STRANGETOWN IS A CREEPY place. One of three virtual neighborhoods that players can explore in The Sims 2, Strangetown is set in a barren desert landscape strewn with the remains of a space ship that is sunk deep inside a crater. Its inhabitants are even weirder. Try as he may to fit in, there's no hiding that Mr. Smith is actually a Martian. And why is that nice-looking couple, the Beakers, performing scientific experiments on that poor fellow Nervous Subject?
The original Sims, in which you controlled the daily lives of simulated humans onscreen, was all about keeping your characters alive and prosperous in a generic suburban setting. Released in February 2000, it is the best-selling computer game ever. The sequel, out this week for $50, is much more imaginative. As with the original, you can start out the hard way by designing characters from scratch, building a house and searching the want ads for entry-level jobs. But you can also take over the lives of more than a dozen quirky pre-made families. In Veronaville, you can play the Capps, who reside in a Gothic mansion and are living out a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story line. And in Pleasantown, you can play the Caliente sisters, two sexy singles aiming to marry rich.
Unlike the original, in which you had to guess what your Sims wanted, The Sims 2 lists specific aspirations for each character, such as throwing a party or buying a new TV. As you help them reach their goals, they earn points to get things like "cool shades," sunglasses they can wear to impress people, or a money tree, which really grows cash.
For all the new settings and characters in The Sims 2, the game play retains some of the more annoying aspects of the original. It gets tedious making sure your Sims eat breakfast and use the toilet. I'd rather watch them stargaze or hone their operating skills on the new surgical dummy. And while it's realistic to have the Sims grow old and die, as they now do, that's no fun either. But maybe that's the idea: in The Sims 2, you can live out your wildest fantasies, but you still have to pay the bills--and meet the Grim Reaper.