Game developer Last Day of Work has succeeded in impressing the casual sim audience, mainly because of its Virtual Villagers games. Those modest little titles offer players fun in the form of exploration, random events and a range of entertaining characters. Lately LDW's attempted to expand its portfolio with the Virtual Families series. Unfortunately, this scaled-down game concept just isn't as strong, and the series' newest title, Virtual Families 2: Our Dream House makes that painfully clear.
Like its predecessor, Virtual Families, Our Dream House takes us away from the tropical island setting and drops us into the typical suburban family home. That in itself isn't a bad thing—I'm a big Sims fan and as such, I've spent hours puttering around in a virtual house. The problem here is that Our Dream House doesn't give me a whole lot to do. The game started by having me “adopt” a house-holder (am I the only person who thinks it's bizarre to adopt a fully-grown adult?).
After rejecting a paralegal, a pastry chef and a travel agent, I settled on a 25 year old artist named Brunino who immediately started making demands. “I want a wife! I want a vacation!” I responded by dragging his butt to the desk and putting him to work. Me, take orders from a tiny, pixelated man? That'll be the day.
As my temperamental little artist tapped away at his keyboard, various tutorial prompts began popping up. I was told how to do basic things like move the screen, check Brunino's happiness, health and energy levels as well as how to buy things from the in-game store. The process was really clunky, featuring unduly long pauses between tutorial steps and in some cases, complete unresponsiveness to my actions. This left me sitting for long periods of time wonder what I was supposed to do next.
I'd make Brunino take a shower, go to the toilet, eat a snack, put away groceries, pick up dirty socks and perform other boring stay-at-home activities, hoping something more would happen. It didn't. (Well, once in a while Brunino would get an email from a prospective wife, but we had to reject the first five because none of them wanted kids and Brunino's a committed family man.)
As Brunino moped around the house earning one gold per ten real minutes, I shopped for upgrades. Sadly, Brunino's slow rate of pay and limited bank account meant I was unable to buy much of anything. Eventually I did manage to get a few items, but then discovered most of the upgrades were locked until we'd passed the house on to the second generation. Second generation? We couldn't even get a wife for the guy.
Finally, impatient to get things rolling, I finally adopted a pastry chef with ambivalent feelings about motherhood and married her to Brunino. Forcing them together, I was rewarded by the birth of a child and was warned that due to her mothering duties, she'd be unable for a time to pursue her career. (In keeping with modern reality, I would have preferred being able to choose which parent stayed home with the kid, but oh well.)
From then on, the new mother carried the baby with her everywhere and appeared to develop a dusting fixation. No matter what I tried to get her to do—watch tv, go outside, take a shower—she would stop and go back to dusting. Meanwhile, her feckless husband spent his time wishing for a second bathroom and blowing off work to do kung fu in the back yard.
This all sounds mildly amusing and it was: mildly. Unfortunately, it became dull very quickly, mostly because the game takes place in real time. The Sims is fun because you can decide how long your people live and because time moves much more quickly than it does in real life. Our Dream House moves in real time and there's no mechanism to speed things up.
I ask you; do we really want to watch an ant-sized guy put groceries away in real time? Well maybe you do, but that's not my idea of a good time. Call me crazy, but if you can close your eyes for a full five minutes during a game and not miss anything, the game's got a problem.
Theoretically, this real-time approach allows for all kinds of fun things to happen when you're not playing. You're supposed to be able to sign on after hours away and find that your little people have been up to all kinds of interesting things. That's the idea anyway, but that never happened for me. Apparently, I adopted the most uninteresting virtual people on the virtual planet, because I'd go away and come back hours later only to find my little family still dusting and snacking and showering.
I tried using the praise/scold system to mix things up (This system is also totally weird. Using a “praise” or “scold” glove on people as if they were dogs? Oh....kay.) and I encouraged them to be more interesting—I bought them encyclopedias, for pete's sake! Still, they refused to veer from their comfortable suburban rut.
The game's main problems are that it's too-slow paced and surprisingly limited in terms of available home customizations. You'd expect a game called Our Dream House might focus on oh, I don't know, making your dream house? While the game's graphics, sound and controls are acceptable, its decision to make you wait forever for money and access to upgrades is not. Worse, its insistence on multi-generational renovations doesn't make any sense. How many of us dream of buying a run-down shack in hopes that a hundred years from now, our great-grandchildren will make it a palace?
Undoubtedly, there will be players out there who will enjoy Virtual Families 2: Our Dream House but I'm not one of them. The game's small scale, sparse random events, limited activities, slow-unlocking upgrades and real-time progression make it nothing more than a boring time sink. Don't worry EA; your Sims franchise has nothing to fear.