I’m always down for the Sims franchise taking a step away from the idealized American suburbia that characterized its early days. I grew up in a place that was neither American nor suburban and as a small child was deeply confused by how different the world of my favorite games was to my own. I understand now, of course, that the world is much bigger than my childhood neighborhood, but I still really appreciates the few times when The Sims seems to make the same realization.
City Living, a utilitarian name that nonetheless tells you exactly what to expect of it, is the third expansion for The Sims 4. Unusually for the series, City Living was released almost a full year after the previous expansion, instead of the timeworn standard of six months. And, unlike it’s predecessors in The Sims 2 Nightlife and The Sims 3 Late Night, The Sims 4’s urban expansion seems to focus less on a night out in the city, but on, well, life in the city at all hours. Thus the title, I suppose.
On top of Nightlife and Late Night, City Living also has shades of The Sims 2’s Apartment Life, The Sims 3 Seasons and (yes I know I said this about Get Together too) The Urbz. The ‘Uptown’ district is especially reminiscent of Diamond Heights, one of my favorite Urbz level designs; a group of buildings suspended almost precariously between multiple skyscrapers, where the rich and fashionable habitate. I wonder if there wasn’t at least some inspiration gleaned from the old console game during the production of this expansion.
Proper apartments make a return from their appearance in Apartment Life, this time combined with some features of Late Night’s half-assed attempt. Landlords, rent and loud neighbors are once again a thing and all apartments in the new world of San Myshuno are located inside structures not unlike the high-rise shells that Late Night allowed players to build houses in. It’s a nice combination of the two systems in that you get the high-rise aesthetic of Late Night and the actual gameplay of Apartment Life.
Unfortunately (and unlike Apartment Life), you can only have your apartments in these shells. Gone is the ability to create your own apartment complexes and to turn already existing buildings into them. Instead you take what Maxis gives you and you just have to deal with it. There goes my trailer park, or my old brownstone converted into a duplex. I specifically praised Get Together for explicitly giving players the ability to make the content of the expansion themselves, for allowing that creativity instead of focusing too much on the clubs that Maxis had come up with. A lot of players enjoy this series because of the of the creativity it allows, myself included, and in not allowing players to make their own one of the main draws of this expansion, Maxis fucked up. And we all know that Maxis can’t build for shit, but that was always okay because that wasn’t actually their job. Their job was to create the tools that allow players to do that themselves. So being stuck with the same old apartments in the same old buildings that we absolutely cannot adjust the layout of whatsoever, is bloody disappointing.
You can’t even make changes to the common areas, for shit’s sake.
Because of this, building in City Living is atrocious. There are a couple new grimy walls and floors, which are pretty sweet (The Sims 4 so far as suffered from everything being far too clean and shiny), but the expansion doesn’t actually add any new content for builders. The entire city of San Myshuno is pre-packaged. The common areas in every quarter are lovely, but completely uneditable, the only changes to them made by whatever algorithm determines what food stalls should be there that day. Much like a rented apartment, you can live in San Myshuno, but you can’t make it your own. And for a game series that started pre-production as a bloody architecture simulator, that is completely unacceptable.
Limiting builder creativity in order to make nice-looking, gimmicky and ultimately forgettable content has been an increasing trend in The Sims, becoming most evident in The Sims 3 World Adventures, and it makes me said to see Maxis continue it into The Sims 4.
Speaking of building, there are elevators now, but you can’t interact with them or place them in normal buildings. And there’s no animation associated with using them, although after being traumatized by Sims 3’s pathing with regards to elevators I’m missing that a lot less than I should be.
Oh, and you can’t woohoo in them or die in them. Or do both at the same time. Which is wildly disappointing because what’s the bloody point then?
All that being said, San Myshuno is lovely. A little, but lovely. It’s evident that a lot of care was put into the world. Background assets are layered nicely to give the player a great sense of scale, of how large the city is. The landmarks and architecture of every quarter are visible from every lot in the world, giving everything a sense of consistency that The Sims 4’s neighborhoods have so far lacked. It seems that a great amount of work was put in to make the world feel alive. Cars and trains go by, a helicopter lands every now and then in Uptown and low rez people can be seen going about their business in the distance. It actually feels like this city actually has the population to justify calling it that.*
The idealism I mentioned earlier comes from just how shiny everything is. Even the cheapest San Myshuno neighborhood, the Spice Market, is a lovely, clean, place with a well maintained public square where family friendly festivals take place every couple of weeks and graffiti artists only paint within the predetermined tape lines. I’m not expecting the flaming rubbish bins and drug dealers of my childhood neighborhood, but even Bridgeport was a little gritty with its dive bars and depressed colour palette.
I’d want to live in even the cheapest apartment in San Myshuno, as I would anywhere else in the Sims 4 world. As much as creativity, The Sims has always been about class mobility. Back at the very start the game’s whole shtick was about starting off at 6 Sim Lane and ending up at that huge mansion at the top of the hill. I’m going off on a tangent here, but every lot in every neighborhood in The Sims 4 is just too damn lovely.
Lot traits do seem to have the potential to solve that problem. Maybe. Another new feature of the expansion, lot traits do exactly what they say on the tin: they’re traits, but for lots instead of sims. They might actually be my favorite feature of City Living so far, with how they let you customize even more aspects of your sims’ world (see that word, Maxis? Customize). There are certain lots in San Myshuno with traits that you can’t change, such as ‘Needs TLC’ (which could more accurately be named ‘Really Shitty Apartment’) but I think that actually ends up just on the correct side of the line between limiting player creativity and adding flavor to the world.
