Far on the other end of the gaming spectrum from fragging, combos and Leeroy Jenkins sits the Sims franchise. It's not as nuanced as a traditional simulation game, nor as shallow as a casual game, but The Sims is nevertheless the zenith of both genres — a perfect blend of hardcore and casual gaming.
The Sims 4, which was released Sept. 2 in North America, comes five years after The Sims 3 debuted. In the meantime, a whole new gaming market has cropped up. Five years ago, mobile phone gaming wasn't the beast it is now; Candy Crush, Farmville, and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood didn't exist when the last Sims game entered the marketplace.
Despite the competition, the newly emotive characters and better-focused open world of The Sims 4 should be enough to keep this potentially flagging franchise ticking.
Plot? What plot?
The only problem with The Sims is how to make it playable. Randomly creating Sims — game characters — and moving them around the neighborhood isn't entertaining for long, particularly when even a game like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has something approaching a storyline.
Forbidden to use friends and family as models after a game of The Sims 2 got out of hand in college, I instead went a decidedly more Tina Belcher route with The Sims 4 and recreated the entire cast of Grey's Anatomy. My roommate stood over my shoulder as I guided Derek Shepherd into a steamy embrace with Callie Torres, while Meredith Grey huddled in shame under the bed covers and Arizona Robbins furiously repaired a toilet she'd only just wrecked.
"I think you've unlocked the secret of Sims," my roommate muttered in awe.
Sims creator Will Wright called The Sims a dollhouse, and when you approach it as such, it's ridiculously playable. Suddenly, The Sims 4 had become salacious.
The only downside to my new world was that the characters looked nothing like McDreamy and friends. Character creation in The Sims 4 is as rich as it's ever been in a Sims game, but if the player has no knack for perfectly recreating the faces of real people, then a whole slew of monsters can easily be formed.
This isn't the fault of the creation process itself. I'm singularly not gifted at recreating faces. The Sims 4 has one of the more intuitive character-creation suites currently available: Mousing over features anywhere on the body allows you to modulate the features' size, and clicking features lets you choose from a nice selection of prebuilt noses, lips and eyes.
After scrolling out to examine the whole Sim, sliders to change fitness and body type appear. And again, mousing over features allows you to take McSteamy to the gunshow or give Alex Karev an apple bottom. There's even a good range of tattoos to inscribe on your Sims, and makeup to apply, but the hairstyle selection was only so-so. It was disappointing to realize I couldn't give McDreamy the epic coif he rocks on TV.
Out with emoji, in with emotions
The one thing I could give McDreamy was a decent approximation of his personality on the show, because The Sims 4 introduces an emotions gameplay mechanic. While the series has previously displayed character emotions, such as "good God the kitchen is on fire and we're doomed" terror and "did you really just kiss my husband while I'm standing right here" anger, they've always been very tertiary to the game, occurring only during the most extreme events.
Now, emotions are inextricably bound to the character-trait system first introduced in The Sims 3. Sims get perks and weaknesses, depending on the traits they're assigned. Sims with a character trait of "melancholic" will slump around the house, scowling at the fishbowl or furiously painting great works of dour art, and Sims characterized as "cheerful" will bounce through life, even when they also have the character trait of "evil." (One of my Sims was at her perkiest only when the rest of the household was in misery and tears.)
The emotions mechanic injects some strategy into a game where the biggest question is usually "When do I use the Motherlode cheat code?" Characters get major bonuses if they go to work while inspired, and can lose out on a promotion if they're still cranky after a fight with the old ball n' chain.
Emotions can even affect relationships. After Derek was caught flirting with everything that moved, Meredith was so melancholic and embarrassed that she escaped to her bedroom and almost missed work. She only cheered up when Derek told a series of self-deprecating jokes and serenaded her while she was eating yogurt on the toilet.
Au revoir, reservoir
One of the most notable and perplexing changes in The Sims 4 is the lack of a swimming pool. It never diminishes the game, but the loss is noteworthy, particularly when you throw huge parties for your neighbors ... and no one drowns.
The same goes for the shrunken open world. The Sims 3 had an impressively expansive world that makes The Sims 4's appear country-bumpkin by comparison. Yet a smaller world allows gamers to better focus on tasks. Instead of the tedium of grocery shopping, Sims can just wander the neighborhood, sniff flowers, chat with locals and enjoy the sun-dappled scenery while making new friends.
More significant is the loss of the "toddler" growth phase for Sims. Life passes by much more quickly when the terrible twos are removed from the equation. It was no time at all before my Sims were dropping like flies due to old age. That ticking clock on your Sims' mortality may be enticing to some players, but speaking as a woman who can spend 40 hours leveling-fishing and navel-gazing in Skyrim, it was a blow to the fun factor.
Graphics don't grate
Speaking of Skyrim, that game's quality of character and environment design isn't present in The Sims. The Sims 4 is more of a mild upgrade to the generally cartoonish style of the Sims franchise.
There's no flirtation with the uncanny valley, no photorealistic vistas to ponder. Derek Shepherd doesn't look like Patrick Dempsey so much as he looks like The Sims 4's interpretation of Patrick Dempsey. It feels very much like more of the same — a decent update from The Sims 3.
Though the design work on display does seem to be deceptively simple, character animation is gorgeously exaggerated, with every angry outburst and tearful breakdown theatrically emotive. The way the Sims express themselves has never been better.
The way the light of the setting sun streams through windows and reflects on a riverside fishing hole is also pleasantly improved. While The Sims 4 won't tax high-end video cards, it's a step up from The Sims 3 and beats the simplistic graphics of the mobile games against which The Sims 4 could be competing.
The Sims 4 feels like a very natural progression from The Sims 3. Developer The Sims Studio has fixed the earlier game's flaws, expanded the personalities of the Sims themselves and given the graphics a decent overhaul.
Players who miss poolside socializing and toddlers nipping at their heels should stick with The Sims 3. But for gamers longing for the good times of The Sims and The Sims 2, or those who yearn for a little more complexity in their virtual dollhouses, The Sims 4 is the perfect choice.
Alex Cranz is the Assistant Reviews Editor at Tom’s Guide. When she’s not devising tests for new tech she’s figuring out the best way to run Plex on it. Follow Alex @alexhcranz. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.