If you were a professional game reviewer, naturally you’d want to bestow high marks on a deep and ambitious game. But what would you do if that game wasn’t finished? If it were laden with many technical and graphical issues that marred the experience? And what if it were an unoriginal concept?
Such is the case with Virtual Families, the latest from developer Last Day of Work (of Virtual Villagers fame), and while we had fun with this The Sims-esque game, we also grew frustrated with its lack of polish and innovation.
Ah yes, we know LDW has a faithful fan base, and we expect to see user review scores that challenge our "average" rating, but we like a healthy debate here at Gamezebo.
Virtual Families is a human life simulation that looks and plays similar to The Sims. Gamers "adopt" a character who moves into your home. Hit the computer to a dating website and "order" a bride who is compatible with your personality. Perhaps you both want kids or have occupations that compliment each other?
When the spouse arrives the couple should enjoy a short embrace (though it doesn’t always happen) and then you start life in your home. As with The Sims you’ll keep an eye on their needs and desires and help them stay happy, whether it’s dragging them to the kitchen if they’re hungry or let them take a shower if feeling unclean. In some cases they can do things together, such as watch TV or surf the web on two computers in the same den, but our experiences show they lead separate lives for the most part, which is a bit disappointing.
The game is played from an angled top-down ("isometric") view just like The Sims, and as with EA’s game you can also buy items, upgrade parts of your home, have kids, adopt pets, and so on.
But the A.I. (artificial intelligence) doesn’t seem to be, well, very intelligent. For example, my guy Andy was hungry but wouldn’t eat when dragged to the kitchen — despite having a fully stocked fridge with a variety of foods (including pricier organic goodies — and so he’d just get weaker. His wife, Dahlia, doesn’t like cooking but the game said she was happy when thinking about it. Huh? A day later, the game said Dahlia enjoys nature sounds so I dragged her outside but instead she went back inside to start dusting. OK, so I’m willing to acknowledge there should be some amount of unpredictability, but there were too many instances like this.
Another thing players might love or loathe, and one that will be familiar to those who’ve played LDW games, is that Virtual Families plays out in real time. Therefore even if you close the game and turn off your computer, the events will continue to unfold in your home. But I’d argue time passes by too quickly: I stopped playing on a Friday afternoon at 4pm and didn’t pause the game (to stop time) because I knew I’d play more on the weekend. But when I booted up the game on Sunday at 5pm it said…"Sadly, Dahlia has passed away…" Sigh.
Along with A.I. issues there are some graphical ones, too, such as characters who stand on a table or bed or walk through a wall or fridge. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but leads one to believe the game isn’t finished.
The game does offer a few things not found in The Sims, such as healing sick characters (with meds or calling a physician), giving players moral dilemmas to tackle and watching the events unfold, praising or scolding behavior with Black and White-like hands you click over the character (to reinforce good or bad actions) and collect objects around the home, such as bugs, coins, leaves and so on.
One of the features we liked the most was the more than 100 Trophies you can collect once you accomplish certain goals, be it making $100,000, curing a serious illness, picking 50 socks up from around the home or buying items such as a pinball machine or fish tank.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more torn while reviewing a game than I am with Virtual Families. On one hand it takes an existing and proven concept — "borrowing" the virtual life elements of The Sims, the best-selling computer game in history — and adding a real-time element, trophies and other goodies. But at the same time the game just feels unfinished, primarily due to the aforementioned A.I. issues.
Fans of this genre, though, or of LDW’s Virtual Villagers or Fish Tycoon games, should at the very least download the game to try it for free before deciding if this is a (virtual) life worth living.