainly just cosmetic. You can basically do the same things at any of them, and you can access any of these universities (or ones of your own creation) from your existing sims neighborhoods.
So how do young sims go off to university? There are three methods. You can pick ready-made young adult sims, fashion your own college-age sims using the usual "create a sim" method, or take existing teen sims from your families and send them packing. The option of sending a teen to college creates new strategic concerns. First of all, it's the only way to enter the young adult life stage, which seems unfair and makes little sense. It's also the only way to enter certain new careers, which, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. If you decide you want those benefits, timing becomes an issue. Do you want to keep your teen sim in the house as long as possible to build skills? Or do you pack the kid off to college as soon as he or she becomes a teen to free up space in the house for new sims?
Teens' grades, skill points, and job performances are doubly important now, because they directly affect how much scholarship money sims receive. That money can make the difference between living in crowded dorms or renting nice little two-story homes all for themselves. Early skill-building will need a new focus, too. Ambitious players often start grooming sims for specific careers as soon as the sims become toddlers and are able to boost skills. But now you'll need to consider not only the requirements for an intended career, but also for a degree program.
Once at college, sims will find campuses organized by the same principle as sim neighborhoods. Each campus is divided into separate areas, like dorms, libraries, student unions, and gyms, and these can only be visited by calling a taxi. In other words, they're like a collection of isolated community lots. That brings us to one of The Sims 2 University's major flaws. The community-lot implementation in the core game is already a big hassle. To go to a lot, you have to make your sim call a taxi. Then you have to wait for the taxi to arrive. Then the sim has to get in, sit through a loading screen, pick a destination, sit through another loading screen, and then repeat the process in reverse order when returning home. In other words, the core game discourages you from making sims leave their homes, and the expansion discourages you from making them leave their campus lodgings.
Nevertheless, the dorms are always hopping with activity--though that can cause major slowdowns--and sims are always dropping by private residences unannounced. Your sim might be sitting down to a refreshing meal after class, and suddenly the school mascot will barge in, followed by a streaker. Your sims will get to meet their professors, too. In fact, they can schmooze with them to improve grades, and they can even sleep with them.
You'll still have to worry about getting good grades the old-fashioned way, though. Semesters fly by in a matter of days, which means you need to do generic homework assignments, get tutoring, and/or boost skills to get your academic-performance rating high enough before finals roll around. Do well and you get on the dean's list, in addition to earning a juicy grant, which cash-strapped college sims can sure benefit from. For extra simoleons, you can also perform temporary odd jobs, like serving coffee, rapping for tips, or selling off other students' dorm furniture (an oversight by Maxis?). However, there are no regular jobs like those teen and adult sims can get.
Eventually, you'll need to declare a major from among 11 choices, and once you graduate, you can start career tracks partway through instead of at the lowly beginnings. Just as importantly, graduating sims can get into exclusive new careers, including those involving the paranormal, show business, art, and natural science. The last choice seems a bit redundant, given the existing scientist career, but the others are welcome additions. All feature colorful new career-reward objects that can perform amazing feats, like bringing sims back from the dead.
As your sims progress through college, they gain other bonuses, like two extra want slots and the ability to lock in two wants at a time. When they reach their junior years, they can even change their life aspirations. Furthermore, there's now a random lifetime aspiration want that, if satisfied, can lock a sim into platinum status for the rest of his or her days.
The Sims 2 University isn't all about grades and careers; it gives your sims plenty of time for extracurricular shenanigans, since class time is limited to a few hours a day, during which your sims march offscreen for a while and return later. After you return from class, you can rush a fraternity or sorority, which is a timed minigame where you need to schmooze current members. You can start your own Greek house and make pledges do all the household dirty work, though there's a glitch that can cause your Greek sims to repeatedly run offscreen for pizza at the drop of a hat. You can streak around a dorm, which, like the pranks, is surprisingly dull. And, of course, you can engage in usual sim free-time activities like dancing, watching TV, and relating to other sims.
One of the great things about The Sims 2 is how it presents a funny, familiar picture of the joys and trials of domestic family life. But the basic Sims 2 formula of focusing on home life doesn't translate too well to the university experience. College is about getting away from home, and many core college experiences happen outside the dorm or apartment. Heck, your sims never even see the inside of a classroom, which is not only the site of learning, but also of much college socializing. College is also about becoming an independent adult and doing adult things, but The Sims 2 University presents a bland, bowdlerized version of life at a university. In its cartoony way, The Sims 2 gets to the core of everyday home life, but The Sims 2 University skirts around a lot of the core of college life.
Nevertheless, The Sims 2 University is still a big success in other ways. Players who love the strategy and management elements of The Sims 2 will find loads of intriguing new options and challenges as they lead their sims to fame and fortune. A deceptively deep strategy game just got deeper. The great new music and fun new items, like the instruments, are icing on the cake. So fans were rightly skeptical of the college-life theme, but this expansion pack still manages to pack in a bunch of exciting features that many Sims fanatics will be able to enjoy.