The Sims is one of those rare franchises that has real universal appeal, and it shows with the series' regular dominance of the PC sales charts - between the game and its many expansions, often several spots are taken up by Sims titles. If you're not familiar with the series, The Sims basically puts you in the role of puppetmaster for a household, directing the people as they go about their lives - though obviously there's a lot more to it than that, and a fair bit of humor thrown in as well. If you are familiar with the series, then you'll instantly be familiar with The Sims 3 as well, because outside some sustaining upgrades Electronic Arts didn't dare to mess with the formula too much.
As your Sims go about their lives, going to work, coming home, playing on the computer a bit, then going to sleep (actually, that sounds more like my life...) they'll have certain needs that have to be met - hunger, hygiene, bathroom, social, energy, and fun. The way to fulfill these needs is pretty obvious - eat something to satisfy your hunger, take a shower to boost your hygiene, and get a full night's sleep to refill your energy. Previous Sims titles centered around the player watching these needs constantly, refilling the bars that represented the need whenever they got too low. That level of micro-management has been reduced somewhat in The Sims 3, as the needs don't have to be met as often, and are easier to meet in less time. However, part of the progression of the game has also been lost, as one of the natural goals was always to save money and buy better items that could meet your needs better - not only are these not usually necessary now, but more often than not they've been removed from the game entirely. But more on that later.
While you can still see the needs directly in your control panel, a new system of "moodlets" is what directly affects your mood, giving you bonuses or penalties based on what your Sim has done recently (or not done). Have a good meal, and you'll get a moodlet bonus for a few hours. Go without food for too long, and you'll get penalties. So, rather than directly micro-managing your need meters, you'll be trying to mitigate your negative moodlets and add some positive ones to keep your Sim happy. Two of the former needs from the previous games, Comfort and Room (how happy your Sim is with their surroundings), have been entirely replaced by these moodlets.
In addition to managing the moodlets, there's also a completely separate "wish" system. Based on your Sim's personality and what they've been doing, they will occassionally have a wish that you can choose to grant - read a book, talk to someone, get a promotion, etc. These wishes cover almost every aspect of gameplay, and it's nearly impossible to grant your Sim every wish that comes along, but there's also no need to do so. Each wish that your Sim fulfills will give Lifetime Happiness points, which can be used to purchase some special items - one will give you free access to the movie theater for your Sim, for example. There's also a long-term, lifetime wish for each Sim - whether it's to master a particular career path, or learn every cooking recipe in the game. These wishes can be hard to manage and will take up a lot of time if you're dedicated to them, but they can also be safely ignored at any time. In the end the wish system adds a new layer to the micro-managing gameplay and gives the more goal-oriented players something to aim for every day.
The daily grind for your Sims hasn't changed very much. You'll still send them off to school or work at certain times of certain days, but now you can choose from several different behaviors while they're there - work hard to boost your job performance at the cost of extra energy, socialize with your co-workers, suck up to the boss - you can even take a nap on your desk if you really need the energy boost and don't care about the boss finding out. Promotions still largely depend on having the right skills and being in a good mood at work, but they're no longer directly related. Instead, you'll have a job performance meter that fills up (or empties) as various conditions are met - so if you're in a good mood and have the right skills, it'll fill faster. More advanced jobs will also need higher relations with your coworkers and your boss, rather than general requirements on the number of friends required for a promotion. However, the number and variety of career paths, and the skills you'll be learning (and how to do so), haven't changed very much. Instead, you'll occassionally get "opportunities" related to your skills or your job that you can take advantage of for a boost in your skill, your pay rate, your job performance, or your relations. One had me traveling to the bookstore to meet a chess champion for a logic skill boost, while another had me taking a friend to the diner I was working at in order to boost business. There's still the odd mechanic where a promotion can actually give you less money on a weekly basis, since the new job will often raise your hourly rate but also cut your daily hours or even entire work days - though this does of course leave you more free time.
Navigating around the neighborhood is probably the biggest upgrade in The Sims 3. No longer is your household constrained to a single lot at a time. You can send each of your Sims to different locations in town, and seamlessly switch between them - no more agonizing loading times in between. The neighborhoods themselves offer a lot to do for the sandbox-style players, but there's not much incentive to use it all if you're focused only on maxing out your skills and mood. There's a library for the bookworms as well as a bookstore, a gym, sports stadium, and spa, plus various places to eat and take in a show - even a grocery store. The various workplaces are all in the neighborhood as well, so while one family member might be working in the science lab, another one can go there for a tour or to take some classes. You can also visit your neighborhood friends at their own houses, rather than inviting the freeloaders over to your own place every time. One added benefit is the ability to choose whatever job you want by simply visiting its location and applying directly - though you can still search for random job listings on the computer or in the newspaper.
While it's a lot easier to take your Sims out on the town, the home life has suffered in comparison. To put it simply, a lot of the objects that some might take for granted are no longer available, and the ones that are have been severely restricted in their variety. You still get a TV and a computer, but only a couple different kinds of each. Likewise, while there are lots of chairs, tables, sofas, and beds, the variety in structural appearance and functionality is a lot less than what was even in just the basic Sims 2 game. The same can be said for the plumbing and appliances as well. While you get some new perks, such as a fridge with an inventory that can be managed, specific recipes that can be made (if you have enough cooking skill), and a choice of books to read (for skill or for fun), players used to saving up for some of the more entertaining items - such as the pool table or the hot tub - will be disappointed to find that they've been removed from the game entirely.
