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Discover University: ZAP!

July 19, 2020
A sim doing a keg stand, held aloft by a man in a lobster suit.

I’m not going to look up when Discover University actually came out, because I’m not going to acknowledge how late this review is. But it sure did come out at some point, yessir.

I have a mixed relationship with university expansions. While I loved the Sims 2’s take on the concept, I never played much of The Sims 3’s iteration. My most negative takeaway from TS2 University was that the pack would be much more interesting had TS2 been an open world game, as I rarely ever left the dorm due to long load screens. In contrast, my most negative takeaway from The Sims 3’s go-around was (while watching a dozen sims crowd around a single rabbithole door all screaming in route failure) “I cannot believe they fucked this up”.

I’ve come to the conclusion that University packs are among the best ones at bringing a Sims game’s inherent flaws to the forefront. The Sims 2’s load screens and time traveling made leaving dorms a pain, while The Sims 3’s piss-poor sim routing made actually attending class a crapshoot, as tons of people throughout the world would all be scheduled to try to funnel through the same door at once.

Discover University is no different in this respect. Not only does it painfully highlight The Sims 4’s limited world size, it also, once again, suffers from The Sims 4 not having an open world. And, while nobody’s expecting a complete overhaul of TS4’s fundamental game systems in an expansion pack, I do think Discover University fails to mitigate some of the annoyances that the closed world brings with it.

Although 4’s load times are much shorter than 2’s, the pack seems to compensate for that quality of life improvement by not putting dining facilities in the dorms. Instead, the cafeteria counter is placed in a student union lot and the end result is the player sitting through several short load screens per in-game day, just to do something as fundamental to the Sims’s gameplay loop as eating. And, although dining halls within dorm buildings is something I’ve personally never heard of happening in real life, I believe TS2’s break from reality was a massive quality of life improvement over the alternative, and one that I think Discover University should have repeated.

Also, for some bizarre reason you are unable to place ovens on student housing lots without a mod. One of the two dorms I’ve lived in had a full kitchen with an oven so I have no idea what that’s about.

The student housing system itself isn’t too bad. As was the case with The Sims 3, sims claim individual beds, and any locking out of roomates and guests has to be done manually on each door. The door micromanagement can be a little annoying, but it’s ultimately a very flexible system. While the lot is occupied, you cannot enter build/buy and have to rely on only objects than be dragged out of sims’ inventories. Realistic enough, but the selection of draggable decor isn’t that diverse.

For some reason that I cannot figure out, one out of the two dorm buildings on each campus is significantly more expensive than the other. They’re pretty much identical on the inside so I’m not sure what Maxis was going for here.

You also don’t even have to live on campus at all, which is a 100% new addition in Discover University. One of the two sims I put through the college experience was a later-in-life commuter student. It’s obviously not as complete of an experience as living on campus, but it seems like it’ll be a useful tool in future for those times where I want to send a kid to college, but don’t want to take my attention off of the main household to babysit them. And balancing my sim’s responsibilities as both student and parent was a fun new scenario that I’ve never gotten to play in a Sims game before. In this case, The Sims 4’s ability to hop between worlds whenever really came to benefit it.

But campus housing and food are just one part of the college experience, and I’m happy to say that the actual academic aspects of Discover University beat out its predecessors by a long shot. When signing up for a term you can select the courseload you want to take, as well as an elective and the different courses have their own homework, projects and finals that all need to be kept track of. Most interestingly, your sims’ progress in their classes isn’t immediately obvious. Just like in real-life, you can only just do everything you need to and hope for the best, and maybe check in with your professors every now and again to ask how you’re doing. There’s no helpful little bar on the HUD that immediately lets you know how much slacking you’re allowed to do. I really like the course and grading systems in this pack, and I think it’s a massive improvement over The Sims 3’s anxiety-inducing, constantly falling grade bar.

The small number of student organizations your sim can join are also pretty neat. Each campus has three clubs unique to it, a secret society, and two sports teams: eSports and football/soccer. This is a really good addition to campus life and helps add to the realism of the pack. Being on a sports team requires a decent amount of time spent away from academics and, if you entered college with a sports scholarship, the pressure to pull an all-nigther after practice to keep both your scholarship and your A’s can be real sometimes. I did very much enjoy the challenge in balancing academics and other obligations.

While there is no official implementation of Greek life (and I don’t really blame Maxis for sidestepping that particular cultural landmine), you do have the tools you need to be able to create something resembling a fraternity or sorority house. You can place a gender restriction of university housing, as well as ensure that only members of specific student organizations or Get Together clubs can move in. This is a much less interesting implementation than TS2’s full pledge system, but slightly more interesting than TS3 just slapping some Greek letters onto a single-gendered dorm and calling it a day. Too bad emulating greek life to its fullest extent, with custom organization rules, requires a second expansion pack.

Overall, the actual systems underlying the college experience are really strong and well thought out. There are the aforementioned annoyances like the issue with dining, and I miss the single non-rabbit-hole classroom The Sims 3 had. But overall, Discover University holds probably the best portrayal of classwork and student organizations in the series so far.

But now I have to talk about Britechester.

Aesthetically, I love Britechester. It reminds me that we still don’t have terraced housing in The Sims, but I like it. It’s very English, which is weird because it plays home to two very American universities. But I like Britechester.

But Britechester, because it is a Sims 4 world, happens to be way too small to hold two universities. The idea of two competing universities that each have their distinct strengths and weaknesses when it comes to academics is a really good one, and one that I really wanted to enjoy. It’s a brand new idea for the series (all universities in TS2 were functionally identical, and there was only one present in TS3). But with the size of The Sims 4’s worlds being what they are, I kind of find myself wishing they’d chosen to go with just one, incredibly fleshed out university campus.

