4MB video card
1GB free disk space
As a series, The Sims is doing great. The game of domestic management has been expanded six times so far, at first simply with new toys and items. As the expansions have come our way, Maxis has stepped away from merely offering new furnishings in favor of adding different kinds gameplay culminating with the numerous job-related challenges in the recent Superstar pack. Maxis's seventh (and final) expansion for the game, Makin' Magic definitely furthers this trend but does so in a way that's slightly out of character with the rest of the series.
To be sure, there's a real fanciful element to even the most mundane aspects of The Sims. Abstractions aside, the series has generally held to a realistic (or real-esque) approach. With the addition of Makin' Magic, Maxis has added a healthy dose of fantasy to the otherwise mundane setting demonstrated in the rest of the series. Whether the subject matter it fits or not is purely a matter of taste, then. Whatever your feelings about turning your ordinary nine-to-fivers into witches and wizards, there's a strong sense of continuity in terms of the style and personality of the expansion.
After you load up Makin' Magic a mysterious man drops a package off on your Sims' front doors. This mystery package contains all you'll need to get started on a new "career" in magic. There's a wand charger, a charm maker, a handy portal to the game's new Magic Town and a few other goodies in the box. The game does a good job of orienting the player to these new items but, fittingly, you're left to discover some of the secrets on your own.
Magical ability is proportional to your Sim's skills. Before you start performing for the public, you might want to test your skills out at the handy magic practice table in the privacy of your own home. When you reach a stumbling block, a dialogue box will appear telling you that you need more of a certain skill. And if you find yourself falling short on logic, for instance, there's a new checkerboard object that lets you improve this skill.
The spells themselves offer a nice variety of effects. Some help you manage relationships. You can hypnotize a Sim into flirting with you, for instance, or even into proposing marriage. Other spells ease the burden of housework. Garden of Plenty takes care of all your plant upkeep. But you'll need to be careful when casting a spell. If you try to cast a spell on another magic-wielding denizen of the neighborhood, it may backfire on you. Likewise, if you cast a spell without honestly needing it, you run the risk of further troubles. Use a mood elevation spell when people are already content and they'll likely just pee themselves. See if that improves their mood.
Though later in the game you'll have lots of these sorts of spells to help keep your household running and your motives in the green, it's a real challenge to walk the path of magic. Things like the skeleton maid definitely help keep things running smoothly but it's still damned hard to balance the needs of your everyday life (cleaning, resting, working, etc.) with the significant time investment required to become a real magician. In combination with the excessive neediness of the Superstar path, this can make the game a real struggle. For some this is merely tedious, for others it's a compelling way to extend the life and challenge of the expansion.
You'll already have your hands full with the search for spell ingredients. The mystery box contains a book of spell recipes so you'll know what ingredients you need to collect. Until you try a particular ingredient combination, you won't know what the spell does. This can be kind of a pain if you're looking for a specific spell effect but it definitely adds to the mystery of the process. A convenient spell description does appear once you've made a spell so you'll be able to see exactly what it does. I found that some of the spell effects didn't last quite as long as I'd liked but this merely provides further incentive to search for ingredients so you can recharge the spell and use it again.
You can also use items around the house to make some of the ingredients you'll need. The spindle allows you to spin golden thread, for instance, while the bee hive generates bee's wax. You can plant new items in your garden as well and begin harvesting the elderberries or grapes you'll need for some of the game's spells. Since the items required to set up your own conjurer's cottage industry are fairly expensive, you'll have to weigh the advantages of making your own versus finding them from the vendors in Magic Town.
Speaking of Makin' Magic ships with a new Magic Town area. Compromising six public lots and three new housing areas, it offers yet another destination for Sims bored with their current surroundings. Magic Town offers a range of performance venues, from simply trick tables to the more elaborate stage shows. You earn magic coins for performing tricks; the rewards are proportionate to the difficulty. These magic coins are kind of a second currency used by the inhabitants of Magic Town. You can use them to buy items from vendors or even purchase a house in Magic Town so you never have to leave at all. Earning the magic coins requires a pretty hearty time investment but they're so essential to the overall gameplay that you'll want to make time to earn them.
Magic Town is also the place to shop for spell ingredients. This quest for ingredients makes up a substantial portion of the actual gameplay in Makin' Magic. Focusing on this single aspect alone will require several hours of patient, diligent work. The components for your spells will most often (and sometimes only) be acquired through interactions with the Magic Town merchants. Some merchants will offer items for sale or trade; others ask you to perform certain challenges or quests. Certain ingredients, like Clown Confetti, can't be bought at all and must be earned through these types of challenges. You can also challenge some of the inhabitants to wizard duels which have their own rewards. Here you'll select a variety of colored spells in sequence in hopes of beating -- or least tying -- your opponent's selections.
In some cases the only obstacle to earning ingredients is the time investment required. You may be asked to cheer up another Sim or disperse a noxious cloud that's putting other Sims to sleep. In these cases you'll simply need to keep at it until the problem is cleared up. Other challenges are more puzzle-oriented, requiring you to solve a logic problem of some sort. There are more difficult competitive quests as well. There's nothing fair, for instance, about the fairies' toadstool touching challenge. Here you'll have to race a teleporting fairy around a lot touching toadstools.
Magic Town also offers some Vacation-like entertainments. Sims can sit and watch shows or ride suitably creepy amusement park rides. The one thing it doesn't provide is a chance to rest. I had expected there to be more than just a visual distinction between the three lot styles in Magic Town. As it is, the only thing that separates one lot type from another is the art style and the name of the local cuisine (ghoulash versus gumbo, for instance). More distinction of the lots in terms of purpose, like the recent Superstar would definitely add a bit more character to Magic Town. In any case, you're free to bulldoze and redesign any of the lots as you wish.
And though I said at the start that Maxis has been focusing on adding gameplay over including extra items and textures, those small added rewards have been thrown in for good measure. New textures have been added for floors and walls, and they all fit the style you'd expect -- lots of grey stones and things like that. A new baking oven allows you to make cakes and there's even a Which Family Cookbook available where you can check out new recipes. It also offers recipes for the new wine vat. New fixtures, posters, appliances and such are also included and fit with the mood of the rest of the game. Some of the paintings even have images that move from time to time. As cool as those are, our favorite additions are the new windows that include candles. This allows you to kill two birds with one stone, adding a window to your house while also including another light source.
Now for the part that I might as well cut and paste out of every other Sims expansion review: The camera scroll is still a bit jerky, even on high end machines and yours Sims still seem to have the regular pathfinding problems and will still occasionally forget an order. I suppose there's no magic spell to fix that. Apparently there's also not a magical spell that will keep random pets from wandering in and out of your house. Since these problems haven't kept the series from becoming the number one PC game of all time, most other Sim fans seem able to tolerate them better than I can.
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