All these years we've known The Sims, and it's still impossible to put your finger on what makes this franchise so great. When you try to explain the series to outsiders and you tell them about how you have to feed and bathe your Sims while also making sure they go to work, get plenty of rest and make lots of friends, people look at you like you're stupid. Why go to all this trouble for virtual people when it sounds suspiciously like what most of us do every single day of our lives? Whatever it is that makes the formula so addictive returns once more for The Sims 3 for the Nintendo DS. While the handheld version is a bit watered down from its PC and console brethren, it's still good enough to hook you in and make you while away the hours taking care of a virtual friend's hygiene while neglecting your own.
The Sims 3 on DS lets players hit the ground running and immediately start down the rabbit hole. The first step is to create a Sim, and the surprisingly robust character editor allows for some pretty creative avatars. If you're the type who obsesses over nose slope and cheek depth, then you're going to have a ball in the creation process. Players can also assign Sims up to four traits, such as athleticism or smarts, as well as create a life goal to give meaning to your virtual puppet. Want to prove it's possible to have both brains and brawn? Then pick the life goal that requires you to max out both the logic and fitness tributes, and start down the path of Herculean Einstein.
On top of everything else going on, The Sims 3 is also constantly throwing opportunities and everyday wishes at you to keep things spicy. Small wish goals may be as simple as washing your hands or taking a nap, or they could be as big as getting a promotion at work or painting a masterpiece. Each wish carries with it a reward in Lifetime Happiness, so it's good to constantly strive to better your Sim and not spend all day lounging around and watching TV (unless, of course, that's one of your wishes). Opportunities are bigger events that normally require going to a specific location and performing a specific action under severe time constraints. The challenge is greater, but the reward is normally larger as your Sim will be showered with cash or Lifetime Happiness. The constantly daily challenges, both large and small, really keep the game moving and deliver an immensely entertaining experience.
Lifetime Happiness allows players to trade in points for perks, such as the ability make fewer trips to the bathroom or free meals for life when dining out, and for the most part, it works well. Where the game stumbles, though, is in its depiction of karma, which is a new feature in the Sims franchise. In the PC and console versions, karma powers can be earned and triggered at basically anytime, granting Sims a temporary boost — but with the threat of major backlash later. On the DS, things are handled much differently, with karma powers unlocking at certain points in the game, but only after requiring players to go to a specific location and perform a certain action while following very vague and obtuse clues. For instance, one karma clue states that "a curse hangs over a place of memory," and that's it. From that point, players must figure out where to go and what to examine, all the while wondering which power they'll unlock. Of course, some karma powers are bad, so this "curse" may turn out to be the worst thing that could happen to you, but you didn't know because the game never told you what you were doing until after you did it. It's a weird design decision and an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise great game.
There are a few other glaring flaws and gameplay quirks that are sure to irritate both longtime fans and newcomers alike, and taken together, they start to add up. First off, Sims can't die, so there's very little negative repercussion for poor play. When a Sim's basic needs are ignored long enough, he or she is whisked to the hospital, the offending bar(s) are refilled, and for a few bucks, you're back on your feet and playing again. Why worry about playing the game correctly when the penalty for not doing so is little more than a minor inconvenience? Also, long-term actions, such as going to work or sleeping, take an exceptionally long time to complete, even with the game speed turned all the way up. When your Sim goes to work, you can put down the DS, grab a snack and come back without missing anything. Sure, there are options to switch work focus on the fly and thus fill and deplete different needs, but if you just want to spend the day focusing on one thing, there's a lot of sitting around and waiting. I don't know why there isn't an option to simply skip straight to the end.
Finally, menu navigation can be confusing, especially for those unfamiliar with the series. Purchasing and moving furniture is a big hassle, and you'll likely make all sorts of messes in construction mode before you figure out how to effectively renovate your home. Granted, a game such as this has a lot of information packed in it, so menus are going to be inevitable, but they could be a lot more elegant and useful. This is clearly a case where customizable shortcuts and hotkeys would have been a godsend.
Ultimately, The Sims 3 gives DS owners the Sims game they've always wanted, and it does a pretty fine job of condensing the console and PC experience into a handheld. In spite of the design and technical problems that crop up along the way, the game is just as entertaining and engrossing as ever, and the constant need to complete one more task, earn the next rank or achieve one last goal is a strong enough pull to keep you playing for hours on end. The Sims has always encouraged players to all but abandon real life in the pursuit of a fake one, and now there is no respite since you can take it on the road.
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