Preview: SimCity

December 12, 2012

SimCity has unexpectedly become one of my most anticipated games for 2013. While I’ve briefly tried some of its past iterations, I’ve never been the biggest follower of the series. However, each demonstration I’ve seen of the new SimCity has shown it to possibly the most user-friendly and overtly ‘fun’ game in the franchise. I recently got some hands-on time with the game, to try out some of its innovations for myself.

The game runs on Maxis’ new ‘Glassbox Simulation Engine’, which  is responsible for upgrades in a lot of areas, perhaps most noticeably in the way information is presented. Rather than showing you graphs or flowcharts of your city’s power consumption or waste management, everything is cleanly overlaid on top of your current view. With a few clicks, your view of your city will change from the rather colourful, detailed 3D graphics, to a plain white field with the city’s power distribution represented by easy-to-follow lines. It works for everything – water, criminals, tourism, land value, and even blobs of poo floating around your city’s sewers.

These views also work on the game’s overworld, which wasn’t present in the hands-on portion I played. The idea is, there’s a much larger field within which you (or your friends) can build several cities that interact with each other. When deciding where to build them initially, there are set areas highlighted on the field which you’re able to strip down geologically, to see if coal or oil lies beneath them. Rich deposits of fuel could indicate a prime spot for an industrial city, while a waterside location might be best suited for a commercial resort town. However, there are no strict ‘rules’ on what kinds of cities you can build – Jason Haber, producer on SimCity, was on hand to demonsrtrate his ‘Trash Town’, built entirely around handling the refuse of other cities, and profiting greatly from it.

The game’s visual style is really reminiscent of films like the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, especially its simulation of time lapse photography. You can click and drag to select areas to develop residential, commercial or industrial properties, and by itself the game will build the structures piece by piece, as tiny Sims rush in and out at the speed of light. The world goes through seasons, and conditions and vegetation change accordingly.

Many of the tools have been tweaked to make them feel more responsive and game-like. You can drag out roads like lines in any picture software, or draw them free hand using the new curved roads tool. They’ll snap together automatically, and can even be developed (just like every structure in the game) to be better or higher density. You can build tunnels in the same way as well as bridges or overpasses. In Haber’s playthrough, he’d constructed a roller-coaster like series of roads around his mountain city, which was woefully inefficient for the drivers, but a lot of fun to watch for us gamers. It’s also very easy now to write the word ‘BUM’ using road construction.

My hands-on was based in what seemed to be the initial tutorial level, or ‘starter city’ of the game, and as such there were certain objectives to fulfill – such as reaching a certain amount of wealth or happiness. I didn’t achieve either, as I didn’t really create any efficient zones of industrial work, nor did I really see to my people’s energy or water requirements. It’s clear that even with all of these developments to make city planning easier for the player, it still requires a bit of thought on your part, in order to make a viable and happy city. It didn’t matter much in the end, in my case, as the demo was cut short by a sudden meteor strike, obliterating my prized genital-shaped city entrance.

SimCity has the potential to not only provide an enhanced experience for series’ veterans, but it to draw in many new fans with its clean interface, attractive visual style and easy-to-use mechanics. It’s sure to be a winner for multi-player, as multi-city play is a central feature of the title, and it’ll be really interesting to see how (and if) gamers can work together. Look for SimCity hitting store shelves in Australia on 7 March, 2013.