Each campus in Britechester is four lots, a quad and some rabbit holes. There is a third, 5 lot neighborhood in between the two campuses that acts as a standard residential neighborhood with a couple of community lots.

The gurus have been on record to explain that the decrease in world size after Windenburg has been due to future performance concerns, and I have no reason to doubt that this is the truth. But, like the earlier case of dining halls and loading screens, I feel that the developers could have made better choices when it came to mitigating some of the Sims 4 base game’s fundamental weaknesses. And I think that the concept of two competing universities, separated by a downtown area, should have been sacrificed in favor of giving the player more campus space to play with. Whether that would involve sacrificing the middle neighborhood in order to give each campus 2-3 more lots, or just combining them in to one big school, I’m not sure. But the two rival schools share a library for gods sake, which is ridiculous and silly.

The two campus concept is actually something I think would have worked better in a game like The Sims 3, where world sizes were much larger, and being able to quickly pop over to see what was going on at your rival school wasn’t a loading screen away. But, for The Sims 4, I don’t think the inter-school rivalry added enough to gameplay to make the small campus sizes worth it.

And now onto the nitpicks. There’s a whole rant in points 2 and 3 of the indented block that should probably be its own blog post, but it’s not.

  1. Foxbury has too many stairs. I don’t know whose idea it was to put so many stairs on Foxbury campus or why they apparently didn’t talk to the guy whose idea it was to make bikes a selling point of the expansion. But Foxbury has too many stairs, the animation for getting off and on the bike is too long, and that makes going to class by bike no faster than on foot and it’s extremely annoying. Sims seem to be programmed to take the shortest route to their destination, but don’t take into account the time spent getting on and off their vehicle.
  2. The robotics skill has great rewards but is horrible and unfun to actually play with. Every craft requires a ton of materials, except those materials have to themselves to crafted from various upgrade parts. And they can’t be crafted in bulk. Once a craft is started at the robotics station, another one can’t be queued up until the existing craft is either finished or scrapped. So the end result is you having to babysit your sim until they get the 20-something computer chips needed to make what they want to make, rather than just plopping them down and telling them to craft until they starve (or until you cancel the interaction, if you’re nice). This is engaging for neither sim nor player.
    Whereas other crafting skills have their material requirements serve as some kind of reward for exploring the world or keeping a diverse garden, the material requirements for robotics just seem like a time gate in order to stop the player from getting robots too fast. It also makes the idea of selling robots in a Get to Work store sound painful. And, since all the base materials for the skill can just be ordered from the computer, I honestly wonder why robotics crafts just don’t cost simoleans like they did in Open for Business.
  3. And did I mention the electrocutions? That’s right I’m not done yet with Robotics.
    Very, very frequently, when leveling the robotics skill, your sims will be electrocuted, and given the standard ‘warning’ moodlet, meaning they can’t play around with electronics for another few hours lest they be zapped again. Fatally.
    Not only this is very annoying because it’s yet another time gate on a skill that really doesn’t need one, I think it’s kind of emblematic of the problem I have with a lot of things in the Sims 4 (and 3). In The Sims, electrocution was not only 100% fatal the first time, it was also very common at low Mechanical skill levels. When an object in the household broke, the player had to leverage whether or not they felt their sim was skilled enough to attempt the repair themselves, or fork out money for the repair NPC. In The Sims 2, electrocution was not guaranteed to be fatal, but could be, as punishment for sending your sim in to do something dangerous when in a bad mood.
    Starting with the Sims 3, electrocution is a slap on the wrist. It could kill a sim, if the player willed it. Leveling the Handiness skill is almost worthless, because there’s nothing stopping you from just coming back a few hours later and trying to fix that TV again.
    So, just 20 years later, we’re here. Where one of the most terrifying deaths in the original The Sims, a death that served to encourage the player to build their skills in order to save money, is now just a frequent annoyance that acts as a time gate to prevent sims from building a skill too quickly.
    I downloaded a mod to make the constant electrocutions more bearable because honestly this skill is just horrendously time-gated. I’m not even sure why, as the rewards for the skill aren’t exactly game-breaking. I love my Servo but he’s not that good.
  4. I would kill a man to have a non-rabbit-hole graduation ceremony one of these days. Even something as simple as a Sims 2-style cutscene showing your sim going up and getting their diploma would be neat. It’s a small thing, but graduations in The Sims have always felt so… anticlimactic.
  5. The tuition fees and student loan system is really cool but, with the number of scholarships that played teens can earn and how easy it is to make money in this game, it’s kind of useless because the school fees are so low. Would have loved tuition to be higher so that I actually had a chance to take out loans.
  6. Bring back the evil cow mascot you cowards.

Ultimately, I’m mixed on The Sims 4 Discover University. I obviously don’t hate it, because I think it has the best implementation of the academic aspects of university in the series so far. But, like every university expansion so far, it didn’t do enough to mitigate some of the issues caused by flaws in the base game itself. I think if Maxis had paid more mind to how having to load into a new lot whenever you wanted to eat felt, or how little each campus felt when it came to actual play area, I think this pack would have been much better for it. The actual design of the campuses makes them feel a lot larger than they really are, so props to the art direction and world design guys for that. But the illusion is quickly shattered when you have to go to another neighborhood just to visit the nearest library.

If you play generationally (aka. have a lot of aging up teens), as I do, I think Discover University is absolutely worth buying. But I still think the pack could have been better.