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Game On

By now you'd think we would be done talking about "The Sims."

Millions of copies and endless spin-offs and sequels later, we're still tidying up virtual homes and wondering whether our pretend, on-screen people will find true love and happiness. With the release of "The Sims: Life Stories," players have another reason to return to the world of colorful dollhouses and adorable dollhouse people, dirty dishes and all-night dance parties.

Fans of the series will find much to like in this new version's simplicity and trimmed-down game play, even if the game lacks some of the depth and complexity of the Sim worlds they've grown to love. As a result, "Life Stories" works best in bringing "The Sims" experience to people who never had the time or the inclination to master the original.

As in the first version, players must click around the screen at a maddening pace to keep their Sim people clothed, fed, rested, clean and happy. One minute it's pinball, the next a shower and moments later, you're hustling your Sim over to the computer to surf the Internet for jobs.

But unlike the mainstream "Sims" game, "Life Stories" goes easier on the player by making the daily chores of keeping a Sim alive a bit easier, and by providing a story in 12 chapters so the player doesn't have to worry about straining any muscles in his imagination concocting a plot.

Like diet soda, "Life Stories" works to keep the flavor in a lighter product.

In the marketingspeak of the game's box, these edits to game structure make it "laptop friendly." And just to prove the point that this is the title you should play at work in between conference calls, the game never covers up the Windows start menu or task bar. This means you can monitor email and instant-messaging clients, maintaining the appearance of working on that annual report while you are, in fact, actively trying to ruin the marriage of your Sim neighbors.

The game comes with two separate plot lines, one featuring the new girl in town and the other about a dashing entrepreneur. Scripted plot points drop in key characters and fragments of story to keep the play moving along.

And when playing with other people's lives grows dull, create-your-own-story mode provides the chance to enjoy classic, open-ended "Sims" fun.

This kinder, simpler "Sims" format holds a lot of promise. Even though the two tales included with the first disc follow a fairly standard soap-opera narrative of falling in and out of love in successive cycles, a packed-in advertisement for future editions sounds like even more fun. One can only imagine the inherent drama coming in this summer's installment of "Pet Stories." Even better, get ready to relive "Gilligan's Island" or "Lost" when "Castaway Stories" is released next year.

Who's It For: Like soap operas? "The Sims: Life Stories" is the ultimate interactive pot of simmering social intrigue.

If You Like This, Try That: Thanks to truckloads of expansion packs and sequels, the Sim world has grown into a universe. Pick up a copy of "The Sims 2" and an expansion pack or two to take your Sims with you.

Best Part: Just when the grind of shower-eat-work-eat-sleep starts to grow dull, "Life Stories" throws in something to spice up the action. Whether it's a comical electrocution while trying to fix your computer or an impromptu catfight with a jealous neighbor, "The Sims" keeps you playing for the next surprise.

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David Thomas

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