OK, so let’s get one thing straight before I go any further… I’m not the world’s biggest Sims fan.
In fact I’d be handing back my man card if I ever admitted to looking forward to a new Sims release. I play The Sims exactly the way I play any ‘God’ simulation game (Civilisation, SimCity, Anything Tycoon), by beginning with the best intentions to play the game properly. Alas before too long my interest wanes and I just end up seeing how much trouble and carnage I can cause.
In The Sims, that usually involves quitting my job, neglecting the kids, wooing and sleeping with the neighbour and eventually dying from forgetting to eat or sleep.
But at the same time, that’s what I like about The Sims – the simple fact that you are free to do anything you want, when you want, good or bad. It’s a true sandbox game and it lets you live ‘life’ the way you want to live it. But in The Sims Medieval, all that has changed.
I’m holding onto my man card for the moment, because even though I was looking forward to playing The Sims Medieval, it was purely for the promise of living up to its setting – a time of extreme violence, few morals, buxom wenches, massive banquets, magicians, buxom wenches, dragons and mythical beasts, plagues, war, public executions and buxom wenches.
This would have been brilliant in a sandbox setting, but EA has shifted the goalposts with this release and given it a structured gameplay with goals and tasks that must be completed. In fact it’s not so much a traditional Sims game any more, rather than a Sims-themed RPG. It has a storyline, with a beginning, middle and end, and a specifically designed role that the player must fill – the Watcher (aka God).
After installing and launching, the game immediately did a software update that, judging by the amount of time it took to download, must have been at least half the size of the game itself. That was tiresome, but all was redeemed as the opening cinematics included the perfect pronunciation and booming baritone of Patrick Stewart’s authoritative voiceover. His brief narrative also alleviated any concerns that the familiar Sims humour had been removed from the game.
Being the Watcher, you get to control a handful of characters in the kingdom which are called Hero Sims. They are a Monarch, Knight, two Priests, Spy, Blacksmith, Merchant, Wizard, Physician and Bard. These characters must work to complete one of the Ambition goals for the kingdom that you selected back at the main menu. Within those Ambition goals, each character has to fulfil personal tasks to fill their role in medieval society. These tasks are obviously slanted towards the role that the character plays – a priest won’t be expected to go and hunt wild animals for an upcoming banquet, for example.
But having that structure in place doesn’t mean you don’t have some personal freedom to muck around. You can start fights with people, eat, sleep, love, just as in any Sims game, but if you take too long to complete the current objective then you’ll end up being arrested, placed in the stocks and will probably have rotten vegetables thrown at you by young children.
As nice as it is to have a certain amount of freedom, there’s that all-too-common conundrum – “hmmm, so what shall I do next?” For that reason, the game is far more fun when you do what’s required of you, and use that auxiliary freedom as a brief diversion every now and then.
Kingdom Ambitions take hours to complete, and by the time you’ve completed a couple of them, the structured gameplay begins to grate a little. Some of the quests begin to repeat themselves and while you can approach them differently each time, the end result is pretty much the same.
The Watcher’s View camera angle was too far away for my liking and when the game cuts to inside rooms, the view is too front-on to allow for easy placement of objects or precise movement. This caused characters to get stuck on objects and there were occasions where I had to abandon quests due to unforgivable glitches.
Also, while I’m focused on the negatives – wouldn’t it be great to be able to design and build your own castles in this medieval setting? Sure it would – but you can’t – so sticketh that in thy pipe and smoketh it.
Ultimately there are more bouquets than brickbats for The Sims Medieval. The graphics are the best of any in the franchise and the musical score is perfectly aligned to the medieval setting. But Sims fans might be disappointed by the lack of freedom in this release, whereas RPG fans will probably appreciate the structured gameplay and character development laced with The Sims's typical light-hearted humour.