PREVIEW: SimCity – Reticulating splines for a new generation

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simcity-CurvyRoads_1.pngThe power’s out, the sewerage system is backed up and my city burns. Pretty much the same first hour experienced from every SimCity game then.

But this year’s SimCity reboot is anything but the same as what has gone before. While there’s a surface layer of nostalgia and familiarity (you are, after all, still orchestrating the construction and administration of a city), the next game in the series from developers Maxis looks to take the franchise in a few interesting new directions.

It’s business as usual to begin with: you’ll lay down a few streets, and zone areas to be inhabited by residential, commercial and industrial developments. Residential zones provide workers for commercial and industrial districts, and balancing the distribution of zones will be key to attracting taxpaying citizens to your city.

But it’s also here where you’ll notice the first of many changes to SimCity’s tried-and-tested systems. For your city to grow, the density of zones will be dictated not by different grades of “ploppable” zone density, but by the roads that feed it. A dirt track, for instance, can’t support a skyscraper. Which makes sense. And did we mention that roads can be curvy now too? Again, a sensible change.simcity-IndustrialCity.pngMore than ever then, roads represent the backbone of your city; rather than laying power lines and piping, placing utilities next to roads will see your city fed with whatever resource or service they provide.

Everything feels more intuitive as a result, and growing a city without too many hiccups seems simpler than ever. It’s in part down to the way the game delivers superb visual feedback every step of the way too; there is still reams of financial and socio-political data to sink your teeth into, though its presented in manageable chunks. Click on the waterworks for instance and the game world is overlaid with a water-pumping animation showing exactly how many properties it feeds, or click on the land value button to see the city turn shades of green, yellow and red in a venn diagram style, showing exactly where your wealthiest inhabitants are looking to settle. Even if you can’t get your head around numbers, these new views always make it easy to figure out where you’re going wrong.

As much as the new SimCity is a sandbox game, letting you loose on an empty plot of land and building it up as your will dictates, optional dynamic challenges pop up regularly to help guide progress. Protestors at the City Hall for instance may challenge you to reduce pollution or lower taxes, or an advisor may set a new population goal for you to hit, each offering differing rewards. Popping up as smiley or unhappy faces across your city, or speech bubbles offering specific concerns, they’re focussed distractions from the sprawl of urban design.

Except this time the sprawl may be a little more confined. And here’s where the new SimCity game differs most from its predecessors; rather than creating one huge city, you create a handful of smaller cities, all connected by a regional view, and all influenced by an even wider global economy. While all towns can achieve a specialisation (such as earning the title of a university town, or gambling hotspot), you can opt to create additional purely industrial or commercial cities, and have your citizens commute to them and feed into a networked economy. These cites can also share resources if one finds itself to have a surplus while another a shortage. It’s an intriguing new spin on the standard SimCity formula, and offers the opportunity to play with micro economies.simcity-CityHallProtest_1.pngEach regional zone also offers a “Great Works Site” as the ultimate development goal. These can be anything from space stations to bio-domes, and represent the pinnacle of an area’s architectural and social achievements for you to strive towards building. It’s a goal that was unachievable during our play-test as we were locked into hour long cycles of the game, but it’ll be great to see how these influence late-game growth and progression.

This new global and regional system also plays into another large departure for the series; the inclusion of online multiplayer. While we were unable to test a multiplayer game during our preview session, the ultimate goal is to have players share a region, collaborating or competing with each neighbouring city, offering the chance to share resources or commuting citizens with one another. It also feeds two major concerns that long time fans have with the new game though – firstly, the inevitable SimCity trolls who will work tirelessly to undermine your perfectly created city, and secondly the requirement of an always-on internet connection and potential for server overloads. While the option of a solo, private world is still offered, you’ll still be tied to EA’s servers while playing, meaning that a) if the servers go down, so too does your game and b) that all cities are persistent – cities are constantly moving forward and auto-saving all the time, with no opportunity to save and replay a city once it has hit a preferable state. Outside interaction from fellow gamers opens up some truly exciting gameplay possibilities, but is also a potential mine field for Maxis if not conscientiously delivered.simcity-SmeltingPlant_1.pngVisually, the SimCity of 2013 is the SimCity you’ve always had in your head since its 1989 debut; fully 3D, you can zoom way out to an overhead view or down on the ground to follow individual citizens around on their daily routines. Optional Instagram-style filters can be switched on and off at will, each totally transforming the tone of your creations, while a subtle tilt-shift effect means that everything retains a charming “toy-town” feel throughout. The music piped in during our recurring hour of gameplay was pure Maxis gold too. Aspirational and calming, it adds a strangely maniacal edge to sitting back and watching an unloved city burn.

An hour with a game as complex as SimCity (even a recurring hour) is nowhere near enough to gauge just how successfully all the new interlocking systems come together. The realities of a multiplayer SimCity game beyond the PR spiel still remain somewhat a mystery, but thankfully my feelings are still leaning towards “intrigued” rather than “worried”. So far at least, the marriage of nostalgia and exciting new concepts seems to be working out well, and I’m look forward to unleashing a tornado on a much-loved metropolis once the full game launches.

SimCity is released for PC on 8 March. We’ll have a full review soon, so keep checking back for our final verdict.

Gerald Lynch
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