Whether we are talking about The Sims that reside in SimCity, or the gibberish-speaking drones that live out their lives in The Sims, this series has been around for a long time.  The Sims continues to dominate the top sales chart as more and more people find themselves drawn to these needy little characters.  The Sims hit the console market in January of 2003 with as big of a splash as it did on the PC. Now almost one year later we are going to see if they can do it again. 

The Sims: Bustin’ Out takes your Sim out of the house and allows them to grow and develop in new and exciting ways.  Whether you end up living with Dudley at the Trailer Park, or working at Pixel Acres, the local nudist colony, the choice is pretty much yours.  Lets follow the continued adventure of my Sim, Mr. Chuck Manson, on his path to the hottub with Goldie Toane…

This installment of The Sims got a bit of an overhaul in the graphic department from it’s predecessor.  A new user interface, real time shadows, and sharper animations with more character detail adds quite a bit to the game.  Each Sim has their own ‘look’ (although you can customize your own) and each Sim is fairly unique; Goaldie Toane looks like a bit of a free spirit, General Payne looks like he might just call you a maggot.  When you interact with this bizzare collection of characters they flail their arms about, hug, kiss, touch, push, tickle, and many other interesting animations to let you know what they are doing, thinking, and saying since your Sim speaks in that trademark gibberish SimSpeak.  The animations really help you decipher just what in the world your Sim wants at this point, and how other people might be thinking about them. 

When you don’t want to interact with other Sims you can interact with your environment.  Each room can be customized (if you have the money) and almost everything you can see can be used in some fashion.  Don’t like that shoddy black and white TV?  Fine, save up and buy a huge flat screen TV to enjoy watching what appears to be the OJ Simpson chase over and over on the “Action” channel.  Light from the light fixtures give the room a distinct colorful feel that really works.  You can really change a crummy trailer into a mansion if you spend the time and money…personally, by the time I left Dudley’s trailer he was lucky I didn’t stuff him into the top-of-the-line trash compactor I purchased for the house.  Deadbeat.

All of this detail did bring an occasional stutter in the framerate department, especially when you had parties with lots of people in your pimped-out pad.  The frame-drop isn’t often enough to really detract from the game, but it is often enough to notice. Overall, a fine job with the graphics with only a few minor hitches. 

The Sims definately has its own brand of sound.  The music is elevator-music style with SimSpeak thrown into the mix.  This will have one of two effects, either you will enjoy how it adds to your Sims world, or you will put a quarter-inch drill against your head. The way the Sims interact will also have a polar effect on you. Either way you slice it, it is a mixed proposition.

Your Sims, as always, speak this gibberish language that borders on being English at some times and baby-talk at others.   What your Sim is trying to say is displayed above their head in easy to decipher pictures such as a bed if they are tired.  After a while, it all sounds the same and began to grate on my nerves.  Instead of asking what I could do with my Sim, I began to ask “what does the whiner want NOW?!”…the Makita Drill began to look inviting.  Once I figured out how to make Mr. Manson happy again, he whined less and began to enjoy himself which brought a more satisfied tone to his voice.  Each Sim has their own voice and will display their mood about a particular task or condition pretty well.  When Chuck caught the kitchen on fire…again….he sounded pretty frightened.  Once the fire department put out the fire…again…Chuck didn’t sound too happy about cleaning up the debris.

One of your Sim’s basic items for having fun is jamming out to the radio.  Your Sim is a lemming, so feel free to select whatever type of music you prefer.  Your Sim will break out with a fairly disturbing dance and rock out to the music.  If you don’t turn it off, it’ll play 24×7 and begin to drive you insane.  Some of the songs fade into the background well, others are entertaining in small doses, and the rest are just annoying.  In this category, your mileage will definately vary.  One major drawback of this version over the PC version is that you cannot use your own music.  I think that Chuck would have definately found the sound of Megadeth appealing.  Sadly, this feature of the Xbox was overlooked.

The Sims was born on the PC with Mouse and Keyboard as the primary method of control.  Moving to the console world meant mapping all of that to a standard controller.  The right analog stick controls controls the camera swing and how far or close you are zoomed in.  The left analog stick controls your selector which allows you to manipulate the Sim and their environment.  The D-Pad is used for menu selection and the triggers control how fast time passes. The controls are well explained in the short tutorial at Mom’s house, just before your Sim “Busts Out” on their own.

The controls in any game can make or break it.  In this case, given that you aren’t required to react to monsters or race around corners, you are given a more leisurly pace of control, and therein lies the rub.  The selection of your Sim and their surrounding is done via the analog stick, but never really feels like the mouse control that it replaced.  In the PC version you can rapidly select things and adjust them with the flick of your wrist, on the Xbox controller it just feels sluggish.  The camera also never quite feels like it is either close enough or far enough away depending on your task.  For placing small items like a phone or alarm clock, it can be a multiple-attempt process.  It may look like you are about to place the clock on your brand new wire-spool table, but really you are about to place the clock on the front lawn.  It may frustrate you when it looks like you are in the right place but the object icon is still red. 

