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Living life your way in 'Animal Crossing: New Leaf'

A familiar cast of characters returns in "Animal Crossing: New Leaf" for the 3DS.

I recently moved into a place called Cesspit.

It’s quite lovely. We’ve got an industrialized orchard system, where people come from towns far and near to harvest fruit every couple days. We’ve got a bustling main street, with a disco, home improvement store, museum, as well as a variety of clothing and accessory stores.

Every now and again I have to kick out a wily or abrasive resident (I am the mayor, after all), but for the most part, Cesspit is growing — with new inhabitants, marble paths, fruit trees, parks, campsites, bridges, and so on — exactly as I want it to.

I’ve got to make Cesspit all nice and tidy for when I share it with friends. Because in “Animal Crossing: New Leaf,” the latest installment of the wacky life-sim from Nintendo, sharing with friends — especially those who will appreciate my darker sense of humor — isn’t some odd side-quest, it’s the main attraction.

“Animal Crossing” has always been about the journey, not the destination. Kind of like "The Sims," it’s a game with no end. You’re a human living in a small, randomly generated town with a handful of talking animals. You cultivate the land, send letters, write on the town post, go fishing, catch bugs, attend gatherings on holidays, and generally just hang out. There are a few minor goals you can set for yourself — pay off your house, deliver a present to someone, maybe write a few letters lamenting the amount of debt you’re in — but it’s all up to you. There’s no story, either. How you play determines what you get out of the game.

If you can buy into the premise of setting your own goals, then “Animal Crossing” is a delight. With “New Leaf,” the series expands on every aspect the series is known for: town and character customization, community events, mini-games and multiplayer. By utilizing nearly every tool in the 3DS’ toolkit, “New Leaf” is a showcase of fresh ideas and expanded older ones. Taken as a whole, this title stands out as one of the system’s best.

“Animal Crossing” has always used a system clock to tie in-game events to real time, and “New Leaf” is no different. This version differs early on, however, by adding the role of mayor. The mayor can decide whether or not a new shop will open, where town improvements — such as light posts, wells, park benches, etc., will go, and even issue special town ordinances. Ordinances decide whether a town is filled with night owls or early risers, how much upkeep and cleaning the town needs, or just make it a generally posh place.

It might sound a bit overwhelming, but “New Leaf” starts you out with just the bare bones. You’ve got a few shops open on a main street, a few animal residents scattered about, and a serious need to pull in some bells (money). But barren in “Animal Crossing” is just another word for blank canvas. This game has a ton of little things to do, but does a great job of pacing your exploration and opening new options. As mayor, you have to earn the residents’ trust, become familiar with the game’s basics, and eventually you can start making the town your own.

The amount of customization in “New Leaf” has really jumped. Outfits can be matched down to the socks, loafers and hockey mask level. Houses, too, can sport bamboo siding or concrete slab exteriors — whatever you need to finish off that evil lair — I mean, pleasant, inviting summer home.

The biggest improvements in “New Leaf” can be found in the new multiplayer options. There’s a host of ways to visit other towns and talk to people, including directly during online or LAN sessions, or indirectly through “dream” visits or street/spot passing. And for the first time, “Animal Crossing” lets you to do more than just visit. Up to four people can load up on a boat and sail to a tropical island. There, you can join in dozens of “tours” — multiplayer mini-games. Each game can be made easy, difficult or somewhere in between — and they all involve turning the basics of “Animal Crossing” into competitions.

One is a fossil hunt, for example, where you search an island, dig up replicas of a fossil and display and reassemble them in another house. Another has you running frantically around an island trying to hit balloons with a slingshot as the wind pushes them in all directions. Games range from predictably easy to surprisingly complex, but they’re all fun to play. This is a new “Animal Crossing” feature that you didn’t realize was sorely missing until it showed up. It fits in wonderfully as a way to break up the normal day-to-day tasks, and the fact that you can play with friends or strangers is a huge step forward for Nintendo’s online philosophy.

The multiplayer ideas don’t stop there, however. “New Leaf” also sports a few interesting ways of sharing towns.

Returning to “New Leaf” is the ability to visit any friend’s town directly. If you have their friend code, they simply open the train station to accept would-be travelers, and you can pop in. Nintendo decided to expand on those ideas with the 3DS’ near-field communication tools as well. Now if you “street-pass” someone with “Animal Crossing,” their house and character will appear in a showcase area to the north of your town. Expecting that it might be hard for U.S. users in some rural areas to find people to street-pass with, Nintendo will also push certain towns out over the Internet (a feature the game calls spot-pass). Players can get design ideas and buy anything they see in these showcases.

As good as these multiplayer options are, the game isn’t without flaws. I would have really liked more shortcut keys to get through transactions like selling or moving inventory around. Moving buckets of fruit between inventory screens (or whatever else I’ve scavenged for bells) takes way too long. Also, Nintendo’s lack of experience in the online realm is still apparent. Each time a player joins or leaves a multiplayer session, everyone involved must stop what they’re doing, watch the person leave and go through a 15-second save screen. That’s really annoying, especially when it’s just a bunch of random strangers wandering in and out of your multiplayer island.

The graphics, too, aren’t anything special. It’s a little unsettling that the animal characters are more human-looking, but otherwise the art style and presentation remain much the same. But the game’s frame rate and general performance is fine. I experienced no bugs and no crashes in the two weeks I’ve been at it. The sound effects and music serve the game just as well, and the addition of the expanded disco/performance area was a real treat when it finally unlocked.

For me, “Animal Crossing” has always followed a predictable formula: Start the game massively in debt to a strange raccoon. Slowly build a fruit empire. Send out loads of passive-aggressive letters to the local residents about my nefarious plans for them, then harvest fruit until I own the town. “New Leaf,” however, has expanded that formula. No matter how you play it or which avenues you choose to go down, there’s just so much more to do. As my town slogan suggests: “For whom does the Cess pit? It pits for thee!”

Bottom line: With its multiplayer options, mini-games and expanded customization, “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” is one of the best games out for the 3DS.

Online: animal-crossing.com/newleaf
laney.sam@stripes.com

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