As the basic lot trait system were added in the accompanying base game patch, instead of the expansion download itself, I’m hoping to see Maxis make use of them in future content and worlds. The fact that there aren’t already a couple of traits incorporating Get to Work and Get Together content is actually somewhat disappointing.
Another big thing that was touted around in the month leading up to the expansion’s release was the festivals. It is with my deepest regrets here that I must announce that… I have absolutely nothing to whine about here. I love them. They seem to have taken the idea of the seasonal festivals from The Sims 3 Seasons and tweaked it to actually be interesting. I can see myself getting bored with them eventually, and I can very definitely see myself in the future wanting to turn off the notifications that tell me every time one is about to happen, but so far I really, really enjoy them. They’re all pretty different from one-another, which is obviously good, and there are quite a few of them, so I don’t quickly tire of seeing the same ones crop up over and over again. At one point I even found myself looking forward to whenever the next flea market was going to be because I wanted to see if I could pick up some cheap furniture. I don’t think I’ve actually looked forward to a regularly scheduled event in a sims game before, so well done.
Let’s see what else there is to say…
Oh, there’s some cute stuff, like basketball, karaoke, a singing skill and a new venue type, (Arts Centre) that I can finally use to replace all the useless museum venues. I have yet to find Oogie Fever on the karaoke machines though, so points off there because THAT IS A GODDAMN TRADITION, MAXIS. Some nice touches have been made to the naming tables that the game pulls from when generating new sims and a lot more diverse/worldly names are showing up now. On that note of diversity, they also seem to have finally fixed the bug that was causing the game to only generate single-mother families (no, seriously).
Some weird bugs, this time around, but nothing too disastrous or game breaking. The most annoying one causes sims to return home from work and school immediately when opening build mode for some reason.
Speaking of work, the new careers, while not very interesting in theme (social media, really?) have very interesting mechanics. Sims in those careers can work from home if they so choose and are assigned a couple of tasks to get done by the start of their next shift. It’s like a weird blend of a classic career track and Get to Work’s active ones. It’s a pretty great feature that I made liberal use of when one of my sims had a baby to take care of and I honestly wish it could have been expanded to work with some of the base game careers. Software engineers that go into the office every day? Unheard of!
The new buy mode stuff is pretty nice but the build mode stuff is practically nonexistent since I guess this entire expansion really is Maxis giving the finger to players who like building things.
The CAS stuff for adults is really great, except for the hairs which are sparse in number. Also sparse in number is clothing for children, which just seems to reinforce my theory that Maxis has had this weird grudge against kids for the past 7 years.
We’re approaching 2,000 words here so let’s immediately wrap this up like a college essay that just hit the word count.
All in all, I really like this expansion. I’m having a lot of fun playing it and I think it’s my favorite of 4’s expansions so far. What’s there is solid and well-functioning and there’s just enough small touches piled on top of the big stuff to make it charming.
However, what isn’t there, what’s missing, leaves a huge, disappointing hole. Not being able to do anything with regards to building and editing apartment buildings being the biggest of those let-downs. There’s a lot of content here, as there should be since the thing took twice as long to get releases as any previous expansion. But the huge ‘fuck you’ Maxis has given to builders this time around is an unfortunate bloodstain on The Sims 4’s nicest set of panties so far.
I’m also worried about the future of apartments if we’re not allowed to build our own within any pre-existing world and no tools have been released that allow players to create their own worlds, does that mean that apartments will forever be relegated to only exist within San Myshuno? They obviously can’t be included in any worlds that ship with future expansions and base-game patches, as there’s no guarantee that players who buy that will own City Living. They could, in classic EA fashion, introduce overpriced DLC neighborhoods Sims 3 style, only purchasable by people who own City Living and including apartments galore. But The Sims 4 doesn’t even have a DLC store currently.
The Sims 3 had a massive flaw with expansion content being limited to what you have room for in your neighborhood, but at least that game came with the option to add the requisite lots into any world you wanted to, using cheats if necessary.
The Good Bits
- San Myshuno is lovely.
- Lot traits are something I never knew I wanted but now I think we should have had them from the very start.
- Festivals are neat.
- Apartment gameplay is brought back The Sims 2 and even expanded upon slightly.
- THE MOTHER
- BUBBLE BLOWER HOOKAH THINGS
- ARE BACK.
The Bad Bits
- If you like using build mode at all, Maxis hates you and wants you to know that.
- It’s apparently against the law to rent out property everywhere in the world except San Myshuno.
- YOU CAN’T EVEN HAVE SEX AND THEN DIE IN AN ELEVATOR GOD WHAT IS EVEN THE POINT.
- The vendors at the food stalls will not shut the fuck up for five seconds. All they do is shout. Is that how they plan to attract customers? Shouting?
- Yet another urban expansion where the soundtrack was not performed by the Black Eyed Peas.
*I can’t really blame Late Night’s Bridgeport for feeling barren though. The Sims 3 ran so poorly that if it tried to render enough sims and moving objects in world for it to feel populated, it would set your computer on fire so hard that the event transcends time and space and causes Ada Lovelace to spontaneously combust. Heh.
I think that gets my “take potshots at The Sims 3’s performance” quota in for the day.