I grew up in a small rural town, population somewhere below 2000 (the signage was never quite clear on the number). The pervasive boredom of growing up in an area with no consistent social scene is probably the greatest factor in my embracing of video games as a hobby. It also meant that I’d perpetually be envious of city living, gaining an early affection for urban development. I’d eventually flee the nest and move to an urban setting, and aside from some minor comforts that I had taken for granted, I don’t miss the small town.
Back in those days, however, The Urbz was a tantalizing proposition. The Sims has always been more suburban focused, zooming in on singular houses on isolated lots. Transplanting this to a city would provide me a window into the urban life I dreamt about.
Or so I thought.
SMALL FISH, BIG POND
The Urbz is the third console iteration of EA and Maxis’ extraordinarily popular line of Sims games. While The Sims and its sequel, The Sims Bustin’ Out, were both basic transplants of the original PC title’s formula with added story progression for flavour, The Urbz changes things up considerably by moving the focus to social networking. You know, that mechanic in The Sims that you probably just did out of obligation. Somehow, it manages to be worse than it sounds.
You’re a new resident to the city, helped along by Darius, presumably a god among men considering the power he wields. He expects you to improve your reputation in order to… become popular, I guess. The game doesn’t really tell you why this is important, but I wouldn’t want to cross Darius.
The game breaks down like this: there are several social groups scattered about the city, and your goal is to get in good with all of them. To do this, it’s conformity 101. Learn to talk like them and dress like them, then spend a bunch of time throwing firecrackers and doing skateboard tricks in front of them until they like you enough to let you into their secret club. Eventually the area’s villain shows up to cause mischief, and you need to defeat them with the power of your social skills. This is pretty important, I once saw a villain literally light another sim on fire, which I think is beyond the malice they were designed for. So maybe save the poor Urbz before the villains get all “emergent gameplay” on their victims.
WHY BE YOU WHEN YOU CAN BE ME?
Maybe it’s because I’m so far removed from the club or party scene that it seems like a completely different world to me, but the premise behind The Urbz strikes me as entirely repugnant. Rather than allowing the player to create the character they want, you’re practically forced to conform to the crowd around you. The goal is to become popular with them, and you’re expected to do this by blending in and posing as them. And you do this to every group. So basically, the objective is to become the ultimate poseur.
Regardless of your personal aims, you have insincerity pushed on you, and that’s a bit disturbing. What happens when one member of a crowd you already won over sees you dressing and talking like one from another group? Doesn’t that shatter the illusion? Apparently not in the world of The Urbz.
THE URBAN DOLDRUMS
My personal feelings and expectations aside, the social focus could have potentially worked, but the gameplay is just kind of shit. As I mentioned previously, the social interactions in vanilla Sims are as boring as watching a grass growing competition, so Urbz makes the wise choice of ditching it in favour of something worse.
Previously, you’d interact with other sims by clicking on them to open a radial menu, then selecting an interaction that you think will have a positive (or negative, if you’re a dick) effect. The interaction will then succeed or fail depending on the relationship level between the two sims, as well as the target sim’s mood and personality. It’s boring, but it works.
Urbz does something similar, but makes it pointless. You still open a social menu and select what interaction you do, but you no longer have to build up your relationship before they’ll laugh at your jokes or make out with you. Instead, the interactions are colour coded depending on their chances of success, with green being a sure bet, and red being a guaranteed failure. So you select the green interaction, then you select it again, and then you select it again until you’ve extracted as much adoration from the sim as possible. Maybe you’ll mix up interactions, but if there’s an advantage to doing so, I didn’t notice one.
Through that repetition, you gain massive amounts of popularity with little effort, and that’s it. You dress right, you select the green option, and you’ll be getting into VIP spots in areas you’ve never even visited. Oh, boy.
It would be bad enough if the gameplay was just boring, but it goes far beyond that. Despite the fact that the focus for gameplay has changed, the mechanics haven’t. Certain needs have been eliminated, a mini-game has been built in for skill building (finally) and professions to make them more hands on, and you’re no longer forced to take control of secondary sims, but that’s as far as the game goes to adjust.
Pathfinding and NPC AI are the major sticking points for me. At midnight, Darius throws a party at whatever location that you’re at, and you’re given a super-powered social interaction if you can manage to get in. To get into the VIP areas, not only do you need to be popular enough to get past the incredibly proportioned bouncer, but the sims who mill about in the doorway need to get the hell out of the way. The party attracts pretty much everyone on a given lot, and it seems that they want to stop everything and start dancing the moment they step through the door, which creates a massive traffic jam that the sim pathfinding isn’t capable of navigating. I have, on at least two occasions, been denied entry to a party because I couldn’t get past the crowd of identically dressed yahoos stuck to the doormat.
If you have ideas about owning and decorating an apartment in The Urbz, then you’ll be happy to know that Maxis has made a token effort including it. You do get an apartment, and eventually even better apartments, but there’s little reason to use them. You can fulfill your needs on whatever lot you’re visiting, and there’s no real advantage to staying at home. Worse yet, decorating your apartment unlocks a pet for it that serves no purpose aside from pissing everywhere. I’m serious, the little buggers just mill about the apartment and occasionally drop a puddle for you to clean up. Great. Luckily there’s no room need, so a dirty room won’t upset your sim (despite certain objects saying they contribute a certain amount to the room appeal, for some reason), but this does mean that there’s even less reason to visit your urine soaked pad.
Finally, the game is just generally unpolished. I ran into multiple glitches throughout my playthrough, many of which were related to pathfinding. The performance of the game is also terrible on the GameCube version I played, with noticeable hitching that seems to be related with Sims entering and exiting a location. This is most problematic during the various job mini-games that you can take, as the hitching disrupts button prompts and can cause a sequence to be interrupted. Not to mention the game is just ugly. They at least tried a different art style to differentiate itself from the main series, but it looks pretty rough.
When Urbz launched, EA was hoping for it to be a big title. On top of the Black-eyed Peas appearing in it and providing simlish versions of their hit songs, there were plans for PC and PSP versions, and a sequel allegedly began production before this one was even completed. That all hit the skids when The Urbz bombed. What was made for Urbz 2 was repackaged into the console version of The Sims 2, but that’s a story for another day. Regardless, I don’t think a sequel would have improved things all that much. The idea of a more urban focused Sims is tantalizing, but the direction that was chosen just isn’t appealing.
To top it off, basically everything about the game was poorly executed. Even the few good ideas that The Urbz brings to the table is marred by other issues. It’s a game that needed heavy revision before it would even be considered passable. If I were you, I’d stick to the suburbs.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo GameCube using an original disk-based copy of the game. It was purchased by the author.