Infendo previews SimAnimals; EA wants you to be king of the forest

This week is unofficial Sims Week here on Infendo. It starts today with a preview of SimAnimals, and we’ll be following up Wednesday with an early review of the Wii version of SimCity Creator. Later this week, we’ll have a hands-on preview of MySims Kingdom.

Sims games have been a metropolitan affair since their inception, but Electronic Arts is ready to take the Sims for a walk on the wild side.

Infendo visited EA headquarters Friday for a demo of SimAnimals, the company’s newest Sims franchise heading to Wii and DS next January. A departure from the traditional people-focused Sims approach, SimAnimals challenges Sims veterans and newcomers alike to manage the only creatures more unpredictable than humans:

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

SimAnimals charges players with the responsibility of restoring once-beautiful natural areas to normalcy. The unfavorable current state of the environments implies a backstory; man has polluted each of the varied areas, and the wildlife have long-since evacuated. Players must improve the ecologies, clean up the messes, restore the areas’ livability and ultimately, bring back the animals.

Like real-life tree-huggers, players are equipped with only their hands and nature’s bounty. During the demo, creative director Charles London started off with a barren forest plain. Eventually, he had planted several thickets of trees, earned a bear’s berry-induced trust and enticed rabbits, ducks and beavers to come back home.

The process is linked — restore the environment, plant trees, attract animals — but it is also engaging and requires some thought. You’ll need to learn which plants filter pollution from the water and which thrive in the game’s multiple soil types. You also won’t be able to bring animals back without catering to their needs. Earn the trust of passing-by beaver, for example, and he might decide to “move in” to your forest and dam the river. Local ducks will notice your pristine new dam, and they will start checking out your neighborhood, too.

However, every action has potential consequence. By damming the water, the river beyond it completely dries. This might remove downstream areas’ only water source, which might adversely affect their ecologies, as well. You’ll want to keep an eye on your area’s “happy bar,” which essentially measures its growth. Build trust with the animals and improve the area, and the happy bar will fill and unlock new areas. Make mistakes, however, and it will lower.

As simple as the concept is, there are opportunities for deep forest simulation and management, as well as subtleties with the ecology, that ensure the game appeals to both experienced Sims players and the casual audience pervasive on Wii. London says this broad appeal has been a primary focus throughout the game’s development.

SimAnimals controls using only the Wii remote. Players intuitively interact with their environments by using the remote’s IR functionality. By pointing at the screen and moving a cursor, which acts as a literal extension of your hand during gameplay, players can pet, feed and even carry animals. Earn their trust, and friendly animals may approach your “hand” and sniff it in search of food.

London and the game’s developers are insistent, however, that while the animals will develop a rapport with players, SimAnimals is not a virtual zoo. The believability of the animals’ natural instincts is a major focus for the development team.

“You’re earning the animals’ trust and interacting with them, but these are not pets,” says London. “They follow their basic instincts, and they cannot be totally controlled.”

SimAnimals features 32 animal species and more than 100 different forms of plant life designed to marry the stylized visual aesthetic of MySims with a slightly more realistic tone.

“We wanted the animals to look real enough to be believed, but also ”˜cartoony’ enough,” said London. “It is a game.”

Unfortunately, this design recipe has yielded animals without much personality. Falling between expressive stylization and authentic realism, the animals in SimAnimals have a generic appearance and lack the advantages provided by both approaches.

This somewhat bland look bled over into the game’s environments. Nintendo fans might have mistaken the empty forest template for Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field; blurry textures, a muddy color palette and a general sense of emptiness left much to be desired visually, particularly from a game focused on beautification.

Keep in mind, however, we were shown a month-old version of SimAnimals during the demo, and the game has plenty of development time before its scheduled release.

SimAnimals offers cooperative local multiplayer for up to four players. The multiplayer mode is identical to the single-player, but it allows multiple players to interact with the environment simultaneously.

The most compelling aspect of SimAnimals’ multiplayer is the animals’ dynamic AI. Though you’re playing with friends, animals recognize each player individually and develop a unique relationship with each of you. If you are treating the animals well while your friend isn’t performing as admirably, the animals will recognize your distinct behaviors and react to each of you accordingly.

My advice? Just be cool. It’s never wise to piss off a grizzly bear.

SimAnimals does not have any online functionality, a decision that was based on necessity, or according to London, a lack thereof.

Surprisingly, the DS version was the more impressive of the two. Though it is fundamentally the same game as the Wii version, it is a quite distinct product on its own. This is first noticeable in the game’s gorgeous art style, which utilizes 3D reference for 2D drawings and animations. Each animal model is hand-drawn, allowing for extremely expressive characters and superb animations.

This approach also has a hardware benefit; it frees up the modest power of the DS to allow for “tons of animals on screen,” according to producer Rawson Stovall. Factoring in the game’s vibrant colors, we were positively charmed by the storybook-look of the DS version.

SimAnimals’ gameplay also benefits from the DS hardware. The tactile feel of actually touching the animals with your stylus adds tremendously to the interactive element of the game. You can also blow into the DS microphone to trigger wind, which can be a very useful tactic when trying to repopulate a forest.

The DS version also takes advantage of the hardware’s internal clock and calendar. Stop by a nearby garden, for example, and you’ll find crops growing that are appropriate for the season you’re experiencing in the real world. Being September, the garden in Stovall’s demo boasted a healthy crop of bright orange pumpkins.

Stovall also said the game’s wolves will howl on real-world full-moon nights. Awesomeness of that caliber deserves a hug.

Unlike the Wii version, there is no multiplayer in the DS version.

Both games provide an interesting twist to a familiar concept, and their “subtle” inclusions of environmental messages always win points from me. SimAnimals has a long way to go and needs some polish, particularly on Wii, but fans of simulation games should rejoice:

Another solid one is coming to Nintendo platforms. SimAnimals will make you king of the forest on Wii and DS Jan. 20, 2009.

DISCLOSURE: Infendo travel accommodations to this event were provided by Electronic Arts, including the following swag: copies of Boom Blox and SimCity Creator, and assorted Sims merchandise.