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The Sims 4 is a slick new entry in the venerated dollhouse series, providing a number of upgrades to basic gameplay.

But developer Maxis and publisher Electronic Arts take away as much as they give: For every new improvement to the core PC real-life-simulation game, they’ve removed a feature or item that fans loved from previous installments, presumably to become part of some future expansion.

Like all reviewers, I didn’t receive a copy of the game until hours before its release earlier this week. I based this review on this first week’s worth of play.

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What you’ll like

The Sims 4 Create a Sim back

Above: Want to give your Sim a curvier behind? Just click and drag.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Smoother Create a Sim controls

Creating your virtual people has always been a joy in the series, and it’s never been easier to tweak a Sim. Whether it’s the booty in the back or the size, shape, and orientation of the eyes, changing the way your Sim looks is a matter of clicking on the body part and dragging things where you want them to go.

The intelligence behind what happens when you click is smooth and seamless, so if you’re adjusting a nose, it won’t randomly deform a cheek. I found myself spending more time than ever before making new Sims — in a good way. It’s a fun process (and available in limited form as a free download if you want to try it out).

Multitasking

Load your Sim up with things to do and send them off: Queuing up tasks allows your Sims to interact without your intervention. You queue up the things you want your Sim to do — bake a cake, go for a jog, chat with a stranger, take a nap, any one of hundreds of tasks — in a vertical lineup in the lower left corner, and you can remove or add to the list as you go.

The Sims 4 adds multitasking: Your Sim can surf on their phone while they chat with a companion, for example. Graphically, it makes the game more fun to watch, and it also makes your Sims feel more alive.

The Sims 4 conversation

Above: Watch for Sims’ moods in the lower left corner. Note also the number of other Sims to interact with on the street.

Multitudes of moodlets

Sims were always happy or sad, but there’s a large variety of “moodlets” — Sim feelings — available now. Along with a wider selection of character traits and aspirations, they affect how your Sims interact in big and little ways. Feeling confident? Your Sim won’t just use the bathroom – she’ll “pee like a champion.” Moods on my Sims often made things funny.

An icon in the corner lets you track what they’re thinking, and it changes … a lot. Sometimes you must struggle to keep up with everything that’s affecting the mood of your little virtual friend, and mood changes that interrupt what you’re trying to do are frustrating. What you do with them has a huge impact, and sometimes it’ll feel like you’re making a thousand tiny corrections to keep the train on track as they cycle through “focused” or “flirty” or “inspired” or “embarrassed.”

If you’re trying to impress another Sim and yours suddenly decides that something around it is irritating, or that it’s too tense to flirt, good luck.

All that said, it’s a more sophisticated approach than the happy/sad Sims of previous installments, and in the end it makes gameplay more engaging because you have more to do. It’s a welcome addition of depth to the series.

The Sims 4 world selection

Above: You won’t see as much of the world, but what you do get is clean and easy to navigate.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

A whole new — smaller — world

A study from a group at the University of California-Los Angeles tracked families to see where they actually spent time in their homes. The findings were interesting: No matter how big the houses got, people still spent the majority of their time in the same few rooms, in smaller spaces.

The same is true for The Sims. Yes, TS4 removes the open world that allowed you to wander in TS3, forcing you into small neighborhoods. But wandering in the world of TS3 really didn’t get you much: Your Sims mostly disappeared into buildings. More computer-controlled Sims interact with your characters in the smaller bits of real estate you do see in The Sims 4.

The new maps are clean and attractive, making interactions pleasant. EA could have taken the open-world concept further in TS4, which would have been more fun to play, but if that was not in the cards, this is a better alternative than TS3’s fairly meaningless landscapes.

The Sims 4 tips

Above: Terrific built-in instructions guide newer players (and existing players to newer features), but they can get old for veterans.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

So many tips

If you’re new to The Sims, this is definitely the time to jump into the series. Maxis has woven tips and instructions into every part of the game, making it easy for those unfamiliar with the series to learn the setup with no fuss. That said, veterans need to grit their teeth and put up with it. I didn’t find an easy way to banish the instructions that appear in the game, and there are a lot of them.

The Sims 4 Gallery

Above: Browse other players’ creations in the Gallery.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

The Gallery

The Sims 4 Gallery is where you share Sims, rooms, or houses with other TS4 players directly from within the game.

Want the entire cast of Disney’s “Frozen” recreated as Sims? Done, along with a hundred different celebrities (Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are very well-done, as is a hipster version of Gandalf). Players have already posted piles of premade homes in different styles. Want a nice retro yellow dining room or a classic striped-wallpaper-and-wainscoting bedroom? You don’t have to build rooms from scratch.

The pre-styled rooms that TS4 includes as part of the game are pleasant, but the Gallery expands hugely on that. Simple uploading and downloading makes it easy for people who enjoy interaction more than Sims creation to get right to their favorite bits of the game.

