Speaking with absolute, brutal honesty, I don't feel you can write a fair review of an Animal Crossing game until a month after its release. These games are packed to the gills with content, and are designed around steady, long-term play--nobody could have ever guessed just how much longevity the DS' Animal Crossing: Wild World would have.
However, after a week of spending time in the town of Pootopia, I can say that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a breath of fresh air for gamers, a vacation from the "me too" blockbusters that welcomes you with open arms. Video games are constantly about pushing the technological envelope, about delivering epic experiences and white-knuckle thrills... but there's something truly impressive about a game that makes you feel at home.
This is one of those times when I find better images on Tumblr than in a press kit
At its core, Animal Crossing: New Leaf follows the same formula as previous games in the series. You move into a new town (whose layout you can now choose!), set up a home, and start making the village a better place to live. This time, though, you're in charge as the mayor--don't worry, Tortimer's not dead, he's keeping busy on the Tropical Island--but unlike Harvest Moon's ultimatum of saving the farm, you don't have any set goals or deadlines... you just play. Vicious loan shark Tom Nook is now a real estate agent, with his shopping district store now run by his nephews Tommy and Timmy. You get another in-town store named Re-Tail, which is a recycling center/flea market that tends to give better buyback prices than Nook's shop. The game requires you to spend a lot more Bells (in-game money--there is no paid DLC) than previous installments, but it also gives you plenty of ways to make money, especially on the Island.
Spend 1,000 Bells for a round trip to the Tropical Island, where you can't take anything with you--a Gyroid named Lloid will lend out tools like shovels and fishing poles for mini-games and exploring. You can also get a wetsuit, which you can rent at first but eventually buy, to dive for new fish, like octopi or giant isopods. There are plenty of multiplayer minigames on the island, like trying to quickly catch fish or bugs, or a chaotic game where you try to shoot down balloons of a specific color. You're awarded medals for your performance in the minigames, which you can spend in the island shop for special clothing, furniture, and town items.
Or you can get stung by jellyfish, that's always fun
As Mayor, there's plenty of work to do around town. You can set Ordinances (more on that later), but your main goal is doing Public Works Projects to improve the town. You can build bridges to make town traversal and upkeep easier, add landmarks, upgrade buildings, and even add new spots to your town like a campsite for extra mini-games, and increase your chances of getting new neighbors. The unusually popular Isabelle from Public Works will follow you to the area of your choosing and help set up the project. That area will be cordonned off as a construction site with a Gyroid in place that takes donations from anyone--you, other players living in your town, or even guests who come and visit.
There are four different Ordinances that cost 20,000 Bells each, but are free to cancel. With an Early Bird Town, shops open early and neighbors wake up earlier. Nightlife Towns are the opposite--shops are conveniently open later, and neighbors are out and about until the wee hours. "Keep the Town Beautiful" is self-explanatory, where flowers don't wilt, weeds are rare, and villagers help out a lot more with town upkeep. Finally, the Bell Boom Town raises the buying and selling prices of all items, but puts two expensive items on sale in the shop per day instead of the standard one--it's perfect for high-rolling AC players trying to fill out the gaps in their catalog.
Of course, there are still all the usual Animal Crossing "chores," like collecting fruit (a total of twelve different types now, as opposed to the standard five), donating fish, shells, and fossils to the museum (or selling them for beaucoup Bells), and maintaining your town's appearance by watering flowers and picking weeds. It's not a one-man job, either--your neighbors will sometimes plant and water flowers on their own, but don't expect help from them.
There are plenty of changes for the better in terms of gameplay--money and fruit are stackable in your pockets, making inventory management easier. Tools are now assigned to the d-pad, so you won't have to hop in and out of your inventory to get multiple jobs done. One of the best and smartest additions has to do with town upkeep--flowers you've already watered sparkle, so you no longer have to run around town five or six times with a watering can, and you can get back to doing other projects.
As great as it is to come back to Animal Crossing, New Leaf is not without one horrendously glaring problem: a lack of voice chat. Normally I'd be okay with having to pass notes to friends like I'm in a middle school classroom, but the text window is very small, and it can force you to break up a single sentence into multiple messages. Storage is also somewhat limited compared to previous games, and as far as I can tell, there's no way to increase it by buying extra dressers like before. Some people may not find many differences from past games, especially Wild World, so it's not particularly innovative, but for a game that completely demolished 3DS eShop sales records, I don't think that's too big of an issue. That really seems to be it--the wi-fi is excellent, with smooth connections from my home in California's Central Coast all the way over to Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is head-and-shoulders above previous titles in terms of multiplayer--the minigames are fun on their own, but truly shine when you mix it up with your friends. There's a lot to do in terms of taking care of your town, but you can do it all at your own pace--it's not about winning, it's not about making it to the end and it's not about climbing a leaderboard. It's about playing, whether you just do a quick twenty-minute check of your town, talk to your neighbors and water your flowers, or spend long marathon sessions between the Island and your town.
New Leaf sets a new standard for the Animal Crossing series, and provides a fun, near-limitless world for you to shape in any way you see fit. As far as video games go, it's a bright, refreshing change of pace for those of us who are getting a little worn out by the state of gaming today.
+ Massive, customizable game world with no paid DLC, just tons of content that you earn through playing
+ Optimized controls and item management smooth out the gameplay from previous installments
+ Light-hearted and fun, the game is a great break from modern sturm and drang
+ Perfectly designed for quick, maintenance-type play and long-haul marathon play
+ Somehow relaxing and exciting at the same time, putting you in a mindset that few other games try for
+/- There are tons of new items to pick up and near-limitless customization, but storage space is limited, and so far there's no way to increase storage space, drastically limiting your options
- No voice chat is a huge oversight, especially for a game that's built around playing with other people and showing off your town
- SEA BASS.