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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Sims 2 - Castaway

 File Size: 320 MB
File Type: CSO

The Sims evolved from a simple offshoot of the popular SimCity Franchise into a dominant series all its own on PCs. Even the crossover to the consoles has been rather successful, with the Simlish speaking characters doing more objective based situations. This covers everything from getting jobs to taking on the pulse of the urban streets. However, the latest game for The Sims could be their most challenging adventure to date, which can be summed up with the following verse:

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip
Of unlucky Sims that found themselves on a doomed ship
The weather started getting rough, the Sims were turned and tossed
And as the game starts out, you see, your whole boat's crew is lost

That's right - The Sims are getting lost in a deserted island in Sims 2: Castaway.

Initially, you'll create one to six different Sims, manipulating everything from their appearance to their personalities by determining what their star sign happens to be. Unlike some of the other Sims titles, you initially select an occupation for each character, which determines their skills at specific activities. For example, Mechanics are good at building new tools and items from materials, while Executives are good at communication and Chefs are obviously skilled in the kitchen. It's up to you to figure out how many Sims you want on this voyage; some players may find that having a Tom Hanks "Castaway"-style experience is a much more engaging time, while others may want to embark on a Gilligan's Island-like adventure, selecting a primary Sim to play with.

Sims in Paradise.
Sims in Paradise.
Unfortunately, the PSP version of the game does a horrendous job when it comes to determining what each Sim looks like. As a result, you're practically stuck focusing upon the profession to dictate what someone looks like instead of trying to pick out a specific face, which doesn't appear to change much anyway. Even these delineations seem sparse, with rangers packing the cargo shorts and high socks versus doctors wearing tweed sweaters and appearing very scholarly. Anyway, regardless of what you choose, your story unfolds in pretty much the same way; told via cell phone photos, you see your Sims having fun on the boat until they're thrown from the vessel in the middle of a storm. (It's strange to see a phantom photo taker snapping shots if you're the only one on the boat, but I digress…)

Eventually, you find the Sim character that you selected wakes up on a beach without any of their friends apparently nearby. It's here that the game begins, with your character trying to find a way to eke out an existence on this deserted island, hopefully find their friends and eventually figure out a way to leave for civilization. Of course, doing this is a pretty daunting task for just about anyone, even an experienced survivalist. To get around this concept, Castaway introduces a series of books that your Sim stumbles across. Apparently, your island has had its fair share of shipwrecked inhabitants, and the books that are scattered around indicate a number of goals to for your Sim to accomplish. These range from rather basic goals, such as making a basic fire pit to warm your Sim on cold nights to more elaborate ones, such as building shelter from the elements. There are even more fantastical tasks, such as gathering pieces of treasure maps and hunting for lost gold that you can take on.

While having these guidebooks is a decent way of pointing out some of the goals that you need to accomplish, they tend to be within the realm of too easy to accomplish or very distant checkpoints to fulfill. As a result, you may discover that you crank through multiple objectives at the beginning of the game, feeling like you're completing many tasks, only to slam into a brick wall because a large number of projects will require much more skill in certain traits than your Sims currently have. As a result, the game then grinds to a halt as you sit and try to figure out what you have to do to reach the next milestone, before picking back up again. What's worse, you only receive an indication that you've gained a brand new skill level once in the game, making it very hard to know if you can proceed in the game by building new items or acquiring new tools.

You chimp, me human.
You chimp, me human.
Tools are the key to help you through your island existence, but you won't simply find these items washing up onshore from the wreckage of your boat. Instead, you'll need to acquire items in your surroundings, such as bamboo, vines and palm fronds to create different objects. However, you can't simply make things at will - you'll need to acquire plans for different items based upon the resources you gain and the skill that you have. These blueprints dictate what you need, where you can build these items and what skill level you'll need to successfully create them. There are fifteen separate categories that you can build items from, ranging from tools and clothing to furniture and building walls.

