The Sims has entered its 20th year and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, at EA Play earlier this month – where The Sims 4‘s latest expansion pack Island Living was announced – EA producer Michael Duke declared that this could be “the best year yet” for the franchise.
The jury is still out on that front, but one thing’s for sure: Island Living is a wonderful addition to the current game. Players craving beach life won’t be disappointed, but the expansion is more than that.
Island Living introduces a new world, the islands of Sulani. Inspired by Polynesian culture, Sulani is the game’s most unique residential world yet, offering a different style of playing. While suburban life can often be dominated by the micromanagement of your Sims, Sulani presents an (aptly) more relaxing vibe – encouraging you to soak in your surroundings and be a little more carefree.
The expansion achieves this through multiple features, the most obvious of which is the abundance of new, beach-themed actions available to your Sims.
Sims will build sandcastles and sunbathe in the scorching sun (but don’t lie down for too long without lotion or else risk getting a sunburn). For the first time ever in the game, they have the ability to swim in the open water but can also go snorkeling and canoeing, and even meet and befriend a dolphin.
This also has a wonderful side effect of making the three neighbourhoods feel more expansive. To this day, one of the most common criticisms about The Sims 4 is the lack of ‘open world’. But with the amount of things your Sims can do outside, whether it’s on the sandy beaches or the vast water, Sulani is the closest the game has come to replicating that open-world feeling.
That’s not to say that there aren’t individual points of interest in the world. For instance, there’s a gorgeous waterfall which Sims like to shower and play in (it’s also a romantic spot for marriage proposals) as well as an active volcano that spews out hazardous lava bombs from time to time.
But what’s most impressive about Sulani is how it evokes a real sense of place in a way that no other world has really done before. We’ve seen glimpses of this in a couple of previous expansions, such as the diverse, metropolitan world of San Myshuno in City Living and the European-inspired Windenburg in Get Together, but developer Maxis outdid themselves here.
The residents of Sulani have their own traditions and often come together for events and festivals. A generous range of native and suitably themed clothing helps your Sims look the part as they immerse themselves in local culture (there are also some terrific new hairstyles and build items included in the expansion), and it’s easy to find yourself becoming attached to the community and the individual people.
It’s also worth mentioning that the community is diverse, and not just racially. Sulani is home to the game’s first pre-made lesbian couple and transgender character.
If there’s one aspect of Island Living that is a little lacking, it’s the addition of mermaids. Mermaids are a new occult type, like aliens and vampires, and players can create a mermaid Sim from the off through the Create-a-Sim mode or transform an existing Sim into one in-game by having them eat a particular item.
A mermaid has the same needs as a normal Sim, except for the ‘hygiene’ meter being replaced with ‘hydration’. Hydration is replenished by doing tasks like swimming in the ocean and taking a shower.
The first time playing with a mermaid is novel, with specific powers (at the cost of hydration) allowing you to perform actions such as entrancing other Sims into the water like a siren and – if you have the Seasons expansion – change the weather. However, that novelty is soon lost and mermaids don’t feel meaningful enough from a gameplay or storytelling perspective to make a lasting impact, particularly when compared to the brilliant vampires.
Ultimately, that’s only a minor knock against the expansion pack when considering everything that Island Living gets right. And there is plenty that this review hasn’t even touched on, like how (with the Seasons expansion) Sulani is prone to monsoon weather. Or how the people love a good kava party. Or how Sims can take part-time jobs as a lifeguard or diving instructor to make ends meet.
The feature that perhaps sums up the developer’s intent best is Sulani’s ecosystem. In their spare time or as a full-time career, your Sim can become a conservationist, helping to clean the polluted beaches and motivate others to do the same. Maybe even shoot a nature documentary to raise awareness. By caring for the environment, you’ll start to see a greener Sulani with more flowers, fish, and butterflies.
Plenty of care and attention went towards making sure all of the individual pieces came together in a cohesive way, and as a result, Sulani feels like more than just a holiday destination. It’s a living, breathing world that is easy to get lost in. Island Living is a resounding success and one of the finest expansions to date.
Version reviewed: PC
Release date: Out now for PC and Mac; July 16 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Electronic Arts