Armchair city planners will have a lot to pour over when the reboot of SimCity launches this March. I spent a few hours this weekend playing through the closed beta and came away with a definite interest in Maxis’ return to the city-building formula.
EA allowed people to cram in as much city-building as they could into one-hour sessions this weekend, and though you could play multiple times, you were forced to start from scratch on each subsequent playthough. This actually helps players learn more about the game, since you could experiment with different things knowing full well they’d be wiped clean an hour later.
It also means it was possible to get quite a few things wrong… which I did. Frequently.
Good, clean design
If there’s one thing Maxis games has always done well, it’s their UI and design. SimCity has a lot of information to share with you, which is done through a series of overlays and charts smartly dropped on top of the city map. If I needed to find specific information, like how much my upgrades to the city’s police force would cost me, or which parts of the city were sending the most people to the hospital, I was able to find it pretty quickly.
SimCity is also very good at giving you information you didn’t know you wanted. When creating a garbage dump, a wind indicator shows you where the smell will blow to. When you create school bus stops or mass transit locations, you can tell which areas have high or low concentrations for those services, making it easy to decide where you want to place them.
Planning where your population lives, works, and shops is still decided with the classic Residential, Commercial, and Industrial zoning tools. Zones are attached to road edges and buildings automatically constructed based on land value, available space, and other factors. You can get a lot of population in a hurry by building a grid of Residential city blocks, but fail to leave enough space and your Sims won’t be able to build houses larger than the bungalows they started out with.
This isn’t to say the beta wasn’t without issues, or that the information you’re given leads to a paint-by-numbers path to success. By the end of my playthroughs I was still trying to figure out how the population demand meters worked, and why my commercial district wasn’t getting enough customers even though my population of mid- and high-income residents was booming. Part of that can be chalked up to the abbreviated experience, but some more transparent information in those areas would be helpful.
The natives are restless
Once you get your city started, your population won’t just idly come and go – they’ll let you know exactly what they think of the job you’re doing, either through thought balloons that pop up from time to time or even by picketing City Hall. Don’t ignore the protestors, though; they can give you quest-like objectives to get more people to your parks, fix a sewage problem, or hire more firefighters.
My first playthrough was more picket-heavy than later attempts, which led to some hasty decisions. When people complained their sewage was backing up I realized I didn’t have a place it to go, and not enough money in the coffers. I chose to pass a small bond measure for quick Simoleans (you get a cost added to your recurring expenses until the bond’s payed back), and plunked a sewage plant in the woods away from the residential area. Problem solved, right?
Not exactly. The roads in SimCity act as an all-in-one utility, carrying traffic, electricity, water, and sewage on the same route. Because I had all my commercial and industrial units on the opposite side of the city as my homes (and my sewer pipe), all the sewage from the warehouses and factories got directed through my neighborhoods and bottle-necked at the one road leading to the outflow pipe.
Oops… better call Roto-Rooter.
My second city also suffered from severe traffic problems. I found a traffic overlay which quickly pointed out my problem: I only had three highways connecting the residential half of the city to the industrial/commercial half. I hastily added more roads wherever I could, cutting through spaces I initially hoped to drop parks or other municipal services in when I got the money.
Suddenly I have a desire to call up my local traffic engineer and offer to buy them a drink. Or several. And maybe actually pay attention the next time a highway item pops up on the city council agenda.
Cities, not islands
Maxis and EA have been catching flack for the decision to make SimCity require an online connection in order to play, but the decision isn’t as cut and dried as an attempt to fight piracy. The cities created in SimCity are meant to interact with each other in order to achieve greater heights than any one city alone could. Cities share services like garbage pickup and can even specialize in certain sectors to help boost the regional economy, giving other cities a place for their Sims to commute to and work, play, or shop. There are also the “great works,” regional projects which require multiple cities to work together in order to build something they can all benefit from, like an international airport, arcology, or space center.
It is possible to turn off the multiplayer aspect and build your region solo, but Maxis and EA are pushing players to consider working together and will probably use the info from solo players on their city and regional leaderboards, global resource pricing, and other mechanics. While these aspects were turned off during the beta, what I saw in the in-game tutorial was very interesting. Handling multiple cities in a region on one’s own seems too daunting, but I can definitely see myself and one or two other people collaborating the way we do in Minecraft, providing resources for each other and building something none of us would be able to do on our own.
Overall, SimCity left me exactly where EA and Maxis want me: needing more. The higher upgrades and developments were all locked out, the game was flashy, fun, and almost completely bug-free. As a result of my time with the beta, I’m actually looking up different urban design theories for the next time I get my hands on the game.
You can pre-order SimCity now on Origin in one of two versions. The Limited Edition costs $59.99 and comes with a special park as well as the Heroes and Villains pack, which lets you build superhero hideouts or supervillain lairs and fight off “crime wave” disasters. There’s also the $79.99 Digital Deluxe Edition, which includes the above perks and the French, British, and German city sets, which give you additional landmarks and special buildings and services to add a European flavor to your cities. The full game is slated to launch on March 5th in North America.