Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts
System requirements: Windows XP SP 2/Vista SP 1/Win 7, 2 GHz Pentium IV or better CPU (2.4 GHz for Vista/Win 7), 1 GB RAM (1.5 GB Vista/Win 7), 128 MB graphics card with Pixel Shader 2.0 support, 5.3 GB hard-drive space, DirectX 9.0c
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
I’m not a fan of the “life simulation” genre. I was pleased to find out that the creator of Second Life is an alumnus of my alma mater, but I had no interest in that virtual world. I purchased Sims 2 for my wife, but it sat unplayed and now I can’t find the discs. So when I got a FedEx package containing The Sims: Medieval, I was excited to be receiving a new game, but nary a sound escaped my lips. My feelings about Medieval are as complicated as the in-game relationships I puppeteer. At one point I cursed the day the package arrived in the mailbox, but after hours of playing the game and crafting the heroes’ stories, I’ve grown to love it. Before you purchase, read this review and decide if you’d be as forgiving as I am.
From what I’ve read, The Sims: Medieval loosely follows the mechanics of previous Sims games. There are some unique twists to the goals (via Quests and Heroes), but the main separator is the overall goal of crafting the story of your kingdom. Medieval opens with narrated illustrations that document the fall of mankind. Man started out somewhat innocent and lived in harmony with his surroundings and each other. But he created idols to worship deities, and the situation deteriorated from there. Fast-forward to the beginning tutorial and you’re given the task of deciding where the chips of mankind will fall. You begin shaping your kingdom by creating/controlling the Monarch hero, but eventually you have the option of involving nine others. The game’s choose-your-own-adventure story mechanic is guided by the quests you pursue, the heroes you employ, and the traits you choose for these heroes. Like its predecessors, The Sims: Medieval is all about customization and options, so while the choices are technically limited, you’d be hard pressed to exhaust the ways in which players’ gameplay experiences differ. Not every choice is the right choice; in fact, you can purposefully make bad decisions and watch how they alter your pursuit of glory. When you create a hero, you must choose a fatal flaw, then deal with its negative effect on your quests.
There are three main elements that control the story and gameplay: Heroes, Quests and Kingdom Choices. When you begin the game, you’re forced to decide how your kingdom will leave its mark on the world. Are you going to be an upright or a corrupt ruler? Every player’s kingdom has a set layout, with set building placement and construction. Some fans of The Sims complain about the lack of kingdom customization, but The Sims: Medieval is more about creating a story, not an environment. That’s not to say there isn’t a butt-load of options. From the start, you get to create your Monarch and you have full control of how he/she looks, right down to the rotation of their eyes. The customizations aren’t purely cosmetic, but the way you furnish your buildings, the food you eat, and how much you sleep, all affect how successful you are in completing quests. Your quest performance is rated using a scale of bronze through platinum. Every choice applies a positive/negative buff to your character; if the negative buffs outweigh the positives, your performance decreases. Even with crummy performance, you can still finish quests, but higher performance ratings result in higher levels of XP and extra gold. At this point, trying to explain the gameplay feels like walking up a descending escalator—each feature and option tree-branches into several others that need explanation. While reading about the game prior to playing it, I felt overwhelmed with everything it was offering. How is someone with ADD supposed to play something like this? However, it starts with an excellent tutorial that holds your hand just long enough help you understand the major mechanics, and then you’re free to dive in. After that, tool-tips and dialogue boxes make appearances when a completely novel mechanic is introduced.
If you’ve lasted this long, you’re in luck. Here’s where I get to tell you how much fun (and how much pain) Medieval has brought me. First things first, though; the disc I received from EA was defective. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked Google, and he told me to contact EA support—or online chat—which requires creating an EA online profile. I did this, and within 10 minutes I was given a download code for the game, which requires installing EA’s Download Manager. At this point it was late in the evening, I was tired, and I wanted to write my editor and say “screw it, the game they sent is broke.” But I decided to start the download, then go to sleep (okay, okay, I had ice cream first). The following evening I fired up the EA desktop client and launched the game. It crashed to the desktop. I tried again, got a little farther, and it CTD’d again. I fiddled with settings and experienced maybe a half-dozen more crashes. I had a similar experience with Left 4 Dead 2, which didn’t curb my anger this time around, but I realized there might be something video-related. So I asked Google again. He reassured me that plenty of people were experiencing the same type of problems. Once we weeded out the complaints of the PC gaming noobs, it was indeed graphics-related. I downloaded and installed the latest drivers for my GTX 260 and voila, I could play the game. Every now and then something buggy happens. For example, in one quest my Jacoban priest wouldn’t enter the castle (preventing me from petitioning the Monarch for a quest). As it turns out, one of the dining tables I placed in the throne room was prohibiting entering or exiting the castle—even though said dining table was nowhere near the entrance. This wasn’t a documented bug; I just had to figure it out myself. Chances are if you customize something and a minute or two later something else is broken, your customization done broke it. The game is far from mechanically perfect, but it shines when it comes to story and fun.
Now for what I like, nay love, about Medieval. I’m not one for remembering or caring much about plots and stories. They entertain me, but I don’t recall them or purchase sequels to follow the story. So when I found myself staying up later than I should to play The Sims: Medieval, I was a bit surprised. I actually found myself caring about the story and reading all of the dialogue. During gameplay, I’m frequently laughing out loud at either the choices I made, or the random Sim interactions that are happening around me (like when fistfights break out during my priest’s sermons). While pursuing main quest goals there are a host of other actions you must carry out to supplement your performance. These side tasks appear in pairs and have a limited amount of time to be accomplished. If you fail to acknowledge a side task, you’re given a negative character buff and quest performance suffers. The thought of trying to keep track of everything in this game is intimidating. But the developers and designers at Electronic Arts did a fantastic job with the user interface and game mechanics. Even I, with my poor organizational skills and attention span, can manage my Sims and their daily needs. This is not to say the game lacks challenge. Some of my quests were finished with a silver or gold rating because I wasn’t providing my Sim with enough sleep or I missed a couple of daily tasks while I was pursuing main quest goals. So far the game has avoided becoming monotonous, and each time I place a building and create a hero, I’m anxious to see what jacked-up situations I can create between the Sims. I was surprised when my evil priest was able to seduce and marry his buxom church attendant. Something about making babies in the back of my cathedral seems so delightfully devious.
The Sims: Medieval is a fantastic life-simulation game based in the Middle Ages. The game mechanics become second nature, allowing you to focus on crafting an entertaining story, centered on your kingdom and its goals. Even with the problems I experienced, I still highly recommend it; just make sure your drivers are up to date. So far, this is the only game I have reviewed in which taking screenshots is entertaining. I found myself trying to set up situations and camera angles that would fully capture the charming qualities of the game. If you like medieval-themed adventures, definitely buy this one.