The Sims 2. It gets my vote, anyway. I stuck in something between 10-12 hours on this at the weekend and it's simply one of the best games I've ever played. EA have a poor track record of milking cash cows and flogging dead horses, but what Maxis have done with The Sims 2 is astonishing. It's the same game as before, but with all the constant micromanagement removed, a whole lot more depth added, wrapped up in a superb graphics engine.
The Sims themselves are adorable. Cute, beautifully animated, and much more expressive and lively than in the previous game. They're far more customisable than before, and it's possible to create reasonable likenesses of your friends and family. There's a decent selection of clothing, too, and plenty of household items to lust after. The one thing I didn't like about the first game (it being impossible to interact with the NPCs like the Maid and Gardener other than firing them) has been corrected, meaning that it's now possible to hit on the hired help.
The six "Needs" that characterised the way that the Sims behaved in the first game are still there, but have been refined so that your Sims don't need to be constantly told to go to the toilet before they soil themselves - they're far more self reliant and intelligent, cutting down on the micromanagement that you need to do - which can only be a good thing. The astrological personalities are still the major drivers behind a Sim's behaviour, but Maxis have added in Wants and Fears, characterised by an aspiration, be that wanting a Family, or wanting Fortune, Romance or Knowledge. This individual aspiration manifests itself in short and long term Wants (such as wanting to sleep with another Sim, or to buy a particularly expensive painting) and Fears (such as having a flirt rejected, or having a family member die). The Wants and Fears add much needed clarity to the game, making it simple to know what your Sim wants to get out of life, rather than just grind your way up the career ladder (which is still present, only of less importance to the social aspects of the game).
The Wants and Fears change according to how much progress you make up the aspiration scale, and are dependent upon which kind of aspiration your Sim has. This gives you a fantastic variety of things to do - whilst the original could get a bit samey, this has lots of different things to do, since no two Sims will ever have the same Wants or Fears. Now that Sims age and die, there's a real need in the game to ensure that Sims carry on their line, with children taking on traits from their parents. It also makes you identify with your Sims that much more, and form genuine emotional attachments to them. I felt real sympathy for poor Fleur as she waddled around the house for a couple of days becoming increasingly pregnant with our second child, and I'm astonishingly protective of my teenaged daughter. My Sim-self has an all pervading fear of changing my newborn son's nappy though - who says that games can't be realistic?
There are now cutscenes to commemorate special events, like a teenager's first romantic kiss, an engagement and the birth of a child (this cutscene in particular is very clever). I can't overstate the quality of the character animation - it's a quantum leap beyond what No One Lives Forever brought to First Person Shooters. The animation is so beautifully observed and executed - the lifting weights animation on the workbench in particular is fantastic, with straining faces, quivering arms and groaning effort. The kissing animations are a tad racy to say the least - the Sims aren't shy at all when they're making out.
There's so much more I want to write about - the Aspiration rewards, the animated TV programs and the way aging has been implemented into the game, for example - but you're probably better off discovering it for yourself. I'm already about 14 hours in, and I'm still discovering new ways to interact with the Sims and new stuff to do. I've not even *touched* the Community aspect of the game yet, either, where you can pop into town for a Yoga session, go out for the evening or do the grocery shopping. Suffice to say that this is simply one of the best produced games since the golden days of LucasArts. Without question, it's a wonderful, beautiful game and deserves to sell more copies than the Bible, which knowing EA's marketing department, it will.