The Sims 4 Build Mode

Above: Here, I (sloppily) put together the first floor of my house, using the new Build Mode controls.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Build Mode

I like the new room-based build mode, with its predesigned rooms (if you like) or arrange-from-scratch pieces and parts (if you prefer) to create your Sims’ housing on the neighborhood’s vacant lots. It was easy to drag rooms to fit the areas I wanted, and to select and customize styles.

There were fewer customization options — more on that in a bit — but overall, the fun-to-use system integrates nicely with the Gallery. Searching for items makes it easy to find the doodad you’re looking for. I had some minor issues tweaking things to go where they should, mostly due to camera-angle trouble.

What you won’t like

Loading times

Two drawbacks to the removal of the open-world design: First, it makes the game feel even more like a virtual dollhouse, removed from whatever outside Sim society I like to believe secretly exists. Second, because you move directly from neighborhood to neighborhood, there’s a load between each jump.

The Sims 4 loading screen

Above: Ah, the loading screen, our new friend.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

It wasn’t a lot on my high-end PC, maybe 3-4 seconds each time, but it’s frustrating if you’re the type that likes to jump around a lot between your Sims — and I do. You’ll load when you jump from world to world, neighborhood to neighborhood, even lot to lot. The only time you won’t is when you’re moving from public spaces to the currently active lot.

The Sims 4 Build Mode lot

Above: Your lot: flat as a pancake. And staying that way.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Missing content

This should be a surprise to no one: Every time a new core release of The Sims comes out, the cushy landscape of expansion-pack-added content you’ve enjoyed poofs. When TS3 released, people raised holy hell about the features that were missing from the TS2 expansions. The same is true for TS4.

Just a sample of the hundred or so things that disappeared this time around:

  • custom patterns (more on that in a minute)
  • ordinary careers (business, medical, police, etc.)
  • custom terrain (land you control is flat)
  • pools
  • toddlers (babies turn into school-age children)
  • ways to create new lots (they’re already present in limited number)
  • eyelash length controls
  • dishwashers
  • acne, aliens, burglars, ghosts …

Some of these features likely won’t reappear. The Sims 4 changes babies from playable characters to objects that your Sim interacts with. So it makes sense that the baby items you used to play with on your baby Sim aren’t included. But does anyone really believe that The Sims’ beloved swimming pools are gone forever? That we’ve all had our last virtual pool parties? I’m sure that somewhere out there, the early drawings for The Sims 4: Getting Wet Edition™* are underway.

The overall effect is sometimes spartan, despite the game’s new features. Basic actions started to feel repetitious.

The Sims 4 color selection

Above: Color selection for these shoes is typical; instead of customizing from a palette, you choose from the color blocks shown under the shoe, in this case from four options.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

No more Create a Style

Whether it’s your Sims’ hair or the kitchen counters, you won’t find a lot of colors or patterns. In earlier Sims games, you could create your own patterns and colors with Create a Style, saving them to use in other areas of your Sims’ homes. That feature is gone, as are more-customizable colors for your Sims’ hairstyles, eye color, clothing colors, or makeup. Instead, you choose from a limited selection of preset colors per item.

Bugs

Even in just a few days of play, I’ve experienced handfuls of random freezes and crashes. More rarely, Sims will sometimes clip through the corners of objects, stutter, or do something unexpected without guidance. Camera angles, especially in build mode, can be wonky — perhaps not a bug, but I can’t believe it’s fully working as intended. It’s not horribly distracting, but with big names like Maxis and EA behind TS4, it’s also not the high-gloss polish I’d expect.

Conclusion

The Sims 4 is a beefy update for the series. The core game feels more smooth, more powerful, and more dynamic than its predecessors, if occasionally buggy.

The new mood system is complex and often amusing, and it helps to make your virtual people feel a little more like … people. Players who have been in the Sims universe for a while are going to chafe at all the features that are now missing; new ones will feel welcomed and find it easy to get started, especially using the Gallery.

It compares very, very well to TS3 — the core edition. But gamers may not see that as a clear upgrade, considering all the expansion packs that have come and gone since then. There’s less to do in TS4, and that makes it less exciting to play.

Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison: this $60 title versus the hundreds that gamers spent on TS3 and its expansions. But that’s what EA is hoping longtime gamers will replace with TS4, without the extra content. If you’re looking for a comparison of TS4 versus TS3 with all its expansion packs, take at least five points off the score at the end of this review.

For me, the experience was like taking your car to the shop. When you get it back, it’s shining, detailed, and purring: They’ve traded your Ford Focus for a Ford GT. Hooray! But then you get in and notice it’s a stick shift, with manual brakes and steering, no stereo, no A/C, and wait, where are the doors?

I know some of those sexy parts and options will reappear in future expansion packs, and we will be able to buy other bells and whistles. But for $60, the core experience feels less customizable and hollow in comparison to the fully expanded TS3.

Score: 75/100

The Sims 4 is available now for PC, priced at $60. An $80 premium edition includes the Creators Guide hardcover book, Up All Night digital content, Life of the Party digital content, Awesome Animal Hats digital content, and the digital soundtrack.The publisher gave GamesBeat a code for the purposes of this review.

* Not a real game. Unfortunately.

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