The new User Interface is very accessable and useful for getting a good bit of information all in once place.  You can see how your interactions with your neighbors and friends are going, as well as see how well your Sim is developing in the different skills sets such as cooking and mechanical prowess. 

The build mode is alive and well in this new installment.  You can create your own place to live or add onto an existing place.  Mr. Manson and Dudley didn’t get along very well, but Dudley sure did want to be my buddy when I built my own entertainment room on the back of his little rat shack.  Creating a room or a whole new house is a time consuming and very expensive affair.  The only hitch I found that detracted from the overall usability of the utility was the wall transparency function, it simply doesn’t work as advertised.  When making a wall transparent you should be able to effectively ignore it and anything strapped to it, but the UI still forces you to interact with it should you select something nearby.  As Mr. Manson would say “If I wanted to adjust the clown paintings…all 5 of them…side by side…laughing…in my head…I WOULD!”

Your Sim is a slave.  From the time that they start out as a lowly thug to their final promotion to a Splinter-Cell like operative, they will work their fingers to the bone.  My Sim seems to work 7 days a week, it is no wonder why he is never happy!  I can’t imagine what possessed the programmers to do this, or how the testers missed it, but it is a major factor in the gameplay.  It will be very difficult to keep your Sim happy and productive if they never have a moments rest.  This unfortunate case makes your Sim have to fit in work, workout, fun, and studying into one short day, which brings me to the next issue with the game.

There is some inconsitency with the speed of this game.  If you use the fast forward feature your Sim will whip through a task, but the actual time spent on that task is actually longer.  This means if you try to rush your Sim through their usual morning routine of bathroom, shower, clothing, cooking, eating, cleaning, then go to work, you will probably find that it takes more time from your Sim’s day than if you simply ‘wait it out’.  For instance, if your Sim needs to ‘use the facilities’ they will sit on the bowl for almost twice as long if you fast forward.  It is faster for you, but it is never faster for them.  When you have to cram their entire life in between work shifts and their extensive sleep schedule you might find that fast forwarding becomes detrimental to your Sim’s schedule quite quickly.  Unfortunately, without the fast forward feature, this game is extremely slow.  Watching my Sim use the bathroom every day, and then having to tell him to flush it, and then clean it makes for some dull viewing.  Thankfully you eventually get to control multiple Sims to offset some of the slavery items such as cleaning the house or fixing the pipes, but that just makes multiple Sims unhappy instead of just yours.

The maid is a fairly crucial part of the game.  She provides some of the much-needed labor around the house as she cleans up your swine-Sim’s messes.  Unfortunately she also has succumbed to the speed bug.  Quite simply, she is inefficient at normal speed.  She will clean up your messes, but the second the large garbage can or compactor gets full she begins carting the trash out to the garbage can at the curb one bag at a time.  Needless to say, after a few trips to the street she has run out of time to finish other tasks such as cleaning the waste out of my stuck toilets.  Some people have no appreciation for their work.  This problem is only made worse if you use the speed feature of the game as she actually spends more time on a particular task than normal, you can only imagine the time wasted if she is moving fast and the compactor is full.  You pay $10 an hour for her double-inefficiency.

Apart from the mundane tasks, your Sim can participate in any number of fun things. Your Sim can chose from rock climbing, dancing at Club Rubb, computer games, swimming, hanging out in the hot tub, or a number of other engaging and fun tasks.  It’s just too bad that your Sim is “The Bailer”; you know…that guy who is always saying “Uh, sorry man…I know the party just got started but I gotta go”.  Your Sim doesn’t get to have much of a life with all the work and other stuff going on in their day.

In a surprising advancement of the series, The Sims: Bustin’ Out brings multiplayer gaming to the table.  Friends who have the game can bring their memory card over to your house for a little two player fun.  You can accomplish certain goals (they earn you money and help you advance the ‘story’ of the game) by having a friend’s Sim accomplish the goals your Sim isn’t capable of doing.  For instance, Mr. Manson isn’t much of a diver, but Mrs. Jade, my wife’s character, is an exceptional swimmer with good diving skills.  When Mrs. Jade and Mr. Manson got together and Mrs. Jade pulled off an exceptional dive, Mr. Manson got credit as well.  This cooperative multiplayer adds a whole new dimension to The Sims, but it isn’t even explained in the game’s manual.  I can’t think of a better feature that they could have showcased…talk about a great idea that is completely wasted.  Despite the fact that Maxis missed the boat on this one, it brought this score from the 60’s range into the 70’s as it revitalized what would have been an otherwise somewhat lackluster section of the game.

Your mileage will vary significantly in this area.  The Sims is a very big sandbox, but this installment has added goal based gameplay and multiplayer into the mix.  All new gadgets and an updated graphic engine add a bit to the overall package, but do little to propel the series forward.  Some folks will enjoy this style of gameplay where they can control and manipulate (literally) every facet of their Sim’s life.  I enjoyed the bulk of the gameplay and premise of the title, but grew tired fairly quickly of the mundane aspects.  The glaring issue with the fast forward function only worsened the problem.

Replaying the Sims isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and the open ended gameplay will allow you to literally play the game indefinately.  For me there was just too much time spent watching my Sim in the bathroom and not enough time doing his “Disco Stu” impressions.