It’s very hard to properly lead into a review of The Sims 3, so I think I’ll settle for this: I spent the last week and a half more concerned with how well-rested my Sim family was than how much sleep I was getting myself.

The latest iteration in the franchise that distills the concept of games like SimCity and SimTower down to its most basic concept, Sims 3 places you, the player, in charge of a virtual person, or family, or couple, or whatever. More than just minions, your Sims are… well, they’re like pets. You need to see to their needs, you need to help them become successful, and unless you’re the sadistic sort who traps them in a room with no toilet and no doors, you need to keep them happy.

When you start Sims 3, you can jump right into the town of Sunset Valley with any of a dozen or so pre-existing Sim families (or people, or couples, etc.). They have houses, they have friends and relationships, and they already have jobs and goals: One I played was a young doctor already working her way up the medical ladder with a dream of being a world-class surgeon.

Creating your own, on the other hand, can be far more engaging. The Sim builder is fairly complex, and it’s easy to lose hours getting your virtual family to look just how you want them. Beyond their appearances, though, every Sim has a handful of traits that make up their personality: Your Sim might be charismatic, they might be flirty, they might have no sense of humor, they might be obsessively neat, they might be total slobs, etc.

Beyond affecting what sort of things your Sim can do (Natural Cooks skill up in making food more quickly, Bookworms finish their school work faster,) their traits also affect their dreams and desires. Dreams come in two varieties – normal, everyday, mundane dreams, and lifelong goals. For the former, your Sim might want to read a book, or kiss their girlfriend, or cook a meal. For the latter, you might have an aspiring Leader of the Free World or genius scientist on your hands – hell, one of my Sims (who was Afraid of Commitment) wanted to break as many hearts as possible in her lifetime.

Both Traits and their goals contribute to their overall Mood, and it’s very clear what makes your Sims happy or unhappy (which, thankfully, makes it easy to correct). Your Slob of a Sim could be perfectly fine in a room, but when your Neat Sim starts freaking out about being in the same room as some old spoiled food, you know it’s time to do the dishes.

The Sim experience is greatly enhanced by the concept of the “Living Town.” In previous Sims games, your family was largely limited to their own residence (or dorm, or vacation home). Sure, they’d go off to work, or maybe over to friends’ houses, but for the most part you could only control them in their immediate neighborhood. Not so in Sims 3 – the entire town of Sunset Valley is navigable, and you can spend just as much time watching random villagers play chess in the town park as you can managing your own household.

Your Sims can go to the bookstore, out to dates at the movies, hang out at the town pool, or spend time working after school taking care of the class pet to earn extra credit – and that’s just a tiny fraction of the options Sims 3 gives you. When other Sims drop by to hang out with your family, they actually get in the car from their house and drive all the way over. The Living Town does a very good job at drawing you into the world, and (particularly with DLC) means that there’s almost infinite replayability in this newest world of The Sims.

Sometimes, it actually seems like there’s just too much to do. It’s one thing to keep your Sims happy, fed, and rested, but when you’re trying to do all that while keeping your relationships strong, keeping the kids’ grades up, improving your skills so you can earn a promotion, and fulfilling that wish to spend some time at the library reading a book? It gets kind of frantic. Sure, if you could do everything it’d be too easy, but knowing you’re only doing a fraction of what’s available can be frustrating at times.

Though in the end, sometimes it’s far more entertaining to stop trying to directly control your Sims’ every move (go here, make this food, serve the entire family, now go watch TV and play a game with your best friend), and just let their personalities and wishes play out in ways you might not ever have expected.

My family of Bookworms spent so much time reading books in their free time that the TV I so thoughtfully purchased for them went completely unused. My (flirty) aspiring doctor fell in love with her female best friend, who broke up with her current boyfriend in order to date my Sim. Unfortunately, her ex-boyfriend was my Sim’s coworker, meaning that there was an extra source of stress at work. That sort of thing happens all the time in The Sims 3, and it does a fantastic job of getting you invested in your characters and what happens to them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to cut this review short – my Sim is on the verge of getting a promotion and I need to make sure he puts in the extra mile to push him over the top.

Bottom Line: It’s The Sims, bigger and better than ever. The Living Town is a fantastic new addition to the series, and while there’s so much to do that it can honestly be kind of overwhelming the characters’ personalities and goals help you guide them through life. It’s engaging, addicting, and just plain fun.

Recommendation: If you can’t do without explosions and gore in your game, The Sims 3 is not for you. If you’ve ever liked a SimWhatever game in the past, or if the idea of running a virtual life appeals to you, pick it up – you’ll probably love it.

Score: [rating=4]

John Funk attempted to recreate the cast of Persona 4 in The Sims 3. It didn’t work too well.

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