Review: The Sims 3 (iPhone)

Pared down for the mobile format, The Sims 3 is notably bereft of many of the trademark Maxis witticisms at its loading screen

The Sims is unlike any other game brand in existence. While most find success by focusing on delivering a fun, exciting experience, The Sims excels not by being fun -- which it typically isn't -- but from its uncanny ability to be fascinating on a humanistic level.

Like most of Will Wright's games (SimCity, Spore, etc.), The Sims eschews the traditional need for linear progression through a series of tasks in a static game world. Instead, players are given an impressive set of tools to create characters, objects and environments and watch as life unfolds. It's a formula for resounding commercial and critical success, and it still works as well as it did twenty years ago. But almost all of Wright's games were built for computers, which carry with them the expectation of a greater commitment of time and effort on the part of the player.

Adapting The Sims to the iPhone, then, was no easy feat from a technological or a design standpoint. On iPhone, The Sims 3 is an impressive example of shrinking a massive game down to phone-size proportions without losing most of the elements that gave the series its clout: the requisite customizable characters, charming set pieces and robust decision-making aspects are all retained from its flagship PC release. But it is the very fact that so much from the original release was crammed into such a minuscule and difficult interface that makes The Sims 3 almost impossible to recommend.

The game thrives on an abundance of opportunities to assert your Sim's personality.

Portable games are typically only successful if they are structured to accommodate short play sessions that can be interrupted by phone calls, texts, or a particularly aggressive bus driver. But ask anyone who's sat down at a computer with a copy of The Sims, and -- after some prodding -- they'll sheepishly recount that time they saw a half-hour play session turn into a six-hour marathon without even thinking to check the clock.

The payoff of watching your choices affect your Sims in both planned and unexpected ways fosters empathy and engagement, which is where the real enjoyment of The Sims has always come from. Recognizing such marathon sessions weren't plausible for the average phone user, Electronic Arts instead streamlined Sim creation and implemented an overarching goals checklist, ranging from rudimentary ("befriend a Sim") to lascivious (you can guess what "WooHoo eight times in one day" alludes to) and utterly bizarre ("Use everyone's shower at least once"). These objectives allow for quick gratification and are well-tailored to the humor of the series.

Your Sim has his or her own cache of deep desires, largely dictated by the archetype you assigned to him/her. This lascivious Sim has some shockingly unfulfilling wishes, but she's certainly the life of any party.

These goals help guide players through an experience that's digestible in small bursts on a mobile phone, but they also emphasize the lack of value for Sims fans hoping to take the more chaotic, open-town experience of The Sims 3 on the road with them. For better or worse, The Sims 3 is a much more rigid experience on iPhone.

Yet despite all that, The Sims 3 would have still been fairly easy to recommend if it weren't utterly crippled by one of the most unfriendly camera control schemes in a major iPhone game. Attempting to pan, rotate and zoom the camera is stunningly counter-intuitive. When a game like The Sims relies so heavily on maintaining a good vantage point on the action, it quickly moves from being an annoyance to an absolute deal-breaker.

It's a shame that such an impressively robust adaptation of a beloved PC game is hindered so thoroughly by a relatively minor grievance. With any luck EA will update the game with improved camera controls, but until then, everyone but the most dedicated of Sims fans should steer clear.

A copy of The Sims 3 was provided for review by Electronic Arts. As of publication, The Sims 3 is available for $6.99. (iTunes link)

Recommended for:

  • Established Sims fans who can tolerate the frustrating controls and limited design

Not Recommended for:

  • Newcomers to The Sims, who will be off-put by its limited scope and relatively unfulfilling goal-driven structure
  • Its unacceptably haphazard and continually frustrating camera control scheme

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