Saturday, 22 December 2012

SimCity (2013): A Tiny Preview

Date: 22.12.2012 
When I sat down to play SimCity, my plan was to sink at least 20 minutes into Radville (I'm not great at naming towns). Instead, I was torn away after just five minutes, but that short amount of time was enough. Already, SimCity is looking to be an exciting reboot of the series that has all the depth of the original games, in a gorgeous new package.

Although only in Alpha, the graphical power of SimCity is mind boggling, thanks in part, to Maxi's new Glassbox engine. Even in the tiny default town, the amount of visible detail in the daily activities of the community is impressive.  Zooming around your city is fast and responsive, and I'm prepared to put the small evidence of lag down to the unfinished code I was playing on.

Each building, each vehicle, and even each sim felt unique. Repetition of shopfronts and vehicles does eventually occur, but there are enough variations to generate a sense of individuality for each location, to a point. It's not as though everything feels unique, but neither does a sense of repetitiveness kick in immediately

I could have spent at least another ten minutes zooming around the town, but time was short. A bubble appeared on screen, alerting me to a group of unhappy sims protesting outside the town hall. This turned out to be the tutorial, and like previous SimCity games, the tutorial is integrated into the early stages of town development. This provides you with a practical education which aids in the growth of the community.

Although my town was near a highway, the previous mayor had managed to overlook installing a main road, detaching the town from communication with the world. The people were not happy. Heading up the protest was a representative who would later become one of many advisors, providing request on behalf of the town. Fulfilling the requests of the townspeople aren't objectives as such, but they add a sense of purpose to the game, outside increasing the size and managing the budget.

I had to decide. Do I adhere to the protestors requests, or ignore them, and maintain a small, manageable town of inbreeds who, like the previous mayor, pretend that the outside world doesn't exist even though it's a few miles away. I chose the former. Construction began, and within a few seconds, my town was connected to the world.

One of the biggest overhauls to SimCity is the abandonment of the grid structure and isometric view. This improves navigation, giving you an almost 360 perspective of your surroundings (it doesn't seem like you can go underground and look upwards), and also offers up the ability to build outside of a grid structure. This means curves.

Curved zones and roads really add to the aesthetic elements of SimCity, but it also means it's easy to make mistakes. One slight bump of the mouse when dragging out a massive stretch of road, and you may find yourself with an unwanted dent in the road. It takes some getting used to, but once you realise that the rigid grid structure is gone, construction isn't too difficult.

Working outside the grid however, could lead to a lot of wasted space in each town. Having a city built on squares and rectangles in previous games meant that almost every square inch of the map could be filled. Here, without careful planning, wasted space could ensue. But while casual players may end up with a lot of unfillable areas, hardcore players are likely to embrace these new elements to create aesthetically pleasing cities. The potential for design feels almost unlimited with the availability of curved roads.

Now that my town had a connection to the world, people wanted to move in. A small, get away from everything kind of town, that was just waiting to be overdeveloped by a mayor looking to make a dollar. It seems that my town was full of economists, as the townspeople were now calling for more houses to meet demand. Construction still follows the classic SimCity model, dropping down industrial, commercial or residential zones and watching the town grow.

Organised placement of zones and buildings is significant like last time. But this time, Glassbox takes it up a notch, not just with the visual representations, but how the community reacts to your town planning. Put a sewage plant next to your catchment, and you can bet your Sims will have something to say about it. That, or they'll all get sick from drinking faecal water, keeping them at home, out of work. With no production, the city's economy will slow right down, all thanks to some misplaced sewage.

Construction is a sight to behold. Zoom in, and you'll see construction and delivery vehicles arrive, excited Sims stepping out of their cars, and traffic jams, which aren't great from a planning perspective, but they look nice! My advisors were pleased. I was about to get to work on getting some Fire Stations and schools off the ground, but sadly, my time with the game was cut short.

My initial thoughts about SimCity were, veteran players will not like this because it looks and feels more like a game than a simulator. To some extent I maintain this position. Although I barely put a dent in the game, immediately the focus felt almost micro-oriented, as though Maxis never wanted me to look at the bigger picture. They wanted me to think about it, but never visualise it, as though my duty was to command over a series of small suburbs rather than one big city.

That being said, this does make the game more manageable than ever before. Superficially, things feel like they have been simplified, but the complexity is still there, it's just less overwhelming. Maxis have managed to improve accessibility for newcomers, without impacting on the depth of SimCity. Take a few minutes to play the game, and you'll realise that very little has changed.

While your city is constantly bubbling away in the back of your mind, you'll spend time building up and improving a particular area. Then you can move to the next, knowing that what you've just done will function just fine on its own for the time being. SimCity encourages players to get right down to the detail, and work with individual members of their community.

So while micromanagement feels like it may negatively impact on the grand scope of your city, it makes commanding the world much less stressful. For me, this is a great feature, but those who work well under pressure may need to run a few cities simultaneously to get their fix.

But the standout feature is just how beautiful the game has become. In addition to the freedom offered by the camera angles, Maxis have employed a tilt-shift art style, that makes everything you're focused on look miniature. It's your own little world that you have complete control over, a small living community that you're looking at through a microscope. Rather than think "there's a food shop on Main Street," I thought "there's Jims burgers on Fifth, and it must be popular because there's so many people outside." Instead of relying on charts and graphs, SimCity invites you into a living world.

All that being said, my time with the game was so limited, I don't want to make a judgement call just yet. But to take so much away from such a small amount of time is, in my opinion, a testament to just how well the developers have done with the reboot. The shift to a game-like tone will turn off some veteran players, but the core experience is still the same. I only hope that the option to launch disasters makes a comeback, because there's nothing quite as satisfying as watching people complain about how an alien knocked out their power supply.

SimCity will be released for PC and Mac on March 5 for North America, March 7 for Australia, and March 8 for Europe and New Zealand.

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