On the other hand, while your choice in the base objects has been much more limited in The Sims 3, you do have a lot more flexibility in your decor thanks to the extremely detailed system to customize the external appearance of nearly any object, from clothing to wallpaper to bookshelves. You can start with any of hundreds of textures or patterns, and choose whatever you want for the four to five colors coded into it to create a truly unique look. Best of all, the created textures can be saved and applied to any object in your house - so if you really want that orange and purple polka-dot decor on everything you see, now you can have it.
As in the previous games, you can modify and build your house, provided you have the money to do so (which you won't for a long time if you're starting fresh). The construction tools haven't really changed much - you choose objects and place them on a grid, starting with walls and floors before moving on to doors and windows. Having multiple stories in your home is a bit easier to manage this time around, and the roof-creation tool is much more flexible - though since you'll spend most of your time looking inside the house, you won't actually see the roof all that often anyway. Decorating the landscape outside your home has gotten a bit more robust as well. You have a terrain-shaping tool that can raise or lower the ground level with different "brush" sizes and textures, so you can create a small sharp rise in elevation or a large rounded mound. You can also raise or lower the water level, creating your own backyard ponds and streams (or in my case, a swamp). Best of all, the terrain-shaping tools are free, so you can go wild with them right from the beginning.
Sim creation has gotten an overhaul for The Sims 3 as well. You can get a lot more detailed in your physical appearance, changing everything from the position and shape of your eyebrows to how far your chin juts out. There are still some weaknesses, however - there aren't many hair styles to choose from, and you still can't adjust your height at all. You can, however, finally make an overweight Sim, to the delight of gamers everywhere. Personality creation is a lot more detailed as well. Instead of assigning a fixed pool of points into a few characteristics such as outgoing or neat, you can pick a few of the over 60 different traits that will affect your Sim's AI, their social options for interacting with other Sims, and what kind of wishes they'll have. The responses range from the typical opposite pairs such as shy/outgoing and good/evil to some more interesting traits like insane, kleptomaniac, technophobe, good kisser, vegetarian, dislikes children, mooch, commitment issues, couch potato, and lots more. Someone with the 'genius' trait will learn the logic skill faster and be able to earn money solving difficult math problems on the computer, while someone with the 'inappropriate' trait can always access social options for insulting, kissing, tickling, and proposing marriage, even for Sims they've just met, and also have a special social option to make fun of anyone they meet. Someone with the 'green thumb' trait will be able to raise the new gardening skill more quickly, grow better plants, revive dead ones, and even fulfill their social need by talking to the plants. For the first time, the customization options really let the player create a Sim that feels like a unique individual rather than a cardboard cutout.
There are now seven life stages for your Sim, and as the days pass each Sim will eventually have a "birthday" where they progress from one stage to the next - you can even have them buy a birthday cake in order to bring this event about more quickly. When you create a Sim, you get to choose what stage of life they are in, but the general progression is from baby to toddler, child, teen, young adult, adult, and finally elder. Babies start off with only two traits, and gain another trait upon advancing to the next life stage until they end up with the final amount of five. If the Sim is in a good mood when they advance, you get to pick the additional trait. Otherwise, you'll get stuck with one at random. Similarly, elders who have lived a happy life will basically live forever, while those down on their luck may simply pass away after some amount of time. And if you like your Sims just the way they are, you can turn off aging entirely.
On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much technical improvement in The Sims 3 in terms of appearance, but with the game simulating the entire neighborhood and all of its AI Sims all the time, there's a lot going on behind the scenes and the framerate is, for once, stable even with many Sims all showing up to your house parties. You have full control over the camera, changing its horizontal and vertical angles, moving it around, zooming it in and out. Zooming out a bit with the camera and panning around the neighborhood can get you some great views that just weren't possible in previous Sims games. The character customization options has added a lot more detail to the Sims themselves, particularly in the facial features, while maintaining a slightly stylized art direction. The audio is pretty much unchanged - you'll have the Sims gibbering nonsense at each other and some pleasant background music while you're rearranging furniture or breaking down walls. There are still some issues with your Sims getting in each other's way or being unable to interact with certain objects if they're not positioned correctly, but these seem to occur far less often. Likewise the humor that is so characteristic of the franchise - both in the writing of the flavor text and in the Sims' interactions themselves - is intact and unchanged from previous games.
If you take The Sims 3 online, you can access The Exchange through your web browser. There you can upload and download custom Sims and textures created by other Sims 3 players, or purchase additional neighborhoods, lots, Sims, and objects from Electronic Arts - which gives me some idea as to where some of the seemingly missing objects have gone. You can also start a blog on the site, and upload and edit movies recorded within the game. You can really extend the value you get from The Sime 3 by making full use of The Exchange, but it's also not really necessary to use it to fully enjoy the title on its own.
While The Sims 3 has a lot of upgrades that probably wouldn't work with the old Sims engine and thus couldn't be put into an expansion pack, there's also a lot of missing content that feels like it was held back for paid download or future expansion packs. The upgrades themselves are usually fairly obvious, low-risk improvements, but still should offer a lot of enjoyment to series fans despite there not being much of anything to draw in a new audience. The extensive customization options for both characters and patterns will definitely please the virtual dollhouse and decorator crowds as well. Overall, The Sims 3 is still a great game, but it still feels like there's a lot more potential to be explored in the concept that has yet to be fully realized.