Crispy Gamer

The Sims 3 (PC)

Ted had a great idea:

Tiny animals.

We'd been friends long enough for me to appreciate the genius of the notion, and to realize that it would never happen. He's a book agent, after all. Not a genetic scientist.

Still, Ted figured that if you could bioengineer exotic animals -- elephants, giraffes, water buffalo -- to about the size of a small house pet, you'd have a viable business. I mean, how precious would it be to own a Chihuahua-sized rhino? Teeny tiny things are just so cute!

The Sims 3
I really don't know if you can do this in the game, but it looks like fun.

Ted dreamed it up, but Will Wright built it -- teeny, tiny, cute little human beings that you could own and nurture. Some people have kids as the ultimate social experiment, and some try out their most dangerous experiments in life manipulation by playing The Sims.

Ten years later The Sims 3 arrives. Like a good Catholic family, The Sims 3 is tied to a rhetoric of progress. With each new arrival, hope soars that, where its older siblings were retarded or unsophisticated, this little guy will be the Ivy League genius, the golden child, the progeny that will define the entire Sims family. In a word, The Sims 3 comes with all the expectation that it will just be better than all the other Sims games that have come before.

And as bright and smart and perky and filled with potential like a new puppy as the new version is, the apple never falls far from the tree. The Sims is the Sims and The Sims 3 is, for better or worse, more of the same.

Here I'd like to take a short break from your normally scheduled game review to point out something seemingly trivial, but central: the release date.

Today, the long-planned and carefully orchestrated Sims 3 release date, also happens to be the day before E3 proper, or the second day of E3 in practice -- or, in the parlance of marketing, a period of time banned for any marketing communication not directly related to the biggest event on the videogame calendar. Why release one of the biggest games of the year -- shoot, the decade -- during E3?

The Sims 3
Yes Glen, I will search for unicorns in space


You don't care.

And for good reason.

E3 may augur the fortunes of new games and steadfast game franchises from Far Cry to Mario. But for the people who buy The Sims, E3 is just a location on a Battleship game board. Caring about the launch of a game like The Sims 3 during the hubbub of a videogame trade show is like worrying about slotting Oprah opposite "Jackass" on the television schedule. Let's just say that the audience is a little different.

That?s right. The Sims is the Oprah programming in the world of "Jackass" gamers.

The only reason that "gamers" care about the Sims franchise is because they have forgotten that it was never cool to play The Sims. To wit:

Flash back to E3 -- party like it's -- 1999. That was the year that Sid Meier launched the sublime Alpha Centauri, Final Fantasy VII defined the fantasy genre on the console, Planescape: Torment offered a glimpse of the rich narrative possible in the medium, and Seaman proposed that the Dreamcast was actually a platform for art. In the wake of this golden outpouring of interactive creativity, that straggly dude that made SimCity and SimAnt was hoarsely demoing a game on the show floor about taking out the trash and remembering to shower. He had exactly one thing in his favor at that E3, and that was that SimCity had made a lot of money. But in those days, you were only as good as your last hit, and Will Wright was screaming into the E3 maelstrom that it was worth straining to hear all about the innate fun in making sandwiches and falling in love.

The Sims 3
Irony alert! You can play videogames inside the Sims 3.

Forgive the game business if it seemed like a dumb idea. It just wasn't the right crowd, like showing a Julia Roberts film at a monster truck rally, or talking monster trucks at a wine tasting.

All these years, and millions and millions of copies later, we have forgotten that the Sims never fit into the bad-ass Doom and Quake crowd. But it's been hanging around so long, we just assumed that it was one of the gaming greats. That The Sims was hardcore.

The Sims 3 is less a carefully monitored repolishing in Grand Theft Auto mode and more like a new season of "Sex in the City." If you liked it before, you'll tune in now. If you haven't been following along, this is the season to start watching.

So go back to your E3, Mr. Gamer. The Sims will be around when you get back.

For the longtime Sim player, here's the good news: EA has made sure that the upgrade to this year's model packs plenty of new-game smell. Under the hood, the game is a processor-hungry monster packing all kinds of tweaks and improvements sure to titillate serious Sims fans.

The most notable upgrade, although not the sort of thing that gets touted on the box, is that the day-to-day maintenance of your Sim has gotten easier. While making breakfast and looking for a job might sound like a gas to a 12-year-old girl, this version of the game has figured out that taking care of the daily crap in life is not a lot of fun. Changing a baby's diaper, cleaning up after a dog in the yard, or, hell, scooping poop behind your pet monkey, isn't really that fun in real life. Why would it be enjoyable in pretend-land? Fortunately, The Sims 3 is less obsessed about your Sims' defecation than about the fun stuff, like trying to get into your neighbor's pants.

The Sims 3
I am an Anti-Christ! Just kidding, I want to be corporate marketing executive.

The range of weird, debauched fun in this version has taken a decided turn for the better. Sure, you could play The Sims 3 in a classic format by creating a clan and ushering it through generations of family values and Protestant homesteading. Mom or Dad could work up the corporate ladder or head to the moon. The original Sims mined a rich vein of broken hearts and promises, and has found no reason to move onto new claims in the new version. Now you just have more ways to create a suburban social fiasco.

Thanks to a much more customizable game, you can now make your homeless guy, Hobo Jimmy, wander the streets and look in people's garbage for food. While past iterations of the game limited you to a fairly discrete number of Jerry Springer scenarios, The Sims 3 opens up a world of disturbed hillbilly fun. Why do normal things when you can do awful, dangerous and ridiculous things? Why deliver pizza when you can just steal things for a living and marry for money?

As this version of the game seeps into the public consciousness, you'll probably hear a lot about the power-sucking features -- like a brand-new ability for Sims to actually walk from house to house rather than waiting for the game to load each parcel, and the seemingly endless variety of customizations to clothes, characters and home furnishings. The "sign up now and get $10 of free stuff from the online Sims store" makes it clear that EA plans to make a killing by selling you new Sim wares for real dollars, and not just Simoleans.

And along the way, The Sims looks to attract a whole new generation of people interested in spying on the neighbors, decorating a home, and spending real time and money taking care of a pretend person.

The Sims 3
Why yes Mrs. Robinson, you are very attractive!

Last night I was talking about The Sims with my local bartender. I was shocked to find that this 20-something, artistically inclined woman had never heard of the Sims. She seemed wholly unimpressed by my waggling finger and fatherly chastisement that she was probably the only person on planet Earth who had never heard of the Sims. She asked what it was about, and I summed up: "Well, you have these little people that you take care of -- you know, feed them, get them dressed, and make them a house."

"Sounds like fun," she said, and went back to serving drunks.

Yup. Fun. Always has been. Always will be.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PC game provided by the publisher.