PC sim-city-hands-on

Published on March 10th, 2013 | by Swaine Dillinger


SimCity – Hands On

Maxis are the masters of user interface design. That may sound like a small nail for any developer to hang their hat on, but think about the importance of it for just a second – UI is the basis of how a player interacts with a game on the most fundamental level, and with a release as complex and varied as SimCity it would be easy for charts, economies and building options to quickly spiral out of control, as the player is completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the metropolis they’ve constructed.

Designating different zones, managing crime rates, finely mapping out roads, deciding a specialization, placing down sewage works, weighing up different energy supplies, and controlling tax rates for high, medium and low earners may sound like the kind of stress which would cause hypertension in even the most calculating of Mayors, but when making these decisions in SimCity you don’t feel stressed. Instead there’s a mixture of whimsy and wonderment as you almost effortlessly snap together curved roads, switch on data layers to see various colored orbs zoom around your road network and watch predefined zones fill up as different buildings get erected.

SimCity just works, thanks not only to the easy-to-grasp nature of the game’s design, but also the sublime ease of which you can navigate the menu interface. The soft-focus visual style gives city management more of a toy box feel than previous SimCitys, but scratch just a little underneath this colorful Pixar-inspired veneer, and you’ll find a simulation which is just as hardcore as before – only with the fiddly bits like placing down sewage piping and electricity lines taken out. Now you simply place down power plants and sewage works where you wish and both electricity and crap blobs are auto-routed, via the road network, to their destinations.

This monumental time saver makes establishing cities much less of a challenge, and places greater emphasis on the importance on infrastructure. Our first city, affectionately dubbed ‘Sleepytown’, made London’s urban maze seem well thought-out, with tarmac thoroughfares slicing off in all directions limiting the space of potential expansion in either industrial, commercial or residential zones.

This was the quickest way to condemn our city to the detestable label of being the ‘ideal home for low earners’.

SimCity 2012 doesn’t boast a density meter like its previous iterations, instead buildings automatically sprout into more expensive or bigger forms if the land around it is well-valued, and the road network near it supports high capacity traffic.

Ease of use is a term that suits this incarnation of SimCity perfectly, as even placing roads is supported by optional guide lines, so you can make the most of the space available merely by keeping to the dotted spacings. You can still place roads wherever you want, but now there are rectangular, circular and curved options to play around with. It’s a similar system to the one employed in rival management sim Cities XL, but here it’s much easier and more satisfying to use. The result of all this ergonomic gameplay design does mean that transforming your piece of randomized green-space – occasionally boasting railway lines, coastline and natural resources – into an urban center can happen rather quickly. The playable area for each city is noticeably smaller than in previous games, but this is where multi-city gameplay comes in.

Cities are no longer separated from the rest of the world, instead they’re joined by neighboring sites ripe for urban expansion. These can either be snatched up by the player or delegated to one of their friends online, but the point of this inclusion is that resources, services, utilities and cash can be easily traded between each location on a month-to-month basis, allowing players to specialize cities more than they ever have done before. Old givens like establishing healthcare centers, police outposts, power and sewage networks are no longer necessary when forming a city, as you can simply buy up any respective spare capacity offered up by your neighbors to free up room to build more schools, universities or giant expo halls for that monster truck convention you’ve always wanted to host – go on, admit it. You’d love it.

This addition gives the option for players to progress their city down specific paths associated with tourism, natural resource extraction, manufacturing goods and education. Even real-world landmarks have been chucked into the building options list, ranging from the Empire State Building (costing around 200,000 Simoleons) to the humble Dutch windmill. Upgrading your City Hall with new ministry buildings unlocks these paths, and there is the option to go for more than one – if funds are plush. The modular nature of most of SimCity’s buildings means that you no longer have to double up if you want to increase their influence. If your firehouse needs to spread its coverage there’s the option to add a pole and more trucks to increase response time.

Back to specialization, though. We went for the quick fix, long-term damage gambling route, starting with cheesy, double-storey casinos lining a particularly dodgy corner of our second city, ‘Metropolis of the Damned’. After our good time houses made enough dosh, an icon appeared over our most-lavish casino. We clicked it and an untrustworthy suit-wearer appeared recommending we build a gambling HQ. There wasn’t the option to design our own casinos, but the ability to add modules onto existing building templates proved surprisingly enjoyable, with the ability to place down glitzy signs, add additional stories and suspect-looking poker parlors.

After appeasing the gambling gods with our skyscraper-sized tribute, further casino archetypes became available: a cheap glitzy modern variety, a surprisingly expensive sci-fi one, and the most expensive, neo-classical option. We went for the sci-fi option, which is probably best described as what you’d imagine a casino to look like if it was designed by Laser Quest in the 1980s. We bolstered the regular spec with a few more gambling houses, and carefully placed down Stratosphere-looking towers – you know for the kids…

Ambitiously, we decided to aim our city squarely at the high-earning gambling types by happily bulldozing the industrial sector of town and raising taxes for medium and high earners – you know, like any foolhardy mayor lusting for riches would.

Alas, our city was soon locked in a depression of its own making – we’d like to blame global factors – which unfortunately it didn’t recover from. In desperation we unleashed a giant fire-spewing red and gold lizard, one of SimCity’s many disasters, onto the suffering populace which unsurprisingly eased our pain.

Even though SimCity has a new colorful and accessible wrapper, if you push the sim too far it will quite happily bite you in the bum, but it’s no longer for silly things like not connecting up electrical lines properly – now it’s purely down to your own maniacal hubris which is kind of the way it should always have been.

During all this single-player gameplay we weren’t bugged by annoying pop-ups alerting us to what our ‘friends’ were up to or how the real-time global commodity prices were fluctuating across the SimCity network. Thankfully, Maxis understands the sanctity of the single-player experience more so than any other developer, so even though they’ve been talking up their Battlelog-inspired system it isn’t as egregious as you’d think.

Sure there are achievements, global leaderboards and time-sensitive objectives posted to the game’s network, but if you just want to build cities then that’s possible and you’ll have a blast doing it.

After spending six hours with SimCity we came away feeling very impressed with Maxis’ efforts. During the day we got through multiple pop-up tutorials, some co-op multiplayer, built multiple cities and fooled around with the toolset, yet even with hardly any breaks we still ended the day wanting more.

Maxis’ next big release sucked us in from the moment we sat down, thanks to its alluring visuals, easy interface and carefree atmosphere. SimCity has evolved and needless to say we’re hankering for more of it.

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