SimCity peaked early on. With the series’ graduation to an isometric perspective (something that made it instantly memorable) and tons more simulations running in parallel, it appears that Electronic Arts was content with merely refining the formula after SimCity 2000 released in 1993. It’s not that its successors were dreadful by any means (although history hasn’t been kind to SimCity Societies), it’s that they didn’t feel like they were trying to build a better city building game and move the genre forward, but merely make a better SimCity game. But with the recent announcement of a new title, one named simply ‘SimCity’, there’s a lot of hopes and doubts about how well Maxis (and EA) is going to handle what’s essentially a reboot of the franchise.
With the new SimCity, Maxis is going back to formula in quite a few ways, many it hasn’t exposed to us, yet. Traditionally, aspects of the city such as traffic, pollution, and unemployment were represented by abstractions. In 2000, traffic was represented by a ‘busy’ graphic, showing multiple cars (well, graphical blobs) tight on a particular road or intersection. In later games, these graduated to pedestrians and individual cars, but these weren’t proportionate examples of what was going on, since these would fade out as they turned corners. Now Sims (the little people in the city) go to work on an individual basis. If they’re close enough, they walk. If that’s a bit much, they’ll drive. Each puff of smoke that a factory generates represents pollution, each product that rolls out of that factory becomes an object that another Sim can buy, etc. Rather than doling out spreadsheet after spreadsheet or multi-colored blotchy maps, SimCity will actually show you what’s happening in the city as it happens in true scale, a first for the series and something the first 3D shots of SimCity 3000 hinted at over a decade ago.
Roads and other assets are no longer grid-based, another first for the series. If you want to place roads all willy-nilly, then go for it. This will allow for some crazy combinations around rough terrain, something that severely limited property management in steeper elevations. Roads will also serve as boundaries for zones, which will develop dynamically alongside them with buildings that will vary in implementation. It’s fantastic that these new cities will be laid out organically, just like their real-life counterparts. But at what cost will that come?
The game will also feature multiplayer, a feature I’ve wanted in a SimCity game since implemented in 2000’s Network Edition. In that game, you purchased land before laying down infrastructure. It allowed you to work with and against your fellow mayors as you shared resources (and disasters!). While that was more of a proof-of-concept in an era where online multiplayer was still a nascent feature, SimCity will be implementing this from day one within the same slice of land or between different regions.
These new dynamic systems will allow for some fundamentally different layouts and cities, but it’s been made apparent that cities will be capped for size for technical purposes. Much like SimCity 4, SimCity will encourage players to develop towns across multiple slices of a region. Each town can serve as its own aspect, allowing for stronger metacities than before. If you want to build monstrous commercial city with decadent skyscrapers, you can. If you want to develop a cozy suburb (and subsequent exurbs!) you can do that, too. I’m not sure how that will balance out as SimCity’s gameplay has required an effective balance of Residential, Industrial, and Commercial zones, but I’m sure that will be revealed.
Speaking of which, we still don’t know much of anything about the mechanics of the game. EA unveiled the game a full year ahead of its release (which is an absurd amount of time in this day and age) without revealing a single in-game asset. That’s right, Maxis has only published a ‘vision’ video that shows what they could do with the game, but while it may come close, we’ve yet to see actual game. On top of this lies the issue that EA has already published its very specific plans for day one DLC to be offered with the limited edition (which is the standard game at launch bundled with a few extras that will disappear by the second or third printing) and an Origin-exclusive Deluxe edition with European tilesets. As Jeff Gerstmann put it, it’s “gross”. We have yet to understand the base game and we’re already being solicited for more content.
On a minor note, Maxis mentioned that they’re out for a ’tilt shift’ look on higher graphical settings, which is an interesting effect, but it sounds aesthetically tiring. If you’re not aware of tilt-shift photography, it’s a special fashion in which photos are shot with a very shallow depth of field so that things that would normally look grandiose look like toy models while people look like ants. This sounds gimmicky at best and I anticipate shutting the feature off immediately. You can see an example of tilt-shift photography here.
I really want this newest SimCity to the best. I’ve waited so long for a real follow-up to 2000, a game that released nearly twenty years ago, that hasn’t just been adding numbers to the end of the title with some graphical updates. This sounds like it’s it, but while I’ve enjoyed recent EA titles Syndicate and SSX, I sincerely hope they don’t half-ass the effort in the name of DLC or mass appeal by watering down the implementation. I look forward to seeing it in June.