PAX Prime 2012: SimCity Hands-On

Developer: Maxis / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Release Date: February 2013 / Platforms: PC, Mac / ESRB: Everyone

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Update: I feel that this article should be prefaced with the fact that the version of SimCity previewed was a pre-alpha build. Not everything that’s in the game may remain by release time, and the same applies for anything deemed “missing” from the game. That said, I hope you enjoy the preview.

Since the release of the first SimCity in 1989, numerous entries in the city-building genre have launched, each building on the foundation laid by the game that preceded it. Each game challenged your managerial skills, reaction time, and most importantly, your ability to plan effectively. 

Now, the sixth (fifth if you don’t count Societies) major iteration in EA and Maxis’ renowned SimCity franchise, aptly titled SimCity, is rapidly nearing completion and preparing for a February 2013 launch. It is, however, being shown to some lucky few at press and consumer gaming shows across the globe.

Enter PAX Prime, where I had the opportunity to sit down with Maxis and spend some quality hands-on time with the game and its new, highly impressive GlassBox engine. For those of you strapped for time, just know that it feels like SimCity, it plays like SimCity, but each minute spent is much, much, much more satisfying.

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If you’ve spent any portion of time with SimCity, you’re aware that that time is spent zoning residential, commercial, and industrial regions for your city and dropping down houses, businesses and factories in those regions. Like any SimCity, these zones have their pros and cons – residential areas bring in the general population but consume resources, businesses bring in money but consume and output more resources, and industrial factories consume heavy resources alongside outputting pollution into your city.

While creating and maintaining these regions is your goal from the outset, you’ll also place attractions in your city, help out your local townsfolk with numerous tasks, and connect multiple towns to your airports, train stations and, further down the line, other cities that your friends have built.

While the statistical nature of nurturing and expanding your town remains the same as past games, it’s the newest features that make these actions all the more enjoyable. Gone are the days of incrementally adjusting taxes, water and power usage, and other boring forms of number crunching — in are the days of a more dynamic, visual system of city management where you’ll physically place the necessary resources to solve a problem. Sorry if you enjoyed adjusting sliders for hours on end, but this new approach feels more like… well, a video game.

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One of the coolest new features is the overlay filter that encompasses your screen depending on the type of resource you’re working with. For example, when working with water systems and pumps, you’ll be able to apply a slick overlay that shows where the biggest water sources are underground, but you’ll also be able to see where and how much it’s polluted. It becomes evident that placing your water source with some actual thought could mean the difference between city-wide health and prosperity… or sickness and productivity loss.

The same applies conversely for power consumption, sewage deposits, and other consumables in the world – it matters where you place them and how frequently. Thankfully, those filters are a phenomenal visual guide that far exceed in the satisfaction department in comparison to the number sliders of games past.

The actual minute-to-minute gameplay of SimCity is familiar, but far more intimate. Instead of the static, sky-born camera of past SimCitys, this SimCity opted to bring the camera in close to capture the more personal details of the city and its many businesses and inhabitants. When you’re not building new roads and highways, managing the garbage truck system in town, or solving issues down at town hall, you’re free to watch your cluster of Sims playing, going to work, and attending football games, among many other activities. This decision to bring the camera in closer has brought new meaning to the game, as you get the feeling that the decisions you make actually have a tangible effect on the inhabitants you’re watching over – a far more satisfying feeling than seeing a population number increase/decrease or reading a notification that alerts you that something’s wrong. Though the world was filled with the traditional silly Sims that don’t particularly exude impactful human emotion, I felt myself leaning back from my keyboard at times and giving true thought to my next decision — that feeling of responsibility (and more so, fear of condemnation by townsfolk) was ever-present.

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Finally, I should point out how indescribably satisfying it is to place down buildings and entities in SimCity. With past SimCitys, each object you place would simply appear as a foundation and then slowly be built. With this new game, you’ll still see them being built by construction crews and the like, but you’ll receive a satisfactory “whomp” when a new building is slammed into place. It makes the building process feel more rigid and permanent, like you’re dedicating that small plot of land you’ve scoped out as the new home for the object you’ve selected for it. It just feels cool.

All mechanics aside, the visuals are not a feature to discount – everything looks great. Aside from the slightly annoying ring of blur that encircles areas just off-screen, there’s a satisfying feeling to the smooth motion of flying over your city, rotating and zooming in to check in on your latest project before zipping over to the edge of town to plop down some new roads to make the morning commute all the better for your miniature busybodies.

Unfortunately, my demo was timed, but concluded with a spectacular (and devilishly comedic) town-crushing meteor strike on the poor, poor townsfolk that I just spent half an hour improving the lives of.

Oh well, I’m sure they’ll be alright until February of next year rolls around… I hope.

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SimCity is shaping up to be the SimCity you know and love, but in the form of something far more visual, personal, and satisfying. I’ve never felt more in control of my city, and I’ve never enjoyed myself more creating something that I can call my own. It’s colorful, vast, and, in the words of every game journalist ever, more streamlined.

SimCity is slated for a February 2013 release on both PC and Mac via EA’s Origin. If you pre-order now, you’ll get some sweet goodies – and if the game continues on the path it’s on, it looks like it’ll be worth every penny to all the avid city-builders out there.

  1. Well, Good post and this game seem very nice

  2. A few corrections:

    1 ) This is the FIFTH Sim City title – not only was SC:Societies by a different company, but most Sim City fans denounce that pathetic knock-off ever existed.

