PAX Prime 2012: SimCity Hands-On
Developer: Maxis / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Release Date: February 2013 / Platforms: PC, Mac / ESRB: Everyone
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.