By: Michael Dao
While most other outlets are scouring the expo hall floor, waiting for their media appointments to see all of the AAA games and reporting to you the progress of all of the titles you’re gong to be purchasing this holiday season regardless, ThriftyNerd.com is marching to the beat of its own drum, it’s walking down the path less taken, it’s taking a less beaten path. You get the point. Hidden away in a corner of the Nvidia booth and available for play was an early, early version of SimCity.
The ground shook with anticipation when it was announced that 2013 would see a new installment of the franchise which gave rise to the best selling video game series on earth, The Sims. The original had the player become the mayor of at first a small town, and they had to turn their small town into a thriving metropolis, or sometimes, just survive against a plethora of natural, and perhaps not so natural disasters. The player would do so by zoning areas to become commercial, industrial and residential zones, building roads, utilities and providing for and paying for all of the services that a burgeoning locale requires. The trick was to keep the tax revenue flowing, while concentrating on growing the population, and tax base of your city. As with any simulation, the older versions of SimCity, had many realistic elements, and the game could be incredibly circular at times. As the population of a city grew, crime became more of a problem, and to stop people from leaving the city, police stations needed to be built. The only thing is that police stations cost money, and to pay for them, the population needed to be increased. Sometimes, it felt as if the player was forced to rob both Peter and Paul simultaneously, as it were.
One of the major changes to the expected was the social and multiplayer aspects of the game. Although this means that similarly to Diablo 3, SimCity can no longer be played offline, it does open up some unique and interesting opportunities to the player. New cities must connect to a regional highway, and it is this highway that brings among other things, new residents, but it is also this highway that connects the player’s city to the cities of other players. Yes, you read correctly, things just got real. Connecting cities in this manner provide all sorts of possibilities. No longer does a city exist in a vacuum, it lives in a much greater ecosystem. Things that you do have an effect on neighboring cities, and there is the opportunity for certain synergies to be achieved. One player may decide that they wish to manage an environmentally friendly, sleepy residential town, devoid of heavy industrial areas, and just have their citizens commute to another city to work. Or perhaps you’re that industrial power, with an empire of steel willing to deal with additional pollution, but also providing jobs to other cities and selling them excess power generation. You can clearly see the potential here.
These pie in the sky concepts are all pretty good, but how does it look? The graphics are much improved so far, but it is still early days for the game. The game shares more with The Sims than its previous incarnations, and that’s not a bad thing. The interface was simple and has a similar button layout. Anyone who has played SimCity Social on the Facebook will feel right at home in navigating all of the possible build options, and as befitting a game of its pedigree, the game looks great zoomed all the way out, as well as zoomed all the way in. The player can actually zoom to a single resident and see what they are doing and where they are heading. Each resident of the town appears to be simulated.
The greatest changes made to the game as compared with previous versions, however has to be the gameplay. It follows the trend of many remakes, in that a lot of the minutiae has been removed in order to allow the player to focus on the core gameplay elements. I will admit that I was never very good at SimCity. There was always one part of the game I would hit after a few hours where I would never be able to grow the city any further without taking on some serious debt, the politics of which I will not debate in a virtual world. There was also a good amount of micromanagement in older titles. Roads had to be built, of course, but so did items like power transmission lines, sewer pipes, and water lines. It isn’t enough to zone areas and collect money, services needed to be provided, and it was often difficult to lay out water in an area that only just needed it. So, in this title, all services of that nature are tied to roads, which does make sense, allowing people to plan more effectively just using roads.
SimCity has always been an open ended game. The last title, SimCity 4, followed this mold, and I had a great difficulty playing the game, as the cities I built would never really scale all that well, and my town would soon find itself in fiscal crisis. The new title, however, nips this right in the bud, what’s greatly improved upon are the feedback mechanisms for the player. It’s easier to see just what is going on in your city, and what its residents are thinking. The best improvement to tackle this issue, however, is the addition of a quest system of sorts. There is no bright gold exclamation point that the player needs to get to and click on to read a quest description for. The closest analogue here is something that again, players of SimCity Social will find familiar. Your city has an adviser that will provide intermediate goals. These goals provide the player with a focus and sense of direction that will appeal to gamers that like the concept of city management game, but do not care for the open world aspect of it.
Announced at the Game Changers event, SimCity certainly does that. Having gotten to spend some time with the game, it was incredibly satisfying to experience new concepts executed brilliantly within a formula that has managed to retain its popularity since its first installment in 1989. Whether the final product is as good as this demo leads us to believe it will be does remain to be seen. However, I can tell you that during the entire time I was playing the demo, I was smiling. I’m pretty confident it will be.
SimCity will be available in February 2013 for PC and Mac.