Checking out the Wii's SimAnimals Africa at an EA press event last week offered what I imagine would be the same feeling I'd get standing in a restroom for women. Should I really be here?
Let's stretch and use a metaphor that is slightly more suitable for a game that transports players into the Sims version of Africa: I was on safari.
More honestly, I was on the top floor of EA's triple-decker showcase of late 2009 and early 2010 games last week and got roped into a demo. Why not? When it comes to games, I'll try anything.
Who knows what exotic discoveries might be in an game targeted, I guess, to kids and is part of EA's new trend of whiplash-fast Wii sequel development. This game was made swiftly. It's slated for October 27 release, nine months after SimAnimals, set in North American woodlands, was released on Wii. (Over my shoulder from SimAnimals Africa, November's EA Sports Active More Workouts, was on display; its predecessor went on sale in June.)
The game has players trying to take control of animals and restore balance to the Tree of Life. You do this, I was shown, by, say helping a crocodile eat gazelles, an action that I could see interesting more than just the kid audience. The game's superbly-named executive producer Sam Player showed me how he could swim a croc toward some cute gazelles, and almost snatch one in its jaws. He missed, but he found easier prey in deeper water where a zebra was taking its final swim.
Like sex in The Sims, zebra-eating in SimAnimals Africa is censored. A puff of clouds obscured the crocodile's attack. The law of the jungle — or the savanna — has seldom seemed so cheerful. Nevertheless, a bit of animal-to-animal violence has some standout appeal in this season of mostly man vs. aliens/terrorists/dragons/Italians. (Sadly, this interactive nature film does not feature an announcer whispering about the animal attacks, in English or in Simlish.)
The beast battles might have a core Kotaku appeal. I'm not as sure about the SimAnimals' animal-petting, which is necessary for getting animals to do the player's bidding. The eating, the petting and some mini-games help raise various animal attributes, which is what earns the SimAnimals series its first syllable. You can make an animal stronger. We did something different. We raised the croc's charisma for reasons I wish I could remember why. The controllable animals' hides bear markings that represent their attributes. So you can tell at a glance of its body what kind of qualities your croc has. That's a nice touch of avatar attitude expression which games such as Fable — and not much else — have dabbled with as well.
I was shown one mini-game that had the croc jumping to eat icons scrolling in from the left, a sort of rhythm-game lite. A more desperate writer might refer to it as Croc Band (not I!).
For the mini-games and for deep-water zebra-hunting, the SimAnimals controls involved common shakes of the Wii. I guessed that this game was prime MotionPlus material, being both a Wii sequel and a game that was developed during the final months right before and after the release of Nintendo's latest peripheral. Sam Player told me the team looked into supporting the device but realised that their target audience wasn't right for the degree of control MotionPlus enables. Litttle kids don't do finesse, I realised. Nor do some African animals.
Before last week, I could have put the existence of the SimAnimals franchise in the same mental category as the death of an old celebrity I haven't heard about in a while: Something that sounds like it might be true but also could just be a really good guess. The Sims brand certainly does pollinate many varieties. (Is there a SimCars yet? A SimRestaurant? I will not cheat by checking Google.)
But SimAnimals is in fact real. It even seems like a fine idea, though I did check online and saw that the last game received poor reviews. Iteration usually makes a game sequel better, but a nine-month development cycle for a console game is a little too rapid to ensure improvement.
We can judge soon. The game's release on October 27 should help prove whether the move to Africa has improved SimAnimals. I'm happy enough to know right now that the fall has this added ingredient of happy animals herding with and chewing on each other.
I'm glad I stopped by.