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August 03, 2006

REVIEW: Nintendogs / PREVIEW: The Sims 2 Pets (a.k.a. Pets will do what Nintendon't)

Cross-posted on GameDAILY.

So I'm browsing through my Google news aggregator home page, when lo and behold, I see that the top story on Sims 2 News is the following headline:

"CNet Video Interview With Sims Designer Robin Hunicke"

Hey! I know her! She's good people. Salt of the earth, that Robin.................................... except for the fact that she's a cat person.

Relax, people, I joke, I kid. I like cats. Really, I do. Some of my best friends are cats.................................... but really, dogs kick ass. They just have that certain... dogness about them. Cats? Please.

Before I get all the cat people up in arms, there's actually a reason for stirring up some pet-owner passions. So bear with me, 'cuz I'm going somewhere with this.

As some of you may remember from my review of Dog's Life, my family is most definitely a dog family. Last October, we lost our own beloved pooch of 10 years, and we were all suffering from acute doggie withdrawal.

A few months later, we got a Nintendo DS for the holidays, along with a copy of Nintendogs: Dachshund & Friends, because that was the one that included beagles in the original group of breeds.

It was love at first sight. The puppies were indescribably cute, and we couldn't wait to get started. Unfortunately given the language recognition glitches with some DS games (e.g. saying "blue" in Brain Age), it took several tries and a surprisingly considerable chunk of time to get past the initial training/imprinting stage (where the player establishes the connection to the specific dog), which was frustrating.

At first, my daughter named her beagle puppy "Otter", after our dearly departed beagle, but my wife and I asked her to choose a new name, because it was just too painful to hear her training her new puppy using the name of the family member we'd lost just two and a half months earlier. So she chose another name and was on her way to making a new friend.

One of the best things about gameplay in Nintendogs is using the stylus to give your puppy baths and belly rubs. Physically "touching" your puppy really helps to cement the emotional relationship between child and dog.

My kids loved the fact that they could each choose their own puppy. My daughter had her beagle, my son chose a husky, and my wife picked a golden retriever. I was waiting for the yellow labs to be unlocked, but before that happened, our enthusiasm for the game trailed off considerably.

While there are many good things about Nintendogs, depth is not one of them. There is a great deal of repetitiveness to the gameplay. For example...

  • You enter a competition (e.g. obedience, frisbee-catching, etc.) to win some prize money, which you can use to buy supplies like food and grooming tools, or fun extras like ribbons and 3D sunglasses for your dogs. The competitions are fun... the first couple of times. But the problem is that even though it gets slightly harder each time, there isn't really a sense of advancement.
  • You leave your puppy alone for a month, while you visit your fabulous cousins in the south of France. Upon your return, you check on your dogs, expecting them to have run away (as the game warns that they will). Instead, you are eagerly greeted by a motley crew of filthy, hungry, parched pooches. After a bath and a few gulps of food and water, it's like you never left.
  • You take your puppy for a walk. You meet another puppy. They may get along. They may not. Nothing really happens. Your puppy poops and pishes. You don't have to clean it up (though the game tells you that you should). There's no penalty of any kind for befouling the sidewalk.
  • You take another walk. Second verse (and the third and the fourth), same as the first. Again, nothing really happens.

Although very very cute, Nintendogs is like a Bizarro World god game, where no matter what you do, you get the same results. This, of course, is exactly the opposite of what a god game is supposed to be.

Speaking of god games, if some of you are wondering why I started this column by writing about Robin (she's probably wondering herself), here's why:

The interview was about the upcoming Sims 2 expansion pack, The Sims 2 Pets, and it is very clear that Pets will have the characteristic Sims depth, customization, and realistic, real-time cause-and-effect gameplay.

And whether you're a dog person, a cat person, or would rather have a lower-maintenance pet like a hamster or a bird (do the parrots speak Simlish? - "Squawk! Kskrank! Glugiado! Squawk!"), The Sims 2 Pets can hook you up.

Until now, when playing The Sims 2 with my kids, we only play a little here and a little there, as opposed to doing more of a "deep dive" into what is an impressively deep game. We'll play for half an hour before bed, or 20 minutes here and there. And we always enjoy it together. When the fat alien man suddenly gave birth to a bouncing baby...... creature, my kids were on the floor.

The reason we haven't delved that deeply into the game is twofold. First, with so many games to play, we simply can't (nor do my kids want to) spend so much time playing one game above all others. Similar to World of Warcraft, if you try to get as much as possible out of The Sims 2 experience, it can be quite the time sink.

Secondly, The Sims 2 is rated T, and while that hasn't necessarily stopped me in the past (e.g. Ratchet & Clank & Dog's Life), there is the small issue of WooHoo, and given that getting laid is one of the goals in the game (depending on your character's personality, aspirations, etc.), that's a tad more mature than I want to expose my kids to right now. That said, though, there's a lot of great stuff for kids in The Sims 2, and we do have a lot of fun with the limited way we play.

So, as we shift our focus from hoochie to poochie, The Sims 2 Pets looks to be a lot more uniformly kid-friendly. My kids are going to love, love, love the Create-a-Pet function. Though they may try to create some realistic-looking animals, I can't wait to see some of the stranger creations they come up with. In a way, it's a more advanced version of the interchangeable body parts in Lego Star Wars II.

One way the game improves on Nintendogs is that there are consequences to how you treat your pets. If you don't treat them well, they will be taken away, which is similar to having your animal adoption privileges suspended in Zoo Tycoon.

Another way is that you get to guide and accompany your pets through their entire lifecycle, which is the way it works with all the Sims species.

All in all, it looks like The Sims 2 Pets will be both a solid addition to the Sims franchise, as well as a great option for pet-loving gamers.

To summarize, I realize that these two games aren't necessarily direct competitors, but given the subject matter, it's natural to compare and contrast them with each other.

My kids enjoyed Nintendogs. It was a lot of fun for a little while, and a little fun for the long run, the main reason being repetitiveness and lack of depth. So if you're looking for a deep experience with your virtual pets, The Sims 2 Pets will do what Nintendon't.


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