It’s the early aughts. Bill Clinton is still president, 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is still working hard most nights, and the Spice Girls are a not-so-distant memory. Meanwhile, genius game developer Will Wright comes up with an idea most scoffed at. “You want to make a video game where people control regular people… living their lives?” queried the naysayers. “What’s fun about that, other than, I guess, the level of customization to each character and their home, the countless bizarre interactions from the AI and random events, and the ability for players to act as a deity to these virtual denizens and subject them to his or her will? Hmm… you may be on to something here.” Well, a decade and a half of sequels and expansions have proven that, yes, Will Wright was onto something when he created the original Sims. It’s hard to keep that spark of originality going when you’re entering the fourth iteration of a series; developer Maxis tried a number of new things with The Sims 4, and while some things make for most welcome changes, others feel like complete steps backwards.

Character customization in The Sims 4 makes like Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat— two steps forward, two steps back. The ability to tweak and poke each Sim’s body and face into shape is more robust than ever. You could spend hours adjusting their nostril widths, chin depth, and forearm size until you’ve got the Sim of your dreams. On the down side, however, the clothing and hair options of the Sims 3 have regressed quite a bit. Gone is the color wheel, which let you choose the exact shades on each piece of clothing; instead each clothing item comes with a few pre-selected color schemes, severely hampering creativity. Hair styling is the same, as you can no longer infuse more than one color into a Sim’s hair outside of a few predetermined splashes of colors. This may sound like a minor quibble, but in a series like The Sims, these sort of things can make the difference between you feeling invested in the life of this tiny, virtual person or quickly growing bored of them.

Home-building is easier than ever, with numerous quick tools to let you plop down and modify entire rooms at once. Like the hair and color, you can no longer customize the look of a room or its objects as in-depth as you could in the Sims 3, which stinks, but being able to move an entire room once it has been placed down is a welcome change.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, two of the biggest changes to come to The Sims 4 are emotions and multitasking. Now Sims have a large range of emotional states which impact the way they do things and the options available to them. If your Sim feels confident, she doesn’t just pee, she pees like a champion! If a Sim gets rejected in conversation it may lead to them feeling angry and wanting to do things like take a cold shower or get in a fistfight. These emotional states are interesting, and add a bit of variety to what’s happening, but don’t feel too drastically different from the emotions in the previous Sims games. The ability to multitask, however, is a fantastic inclusion. Now your Sims can do more than one thing at once, which mostly means they can talk to other Sims while jogging, watching TV, etc., enabling you to further their skills while furthering their relationships. This is a quality of life improvement the series has been begging for, and it benefits greatly from it.

You can also more easily track Sims’ feelings towards each other thanks to the helpful friendship and romance meter above each Sim’s head as they interact. These meters take a bit of the fun out of social interactions under the auspices of game-ifying social interactions. Sure, it’s convenient to know exactly how close someone is to falling in love with your Sim, but it makes the already-virtual interaction feel even more artificial, not to mention that it makes budding social relationships feel less organically rewarding and more like meters to be filled, RPG-style.

The pervasive neighborhoods of The Sims 3 are gone. Now, rather than being able to split up your Sims all over town and watch as one hangs out in the park, another bikes around town, and the rest stay home to watch television, you’re faced with loading screens whenever you want to move your focus to somewhere new, and once you do, you’re stuck focusing there until you leave. While this is much easier on the ol’ processor, it’s less engaging and dynamic than the pervasive neighborhoods of The Sims 3, and feels like another step backwards.

Still, once you get past some of the new changes, whether they’re good or bad, overall this feels… like The Sims. More specifically, it feels like a somewhat worse version of The Sims 3.

There are a few new improvements here and there, but they’ll do little to entice longtime fans of the series, especially when things like in-depth character/home customization, pools, an editable cityscape, and about a dozen other features of previous games are missing. The Sims 4 is gorgeous, and runs quite smoothly, but feels lacking compared to past generations of the game. Longtime fans of the series should probably stick with The Sims 3 until EA does something to help The Sims 4 feel like an upgrade, rather than a side- or downgrade, and newcomers would probably be better off purchasing the more robust, much cheaper, older titles. The Sims 4 manages to innovate occasionally, but neglects too many features which have become integral parts of the people simulation series.

This review is based on a purchased digital copy of The Sims 4 for PC.

7.5 out of 10 arcade sushi rating