    2 ) To the bulk of Sim City fans, the “boring number crunching” was/is one of the major draws of the game – we LIKE micro-managing!

    Far too many games have been ‘dumbed down’ in an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator of ‘gamer’ – not only failing to attract their new demographic, but also alienating the core group of Sim City fans who have been craving a new Sim City game like junkies!

    Take a look at any of the scores of extremely-active Sim City 4 communities, where millions of Sim City fans have invested their own time and effort creating mods and other add-ons which make Sim City 4 even MORE complex!

    Worst of all are the vast number of long-standing and greatly-beloved features of Sim City which have been stripped away, simply to make it even plausible to try to pass the game off as an MMO. Monte Cristo tried the same thing with Cities XL and the result was a disaster which bankrupted the company within a matter of months – and now EA is rushing headlong into the same mistake. The only thing which salvaged Cities XL from the garbage heap was FHI returning the game to the proper format for a city-builder: OFFLINE and SINGLE-PLAYER, thereby returning many essential features which simply cannot coexist with the online/multiplayer model.

    Yet another reason why EA is so loathed by gamers – voted “Worst Game Company of 2012″ well before the year was half over!!

    • I don’t care about your SC4 mods propaganda. The new game still looks way more amazing.

      • If you prefer to spend $80,000 a Ferrari with no engine, transmission, or wheels (damn but it looks pretty, don’t it?), you’re more than welcome. I prefer something that gets me from A to B on-time, every time (even if it’s not so pretty).

        When Sim City fans see the Sim City name, they expect a Sim City game! As it stands, this game has less to do with Sim City than… (shudders) Societies did.

        If EA made a proper successor to the King of City-Builders crown, they’d be guaranteed to rake in over $500 million within a month of release.

        This piece of garbage will be lucky to manage $11 million in the dame period of time – Sim City fans don’t want it and few “social gamers” are able/willing to drop $60-$80 on a single game (particularly an unfamiliar one).

        $500 million in the hand vs $11 million in the bush… That ranks right up there with ‘New Coke’ and refusing to buy the Star Wars merchandising rights from Lucas.

        Propaganda’s got nothing to do with it – these are cold, hard facts!

      • Are these “cold, hard facts” based on your experiences with the game? If so, I concede to your opinion, though I can’t say I’ve experienced anything similar.

        If that’s not the case, it sure seems awfully judgmental from someone who hasn’t played the game. That individual additionally appears intent on airing their disappointment with SimCity Societies in the comment section of an opinionated (but still factually correct) preview article.

        But to address your biggest concern, the level of “micro-managing” and attention to detail that you worry is absent is, in fact, still present, I assure you — but it’s presented in a much, much, much more presentable and less daunting way.

        You’ll be able to manage taxes and everything your heart desires, just not so much with sliders and plus or minus buttons as before. Apologies if the word “streamlined” doesn’t sit well with your concept of a SimCity game, but it’s simply that.

      • I don’t need to play the game to see that what they envision the city size and regional view to look like is nothing more than a joke. Even if the simulation elements, incorporating the raw information into the graphics themselves works great, it will not salvage the fact that I am limited to 2x2km skyscaper suburbs isolated in an ocean of green. If each city was the same regional layout as SC4, I would have already preordered it. At the moment it’s the same as an incredibly realistic driving game, but you are limited to driving on a 200 metre oval tracks with 5 different cars.

  3. @Daneoid

    Fair enough. I don’t recall the 2x2km skyscraper limit being mentioned anywhere, but I’ll definitely look into it for myself. That said, it’s not quite as big of a deal to me as it is to others, but I respect the reasoning wholeheartedly.

    • The 2x2km size isn’t so much the thing that worries me, it’s that they are seperated from each other via predetermined highway and rail. This added to the fact that there is no terraforming is for me, an insult to what simcity represents. The city size alone destroys our chances of building large sprawling metropolises, and the untouchable highways and green ocean area outside your city destroys the chance of creating the illusion of a large sprawling metropolis such as in SC4’s regional view.

      “creative Director Ocean Quigley: No, all of the terraforming in this SimCity is going to be at the civil engineering scale and will be the natural consequences of laying out roads, developing zones, and plopping buildings.”

      ” Lead Designer Stone Librande:We are still experimenting with the size of the cities, but our maps are comparable to a medium-sized map in SimCity 4″

      Lead Designer Stone Librande: Each city is connected to other cities in the region through a combination of roads and railroad tracks. Players do not have control of placing roads and rail in the region, but they have complete control over the road and rail networks within their city boundary.

  4. No sense in explaining to closed-minded people. They think they can make a better SimCity, when in fact they’ve been trying so hard at it for the last decade with barely any convincing result.

    • So you are accusing me of being closed-minded for being upset at the ammount of freedom being taken away from me, in a game that has only ever expanded upon it’s ammount of freedom with each succesive release? Furthermore this has all been done in favour on the whole social/online gaming thing, something which was on no-ones priority list.
      Imagine if they made GTA V into a linear FPS and you have an idea of what this means for the legacy that was simcity.

      • I agree with your points Daneoid, and while I look forward to this release, I’m looking at it with bated breath.

  5. you must be online to play the game. no playing on the laptop in the country or on a train somewhere…no playing when your internet goes out. online-only.
    no purchase for me.

  6. WHOMP there it is

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