After my new Sim spent a long day hitting the books for my macroeconomics exam, I figured it was OK for her to take a break. So she headed down to an impromptu DJ party out in the wilderness. After studying all day, what’s wrong with one party?
After a few drinks and some dancing, she ended up taking a dump in a bush and then falling asleep in that poop bush. Finally, she woke up in a panic when she realized she had to get back to campus to finish a presentation, and ran home, humiliated and so stinky that green lines wafted from her with every step. Her dormmates, who had been watching a movie together and eating pizza, all turned to stare at her as she made the walk of shame to the showers.
The Sims 4 Discover University expansion pack is full of moments like these that reflect The Sims 4 at its best: relatable life situations that lead into wild stories. University doesn’t have big, shocking features like Island Living’s mermaids or Realm of Magic’s not-Hogwarts, but it knocks a more mundane experience out of the park. This is the best expansion since Seasons, and I much prefer these grounded elements to the occult whimsy and wonder of other expansions.
The Sims 4 absolutely nails everything most Sims fans would want out of an expansion pack — but that success also highlights the flaws inherent in The Sims 4’s base experience.
School of hard knocks
In The Sims 3, University was completely isolated from traditional Sims worlds. Players couldn’t invite a friend to a dorm, take a trip home, or easily navigate between different Sims who were on and off campus.
Now, Discover University is integrated nicely into the game. A Sim can apply for higher education at any time, and choose their course load as well. From there, I select where they live — do they head to the new student town and live in a dorm? Maybe they end up in other on-campus housing, or attend University while going about my business in one of the existing worlds like vampire haven Forgotten Hollow.
I can pick a standard degree for my Sim and fill their course load with mandatory classes related to one special skill, like logic or writing. If I’m craving variety, I can grab elective classes that cover everything from DJ playlists to flower arrangements. I can even pick their school: Foxbury, a modern school more suited for STEM, or Brittechester, a school that’s for students of the humanities. Players can min-max their education, or just take whatever classes look appealing at whichever school has a more appealing vibe.
Once I’ve signed my Sim up, they’ve got to make it to class and earn credits towards their degree. Classes themselves aren’t sophisticated gameplay wise — just like most careers, I get a notification that my Sim has a class, they pack up and go, and I return with some homework to do or an exam to study for.
This means that difficulty is whatever I want it to be. Working a full-time job and taking a full course load means that my Sim is constantly, and perilously, balancing priorities while trying desperately to maintain their biological needs. If I live in a dorm, I don’t get to customize my environment or have access to my own stove, but there’s a constant flood of Sims coming in and out and my social will always be pumped.
I can work a coffee shop and take a couple of easy-A classes paid for with student loans while dating my dormmates, or be an overachiever who has accounted for every second of the day. Both are interesting gameplay experiences that make a normal The Sims 4 run a lot more engaging. It feels like a major missing part of a Sim’s lifecycle is now available, and it’s the best take the franchise has ever had on post-secondary education.
There’s also a new bike object which can ride around lots or be used to travel between worlds. These are the systems that Sims fans tend to get excited about — seemingly mundane things that allow players to reflect a common part of real life. Even the zaniest soap operas are anchored by real things and real life events, after all.
The biggest problems with The Sims 4: Discover University aren’t with the University part of the game; they’re lasting problems with The Sims 4 itself. There’s one new aspiration for Sims — getting educated — but no new traits. Right now, aspirations are the biggest thing that differentiate Sims from each other. A master actress and career criminal are going to lead two very different lives.
But traits, in theory, should also be an important way to mark Sims as different. A fun-loving, cat owning commitment phobe should feel and play very differently than an artsy, free-loving designer.
Right now, traits don’t seem to add much in the way of gameplay. Sure, a vegetarian can’t eat meat, or someone who hates babies shouldn’t have a kid ... but if they do those things, they are merely afflicted with a minor moodlet. The more expansion packs a player has, or the more they know how to manipulate The Sims 4’s base systems, the less that the challenges brought about by traits matter.
It’s very easy to skate through The Sims 4 while many professions play the same way, with traits acting mostly as window dressing. It takes a minor but ongoing effort to keep two Sims’ stories straight in my imagination — she’s the pro gamer and he’s the mathematician. But when both of them end up sitting down and filling a green bar over their head, those two distinct life paths can feel the same, even though the scenery is different.
Add in minor technical issues, like Sims struggling with queued actions, and things get frustrating. Even a Sim with maximum free will can’t always attend to their basic needs if their action queue decides not to work. I lost an hour of progress when a student of mine — who was also a vampire — stood in the sun for several hours despite having maximum free will on. The larger a family, the more irritating this gets — I have to check each member of the family to make sure they’re doing their assigned tasks, or taking care of their own biological needs. This has been a problem in The Sims 4 for some time now, but when I have assignments due and exams in the morning, the bug is extra infuriating.
Making matters worse, the menu I use to check my upcoming classes and progress is difficult to navigate and requires a lot of scrolling. Why not use the existing calendar system, or at least prepare an easy to read spreadsheet? As it is, I have to go to my job window and then scroll through my degree and overall performance, then each class and their requirements.
These little annoyances aren’t game breaking, but they do detract from the experience every time I play. And the ongoing, usability struggles grow in number and complexity with the number of expansions installed on top of The Sims 4.
And yet, even when things go wrong and I need to save scum, I still enjoy putting in the time. I still have stress dreams some day that I’m back in school and the exam is tomorrow and I haven’t studied; it’s nice to see a critical part of my life back in The Sims 4, where it can inspire a whole new set of anxieties and disasters.
The Sims 4: Discover University is now available on Windows PC, and will be available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on December 17. The game was reviewed using final “retail” download codes provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.