SimCity is in many ways the classic non-game, the original sandbox in which you can create an entire community from scratch. It has been through many reinventions since it first appeared back in the days of the Commodore 64, Amiga and early PCs. The latest iteration of the game is due in February, and aims to both modernise and simplify the iconic gateway drug to the thrilling world of town planning.
Not only does the new SimCity deliver the single player experience of building and nurturing your own metropolis, but it brings in some interesting multiplayer features, where multiple cities in a region can be linked and share resources. In the demo we were shown this took the form of one city set up as a Vegas-style gambling mecca, with a second town handling all the trash and sewage management needed to keep the gamblers happy.
Building a city involves laying out roads connecting it to the highway that runs between all the potential city locations in the region. You then lay out some roads and zone areas along them. Zoning is a click and drag process that sets areas to be either residential, commercial or industrial. Once this is done, the Sims start moving into town, building homes, finding jobs and getting down to the business of living.
You then need to start placing special buildings, supplying the power, utilities and happiness needed for your Sims to thrive. You’ll want to keep an eye on crime and respond with police stations, and it is probably a good idea to build a fire station just in case. The ultimate goal is to keep your sims wealthy and happy, encouraging the city’s economy to grow over time.
It is in this process that you first notice one of the big additions to SimCity. One of the most striking things about this new version is the shocking lack of graphs and tables of data. Rather than leave these to the player to analyse, Maxis’ new Glassbox simulation engine shows the salient information graphically, in a series of data layers. Build a power plant, for example, and you can watch the power flow throughout the city, giving you a realtime view of any deficiencies in your design.
In fact, it is the Glassbox engine that makes SimCity shine, allowing you to focus on the macroscale without having to micromanage your residents. Our hands-on time with the game involved an all too short tutorial level, but even in that we could see just how much poor street layouts and zoning choices would choke up the traffic on certain roads.
It probably also wasn’t a great idea to locate a sewage outfall in the middle of a housing development. It seemed that all the happiness-inducing parks in the world couldn’t make up for the inconvenience caused by a stream of raw sewage flowing into people’s backyards.
We probably also shouldn’t have jammed 10 intersections onto a stretch of road with a mix of commercial, residential and industrial buildings. All that seemed to do was create snarling traffic jams at all hours of the day and night, slowing down the cash flow enormously and making for some unhappy Sims.
Even during the short hands-on demo, it was clear that Maxis has managed to capture the sheer addictive nature of SimCity in its latest outing. While the interface is streamlined, the information overload low and the graphics full of cutesy charm, there is an incredible depth to the game.
The fact that we were regretting choices and planning in our head how to do it right next time is testament to this. From even a short exposure we wanted more, to be able to grow our city, fix the problems and make it something that stood out. Then we could find a nearby spot and start over, making a whole new city designed to help drive the first to greatness.
It would have also been nice to see if our fire station would have helped during the demo-ending Meteor strike. This is one of four disasters that can randomly befall your city in the final game (the others are earthquake, tornado and UFO attack), a traditional part of the SimCity game. These add an extra degree of strategy to the experience, as careful preparation can help mitigate disastrous effects.
While our experience of the regional game was hands-off, it intrigues us greatly and has the potential to extend enjoyment well beyond the city sandbox. With the region map you can either fill spare spots with your own creations, or invite friends to build there. This adds a level of cooperative play that is entirely optional, and in an era when ‘social’ features keep being pushed by big publishers, this approach is actually quite refreshing for those who enjoy single play.