Developer: Maxis / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Release Date: March 5, 2013
Eight thousand years ago—give or take a few decades—Will Wright’s SimCity 2000 sparked a phenomenon that evolved into the mult-gajillion-selling Sim franchise. It was the second game in the city-building series, and released first on Mac OS. Just for a sec, let your Uncle Rob tell a quick little anecdote…
It was 1994, I worked at a small publishing firm in tiny town in the minuscule land of England. We all worked on crappy Macs. Crappy they were, until the first copy of SimCity 2000 landed in the office. It spread like a virus (all legally, of course) until, one lunchtime, I looked across our sorry-ass newsroom, and saw every single screen displaying a city in various states of construction or destruction. It was an astonishing sight. SimCity had completely taken over.
I relate this story not to prove how old I am, but to show how captivating building a virtual city can be. On the face of it, laying roads, providing water supplies and power, garbage collection, sewage control, jobs, security, and shopping opportunities for tiny virtual people who are invariably pissed off about some element of community life to which they feel entitled, sounds like a lot of aggravation and not so big on the fun.
Well, it is…oddly addicting fun. And after several hours playing the upcoming rebirth of the franchise, I can say for sure that the SimCity glaze—head rested on one hand, mouse clicking-away in the other—kicked in within a few minutes as the construction of new cities evolved before my eyes.
For SimCity veterans, many frustrating elements (fixing water pipes, for example) have been streamlined. Now, the core routes for key resources are handled wherever you place roads, and the size of road is integral in shaping the potential for development in your city. And in the major change for SimCity veterans, roads can now be curved, circular even. Whether it’s for aesthetic design purposes or in order to maximize available land on a map that may have impassable terrain to maneuver around, it allows a significant break in city design from the straight line blocks of past games.
You begin, as always, with a blank piece of land, a wad of Simoleans in the bank, and the dreams of an industry titan in your heart. From there, from one main road, you start to zone land as residential, commercial, or industrial. And so begins the balance dance of cost management, expansion goals, and population entitlement management. It truly feels like an open canvas on which to paint a city in your image. As construction starts on houses, factories, and stores it’s easy to spend time just watching the very detailed animated graphics spring your bustling city to life.
People, however, have needs and requirements. They need power; they need water; they need garbage disposal; they need sewage control. They want school, hospitals, and emergency services. The roll-out of all these elements is under your control, via a series of clear, Sims-familiar menus.
The game does provide several layers of assistance if your expansion plans or organization gets a little out of control, which it likely will, particularly with your first city design, where just a half hour in it was easy to have regrets about the type of road I built (though they can be upgraded), the length of a road (though they can, like buildings, be bulldozed), and the pandering to the whims of my early settlers when I needed to focus on resource building.
This is where the new SimCity gets really interesting. I can build one city as a true industrial powerhouse, pumping out resources from pockets of raw materials I can see on one of the many view layers. Sure, it needs workers to man the stations, and shops for those workers, but my focus can be pure resource and power creation. Then, I can share those resources (or sell them) to my neighboring city, which I’ve built as a residential utopia of broad, tree-lined thoroughfares and leafy parks, libraries and universities. This inter-city management adds a meta-layer to your own personal city-building ambitions, and that’s before you get into the co-operative and pure multiplayer opportunities that give SimCity an even more immense sense of scale.
The always-on online requirement has caused controversy since you can’t actually save your city, then trash it with one of the many entertaining natural disasters, like a devastating tornado, watch the destruction, giggle with glee, then re-load your previously pristine city. No, the natural disasters may come, as a short tornado did to destroy my freshly placed Mayor’s Mansion, but you just have to deal. EA’s response to this is to suggest most players will have that one city they just build up and trash for fun…but it’s a limiting element of how a player may want to play in a game that, in general, has so few limiting elements.
Similarly, the always-on raised questions about what happens if you lose network connection. Though still not finalized, there is a period of time you’ll be able to continue to play, with the game re-syncing with the servers once you’re connected. But how it plays out in the real world of millions of city-builders won’t really be understood until the game ships.
But it would be fun, after building a Sodom & Gamorrah of lavish casinos (oh, lovely, lovely gambling revenue) to then trash it from on-high. What’s certain is that we’ll see many thousands of cities, inter-connected online, and through videos posted by users, as the version we played allowed video capture at both a low-res 640×480 (which we used in some footage here for file size purposes), and 1024×768, though we were told they could change before ship.
Still, five hours in of solo city-building, some team-based challenges, and connected multiplayer, it’s clear that this new SimCity is a vast, sprawling game of incredible potential, with so many opportunities to show your personal creativity. The closed beta has just started and already the Machinima office is filling with chins cupped in one hand, and mouse clicks filling the air. So it begins…