Unfortunately, the blueprints are one of the largest issues within the game. Not only do you randomly acquire them by getting to different island areas, gathering different objects or finishing different tasks, but you never find these items placed in the standard creation menu that you open next to a crafting bench. Instead, these are contained in the Plans menu whenever you hit pause. Here, for some reason, you can randomly build and place these items in the traditional "free form" Sims creation mechanic, as long as you have the requisite items for their construction. However, you are constrained by your environment - you can't clear out the plot of land you have, so you're frequently forced to place items solely around the space that the island affords you, which can be very limiting for the creativity of the person playing. There's no explanation as to why the game splits up plans in this manner or hampers your island development, but it is somewhat frustrating to realize that you need to find supposedly new items in a separate menu, then hope you have the space in an environment to use them.

Apart from the building of items, you obviously need to take care of your Sim's needs, such as remaining clean by swimming in the ocean, going to the bathroom with a never-ending roll of toilet paper, and gathering food. For some reason, every Sim that you create immediately tests out every unknown plant or floral item by grabbing a piece of fruit off of it and instantly chows down on it. Common sense would dictate that you could easily kill yourself from something poisonous, and while your Sims will sometimes vomit green, they seem to have an iron stomach (which is extremely strange). But apart from these basic necessities, you'll also need entertainment in the form of music, relaxation and even relationships.

That could be the one that got away.
That could be the one that got away.
Castaway handles this in a number of ways. Single players can always look to befriend imaginary friends, creating sand creatures or other beings to talk to, interact with and even fall in love with. It's a bit strange, but being alone for that long might cause some delusions within some people. (Wilson the Volleyball, anyone?) Sims can also take some time and befriend chimps that live on the island, who they can use as additional gatherers of resources on the island. The same can be said for fellow Sims that you've created, which you may need to travel to nearby islands to track down and befriend all over again. Oddly, once you've made these connections, these friends manage to continually pop up wherever you happen to be, and after enough conversation invested in these characters, you can recruit these characters into your personal tribe, giving them jobs such as cooking, hunting and gathering. It's fine in theory, but for some reason, you may find that you constantly need to micromanage these characters in your tribe, as they won't perform a number of basic maintenance functions for themselves. For instance, many of them won't bathe, sleep when they need to, or cook food, forcing you to always take care of them.

Now, one thing that the Sims has always been known for on the PC was its ability to put a strain on system resources for its graphis thanks to its technical specs. This has really come to pass on the PSP, with a huge number of glitches that will crop up, such as having tools that will face the wrong direction when your Sim uses them, or items that appear and disappear during play. In fact, I created an axe with the requisite materials, and found that it had disappeared from my inventory. Only by attempting to collect wood from trees did I find that the tool still existed for my character, which is just a weird choice, since every other tool was properly listed with my gear.

What's more, the camera can be zoomed in so tightly on to your Sim that elements of the environment will easily disappear from view. That includes scattered materials in the environment on the ground. It's annoying when you try to approach something on the ground and you have to run around for a few seconds until you stumble onto it. Even pulling the camera back on a stage doesn't solve the issue, because you will frequently find it snap back to this tight zoom if you go to a new area. Even worse are the number of hiccups that seem to crop up during some of these transitions. A few times, I was worried that the game had actually frozen on me, because the load time for environments and sections was so long that the PSP seemed unresponsive to any command I was entering.

Doesn't seem like this raft is seaworthy.
Doesn't seem like this raft is seaworthy.
All of this is coupled with the visual quality of the title, which is pretty weak. In fact, many of the textures of the environments are grainy and generic, which is contrasted with the sharper look of the menu screens and plan schematics. In fact, your Sims look rather atrocious on screen, regardless of their facial appearance, physical makeup or clothing. Considering that the visual look of your Sims barely even changes when you're in the process of making them, this isn't that much of a major surprise, but the visuals aren't going to blow you away. At least the animations are well done, and you have standard Sim-like movements through the entire title.

The game is anchored by island themed music, which gives a light and cheery atmosphere to the stranded Sims. Even as you manage to explore the island by yourself, it's hard to not find the syncopated steel drum beat getting stuck in your head as you move through different menus. Obviously, your Sims still communicate in their standard Simlish, so fans of the quirky gibberish language won't be surprised by the dialogue. Sound effects are fine, with many ambient noises such as splashing water or birds coming across as you'd expect them to.

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