There are two parts to The Sims 4, the creation part and the life part. They're practically separate games (although you can build in your house while living your sim life), so let's break them down separately, shall we?
The first thing you do in the game is create a sim using the "Create-A-Sim" mode. The options on offer are fairly impressive. With the click-and-drag of the left mouse button you can alter the size and shape of basically any individual part of a body, from calves up to nostrils, allowing you to generate some fairly detailed replications of people. It's not all sunshine and lollipops, however.
While you're able to morph your Sim into any body shape you want, beyond that the options are somewhat limited. The colours on offer in the game are limited, and there's no colour wheel option available in game. The three types of brown on offer are the only types of brown you'll get to use, basically. Subtle changes in colour allow people to distinguish themselves from others, but they're not available to Sims -- once you create a town full of people there can be a real Pleasantville feeling to the entire thing.
This isn't helped by the new Genetics tool (although the Genetics tool is awesome). You can use the tool to create siblings, children or parents of any combination of people in a single family, which means if you make one set of parents you can create an entire family with relative ease. It's awesome to very quickly flesh out a household, but their likenesses contribute heavily to the cookie cutter feeling I get sometimes when wandering through the world.
After you've created a family, you can put them into the world either in a pre-built house or you can build one yourself. The pre-built houses range from gorgeous to down-right ugly, so you're probably better off building something yourself. That's where the Build mode comes into play.
The new Build mode is easily the best feature of The Sims 4. It allows you to very quickly and fairly easily construct a house full of stuff, whether through the pre-built room tool or by simply eye-dropping your way to victory. Each room type (bedroom, living room, etc) has a number of predetermined options available for players to choose from, and once placed you can alter the dimensions of a room by grabbing and pulling arrows outwards. Obviously you still have full control over building your house beyond these pre-set rooms, but the option is nice to have.
When I say full control, I should temper the idea. You're still stuck on the grid, creating rooms in shapes that conform to the corners of 1x1 metre squares. You can create diagonal walls (at 90 degrees only), but curved walls, and even elongated rhomboid rooms are out of the question. Interestingly, you can add curves to roofs, allowing the tiled tops of houses to express more than the area beneath them.
Beyond sizing up rooms, working out where to put stairs and making sure your rooms have adequate lighting there's a whole array of things for you to put into your Sims' house, from normal junk like beds, baths and beyond all the way up to a rocket ship.
Like the Create-A-Sim mode though, Build mode isn't without its drawbacks. For some reason you can't change terrain heights, so your gardening efforts tend to be a little... flat. In fact, nothing exists below the ground floor in The Sims 4, which means basements and pools aren't options in the game. The auto-paint tool, which will make all walls in one room have the same paint style if you simple shift-click, can be wonky, and on more than one occasion I found the outside of my house covered in wallpaper.
The community access tool, which allows you to upload your creations -- from families to pre-made rooms and up to full-blown houses -- are the best feature of The Sims 4. It's very easy to jump online and grab the fantastic creations other people have made and put them into your game world. You can rate creations and follow creators, making it fairly easy to stay on top of the stuff you like in the community. It also provides a nice little shortcut to people who don't have the time to sit there for hours creating a house from scratch.
Overall the creative tools on offer in The Sims 4 are fantastic. They're not perfect, and they could use some improvement, but overall they've turned what used to be a mildly painful experience into something which is easily accessible.
I wish I could say the same about the Life aspect of the game.
Once you've built your houses and created your families in The Sims 4, things start to fall apart a little. The phrase "if a tree falls in a forest" comes to mind.
You begin essentially stuck in your house. To visit another house you actively have to travel there, which means loading screens and the deliberate command to 'travel'. You can't walk out of your house and walk into another any longer -- the game isn't open in that sense, hiding everything behind loading times.
This wouldn't be so bad -- in fact it would be downright understandable -- except in The Sims 4 the game requires you to essentially hand-hold every created Sim from the get-go. As far as I could tell, without you controlling them -- acquiring a job for them, building relationships for them, living for them -- The Sims in your world will basically do nothing while you're not there. They have a limited sense of automation, and they will fulfil any needs that arise -- they'll go to the toilet, or sleep, or eat when they need to -- but beyond that they don't exist. It's like a game of peek-a-boo, except when the players eyes are covered the rest of the world really does cease to exist.
This means that a household with just one person is basically worthless. You need to actively head out and create relationships with others in the game, because they'll never come to you. You can meet them by standing out on your sidewalk and talking to them while they jog by (jogging around the neighbourhood seems to fit into their automated events profile), or by actively visiting their houses, but that's about it. After you've successfully met everyone in the neighbourhood you'll eventually be invited to things (or, more likely, they'll invite themselves over), but it's difficult to shake the feeling that these people only exist because you do. While playing as your own created Truman Burbank, you can't escape the Truman Show feeling. It's meta to the point of being discomfitting, and it doesn't go away until you control every household and force them to interact with one another.
In a way it encourages players to make sure their families have at least a basic level of character in them -- a job, knowledge of the other characters in the world and relationships with the people they live with -- but in practice it ruins The Sims illusion.
There are highlights to "the life", if you can call it such. Sims multi-task now, so once everyone knows everyone you can see them talk to each other while eating and drinking, or people can listen to music while working out. When they're all together, when they actually exist to one another, the Sims seem more lifelike than ever before, and it's cool that you can allow automation to take over and see how the pre-determined personalities of your sims shape their relationships with one another. Some of them act badly because they've had a hard life, or have been mistreated...but, like people, some of them are just jerks.
Once you have enough Sims in the one household, keeping all the plates spinning becomes a fascinating (and occasionally stressful) challenge, which is exactly what people have enjoyed about the series from its genesis, and so to a degree what makes The Sims 4 a "Sims" game is absolutely on display. With an accomplished Build mode, a decent (if a little stunted) Create-a-Sim maker and enough time investment into making sure everyone in your neighbourhood has at least a basic life created, The Sims 4 is almost a good game. Like every The Sims game before it, The Sims 4's success will hinge on the DLC that accompanies it -- what you have here is simply a solid foundation. The Sims team needs to do some heavy duty work on the automation side of things, but otherwise they've created a good place to build from.