IntroductionAnimal Crossing: New Leaf for Nintendo 3DS is the latest game in the Animal Crossing series. It can best be described as a life simulation game with open-ended gameplay. But unlike games like The Sims or Harvest Moon, it takes place in real-time. In-game events depend on the actual date and time. For example, holiday festivals will take place on the real holidays, and stores have specific times that they open and close. You play as a human living in a village full of talking, bipedal animals. You start off living in only a tent, but you can upgrade your home many times until you own a large mansion with six full-sized rooms. Early on, you'll earn money primarily by selling fruit, fish, bugs, and any other items you find. You can also perform tasks for your neighbors, and they will usually reward you for your trouble.
The Big ChangesFans of the series will be glad to see that New Leaf has some fairly significant changes to the classic formula, which had been getting stale. The biggest changes revolve around the fact that you are now the mayor of the town. Being mayor lets you decide on public works projects (PWPs), which you can place anywhere in town. For example, you can put in a campsite, a bench, a streetlight, a sculpture, and dozens of other attractions, large and small. This level of customization has not been seen in the series before. The mayor can also enact ordinances that affect how the town runs. Declare it a "night owl" town and all stores will stay open later and villagers must stay up later too. The "early bird" ordinance does the exact opposite, while choosing a "beautiful" town prevents flowers from wilting, and a "rich" town makes prices higher (for both buying and selling).
The Small ThingsAside from the big changes, New Leaf also has a lot of small enhancements that streamline some of the daily duties you must perform. In previous games, you had to get fossils identified one at a time, in a painfully slow process. Now, the museum curator Blathers can identify multiple fossils at once. Likewise, multiple items can be donated to the museum at a time. Fruit can be stacked into baskets, so that you can hold up to nine of a specific fruit in just one inventory slot. Another example is the use of emotions. City Folk made you choose a maximum of four emotions, which are particularly helpful in online play. New Leaf lets you obtain all 40 emotions, including a hilarious new dancing one called the Shrunk Funk Shuffle. Unfortunately, not all annoyances have been remedied. For example, the grass wear from City Folk has returned. Even though the grass wears away slower now, it's still an annoying problem.
Back From the PastSome features from older games in the series weren't included in Animal Crossing: City Folk on Nintendo Wii, but have returned for New Leaf. For example, campers (and igloos in winter) from the GameCube game have returned with a great new twist: You can now invite the campers to move into your town! The GameCube game also had a boat ride, where Kapp'n would take you out to a tropical island. That feature has returned, and the island is better than ever, with mini-games and a gift shop. The bug-catching and fishing there also provide a great way to make lots of money. Animal Crossing: Wild World for Nintendo DS had the ability to earn a villager's picture when you become good friends with them. That feature was missing from City Folk, but has now returned for New Leaf.
Online GameplayThe biggest change in online play is the addition of multiplayer mini-games, called "tours" on the tropical island. There are a wide variety of games including hide-and-seek, bug-catching, fishing, scavenger hunts, item-matching games, and more. Many of them can be quite fun with multiple players, but unfortunately not all tours are available at all times. Only a fraction of them can be played on any given day. Dancing at Club LOL with friends can also be enjoyable, but honestly it loses its thrill after just a couple minutes. You can only do the same four dance moves so many times before you're ready to move on to something else.
Unfortunately, the communication aspect of online play is one area where Animal Crossing has taken a huge step backwards. In addition to an on-screen keyboard, Animal Crossing: City Folk on Wii provided USB keyboard support for full-on typing, a "Wii Speak" accessory for voice chat, and a selection of commonly used phrases that could easily be selected without typing them out. New Leaf, on the other hand, only has an on-screen keyboard. Admittedly, the 3DS stylus works better than the Wii remote, but it is the only option to communicate. There's no USB keyboard support of course, since the 3DS hardware doesn't have a USB port. But the lack of voice chat support and pre-selected chat messages is a bit odd. To make matters worse, text messages on-screen disappear after just five seconds in New Leaf--it takes longer than that just to go through a door! And messages won't show up while going through doors, so expect to miss out on chunks of conversation.
Holidays and Seasonal EventsSeasonal events are a big reason Animal Crossing keeps players interested year-round. There are festivals and/or gifts for most major holidays, although the names of the holidays are often changed. Thanksgiving becomes the harvest festival, Christmas Eve is known as Toy Day, and so on. In City Folk, the major holiday events were essentially carbon copies of the same events from the GameCube game. So fortunately, Nintendo changed things up in New Leaf so they feel fresh. At the harvest festival, you're now helping Franklin cook food instead of just playing hide-and-seek with him over and over. On Christmas, rather than searching for Jingle endlessly, you dress up as Santa and give villagers presents instead. On one hand, it's good that the holidays are a bit different in New Leaf. But at the same time, something is lost. The holidays in City Folk generally worked well with multiple players online; everyone could work together. But the New Leaf holidays are essentially single-player events.
Final VerdictThe Animal Crossing series is full of great games; they're all fun and addictive. And they each have their own advantages. The GameCube game has the best music in the series, arguably the best dialogue, plus over a dozen full NES games built-in. City Folk has the best online communication and the best multiplayer holiday events. But New Leaf has added so much new content that it feels like there's always something to do and more fun to be had. You have more power to design your town the way you like it, and new additions (like snowman bingo) give you new reasons to keep playing. As great as the other games are, I must say that New Leaf is the best Animal Crossing game yet. On a scale of 1 to 10, New Leaf is a solid...
Disclosure: Nintendo provided me with an advance copy of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. This fact has not affected my review in any way. I judge games based on their merits and how fun they are to play, period.