Eyes-on / SimAnimals

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Of the three new Sims games we got to check out at EA’s Blogger’s Day, each one had a DS counterpart. While the Wii versions of both MySims Kingdom and SimCity Creator stood out more for me on the Wii, it was actually the DS version of SimAnimals that made me perk my head up in anticipation. While both follow much the same gameplay, with less features in the DS version, it seemed to me that the DS lent itself much more easily to the type of game that SimAnimals is.

It is an animal simulator, kind of, sort of, but not really. In both versions of the game players are given a plot of land to start with. It is their task to then populate this land with animals and keep those animals happy by maintaining their hunger, sleep and other such attribute levels, much like in The Sims. However, in SimAnimals, how the animals interact with each other will play a major part. For instance, if a bear meets a squirrel he may eat the squirrel (don’t worry it’s all kid friendly). Players, as the classic Sims’ hand of god, must guide the animals into a suitable coexistence and will then move on to a bigger plot of land with more animals, eventually obtaining over 30 different types of North American and European creatures.

From what we saw of the Wii version, players can pick up almost anything in the environment and place it elsewhere: trees, plants, fruit, even the animals. The plots of land are pretty large and we got to see an angry bear and some friendly squirrels. The bear wasn’t friends with us yet so we couldn’t pet it. To get it to be friends players will have to feed it and treat it nicely. Of course there is also the option of throwing the bear across the screen and smacking it around a little, but despite the humor of those actions, the downsides to doing this will outweigh the ups. Since the entire point is to maintain your relationship with the animals, you want to be nice to them and then, eventually, they’ll think you chucking them across the screen is a fun game.

Aside from the animal interactions (petting a beaver is like petting a dog, by the way) the world the game takes place in is also highly interactive. We saw a beaver cut down a tree to make a dam. Actually, we saw a beaver and the developer playing the game, Charles London, cut down a tree to make a dam. The player can help the animals out in their activities in order to build trust between the animals and themselves. Anyway, the beaver built a dam which left the tree tumbled over and the stump still standing. The dam also stopped the flow of water down stream. Both of these things have an actual effect on the game world and can also draw more animals and plants. In this instance, the fallen tree rotted and sunk into the ground and new life began to grow on it. At the same time the stump of the tree became hollowed out and a squirrel decided to start residing there. Finally, the dam blocked up the river so that a lake was formed, which in turn attracted a duck, who had flown in from a previous zone. So the management of the world also comes into play when working to create a animal friendly environment.

These mechanics were actually pretty interesting and showed off some great potential in the Wii version of the game. What also showed potential was the option for four player multiplayer, where up to four people could play around in the plot of land the player was on. Even better, the animals will recognize the difference in controllers. So when your little brother decides that torturing your favorite bear is the best game ever, it won’t matter because the bear will only hate your brother and not you. The developers really wanted a family to be able to play together and have fun with each other while playing. Unfortunately, EA has left out any online functions, meaning a game perfectly suited for online play and Wii Speak will be sadly restricted to a family room affair.

Each plot of land in the game will have some different features and challenges, but will never involve humans directly. Later in the game pollution will be part of a problem the player will have to deal with, but on a whole the main concept is keeping the animals happy and being rewarded for doing so. Rewards come in the shape of “rare plants” which can be collected and then fed to animals to give them special skills like super speed or eternal life. That’s right, animals can and will die, but if you become particularly attached to a certain furball (you can name them all) then you can keep them alive with a certain type of “rare plant.” As you can tell realism isn’t quite what the designers were going for here, and while much of the game is based on actual animal interactions, it is much more based on having fun with them. Another example of this is the ability to make any two types of animals friends if you introduce them at an early stage in their life. So if you don’t want Wally Wolf to chow down on Freddy Field Mouse, get them playing when they’ve just been born.

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The build we saw of the Wii game was about a month old so no judgements on the graphics could be made and the glitches we saw have most likely all been ironed out. The early build looked a little bland to me and kind of sparse graphically. Animals were cute and all, but the environments were kind of simple. This may be a choice that the developers went with to keep the game simple, but it made it a bit harder to get excited for it. Again, we weren’t seeing a final build of the game so can’t really judge yet.

Then again, in comparison to the DS version, the Wii graphics just looked downright boring. While the DS plays in much the same way, just with fewer animals and a few different gameplay mechanics, the artwork for it is gorgeous. The game plays from a 2D top view and every animal’s animation has been hand drawn and looks fantastic. The animations really bring life to the animals and some added touches of humor too. After picking a raccoon up and spinning it in circles, the poor animal started staggering across the screen, making the entire room laugh. Again, if you’re friends with the creature it may find this fun, unfortunately for this raccoon, we were just messing around.

Players will also get special powers as they make the animals happier. First comes wind which is triggered by blowing in the microphone and can blow food off a tree or clear away pesky creatures, and second is lightning which, while fun to play around with, also serves the purpose as a sort of eraser for trees or other objects you may have not wanted to actually plant.

Overall, the game just seems better suited for the DS. The developers were discussing it more as a toy than a game where you must accomplish things, and it really set the tone for how the game should be viewed. Like in the Wii version, you can move animals from one plot to another and jump back and forth between any of the ones you have opened up, but in the portable setting the urge to whip out your SimAnimals and see how they’re doing just seems so much more likely. The game also makes great use of the dual screen allowing you to check up on individual animals’ needs easily. On the whole, the DS version just felt like the “real” version with the Wii being the spin-off.

From the looks of things SimAnimals could become a very popular series. It takes the obsessive maintenance gameplay of The Sims and adds in cute fuzzy animals. If they have trouble selling that, then EA has got to find some new marketing people. Maybe Sony’s people can come up with something like an advark teaching a classroom of peanutbutter sandwiches how to read Wing Dings.

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