E3 2012 Preview: SimCity

June 10, 2012

When EA announced a new SimCity game at GDC a few months back, it’s fair to say that there was a lot of cheering and rejoicing. For many, the Simcity series holds a special place in their hearts, hours wasted away trying to balance budgets or solve traffic jams, or engaging in wanton destruction.

After the disappointing SimCity Societies, there hasn’t been a lot for fans of the city-building genre. Monte Cristo’s Cities XL games are fun enough, but they tend to be pretty rough around the edges and, well, they just aren’t Simcity.

Visually, the game was inspired by tilt-shift photography, a visual effect that uses a special type of camera lens to create a narrow depth of field and give an image the feeling of looking down at a model world. It’s become something of a visual cliche, but it’s used very effectively here. Buildings can be customised with special objects and modules to personalise them to your heart’s desire.

Under the hood, the game uses the Glassbox engine. This engine allows for a new approach to the simulations. Instead of calculating overriding statistics and then representing them visually within the game itself, SimCity uses agents, which are visually represented in the game, and it’s the interaction between agents that create the city itself. For example, instead of calculating a traffic problem and then showing the visuals for a traffic jam, the new system simply lets agents find their way to their destination, and if there’s an issue, then the problems will occur naturally. In the game world, every Sim has a home, a place they work and daily routines, which you can monitor as zoom closer down onto street level. The happiness level of every home is displayed in a simple manner.

The engine also allows for something SimCity fans have been pining after for a while – the ability to make curvy roads, which follow the mouse cursor as exactly as you’d hope for as you lay down the infrastructure for your city. Other touches add a lot of personality to the game, such as a ‘tactile interface’ – for instance, when stretching power cables between towers, you can wobble and topple them over if you stretch too far.

The biggest new feature of SimCity is multiplayer. In the new SimCity, your city is part of a much larger region, and players can trade power, resources, goods and even workers between cities. Working together and collaborating yields rewards – for instance, if several neighboring cities build an international airport together, they can attract tourists and affect the entire area positively. The downside of this is that other things, such as crime, can also cross from one city to another. The demo we witnessed saw a robber from one city cross into another, and rob a bank. Amusingly, locations like donut shops slowed down the police’s response time to events such as this, especially if they were on route. Early adopters of Cities XL will remember a similar trading setup that was attempted by that game early on, before being closed due to lack of player interest. We can’t see the same thing being an issue for SimCity. Everyone seems to get rewarded when players work together in this game, which allows for interesting specialisation options.

If you’re working in a group with other players, with each player working on their own city, then you can collaborate to provide all the necessary elements of an economy. One player can make a tourist city, with plenty of attractions, which relies on visitors for cash and must always make sure there are plenty of places for them to spend cash. With tourism covered, another player can make a gritty, blue-collar industrial city, focused on capitalising on natural resources. There is potential for interesting conflict as well, as for example, while industrial cities can make a lot of money quickly, they can produce pollution, which can make Sims sick. Also, by not investing in education or a police force, a city can find itself on the fast track to being crime-ridden, as the walls of its factories begin to become covered in graffiti.

Overall, SimCity is shaping up quite nicely for its February 2013 release date.