This past weekend, a few of us got our grubby mitts on the new SimCity beta release. Capped at an hour of play before your design was lost forever, the more-of-an-extended-demo-than-a-beta beta was a bit of tease, but it also provided a lot of insight into what we’re waiting for in early March. N and Rob watched far too many of their cities wash away into the digital dust, but have some firm impressions about Maxis’ and EA’s new city builder. Check it out!
This new SimCity scratches an incredible itch. I’ve dreamt of this game for so long. From what I’ve gotten into so far (which is, admittedly, not much at all), it’s going to go a long way toward that, but perhaps not all the way. When SimCity 3000 debuted in 1999, I longed for a game in which trucks from neighboring burgs hauled raw materials into your town to assemble your city’s infrastructure, component by component. A game where you could see every Sim and experience mass interactions between them. A game where you can see the simulations of your city occur outside the realm of a spreadsheet.
Now we can.
Since SimCity 2000 debuted twenty years ago (has it been that long?), Maxis and EA have done the best they could with the horsepower available, ultimately ending up with games that really weren’t much different than what Will Wright and Fred Haslam did way back when. This is a totally new creature with much of EA’s hubris far and away from the playing field.
Many complained that an hour-long play session to build a city was a bit too much of a tease. They’re not wrong, but they’re not quite right, either. I stopped playing at around four attempts in because I didn’t really want to sample too much of the magic before the final game arrived. Then there’s the fact that you spend an hour at a time building some wonderful town and then it disappears into the ether, forever. You can’t get them back, so why bother?
Still others complained about the city’s size. Compared to the days of old, these are pretty small lots to be erecting a city in. In fact, they’re a bit less City and more Town than ever. But there’s two reasons I can think of as to why:
– The game is complex enough that a massive, sprawling simulation would probably crash your machine, or at least super bog it down like I remember SC3K doing, way back when (remember all those blue ice cube trays as the city loaded? Yep.).
– The game wants you to specialize each city you build. Given enough time and space, you could create a fangless urban blob that would feature every facet and be perfect in every way. SimCity plays with regions, which have a few lots to build cities in and a dedicated, shared space (which seems a little contrived, but okay) to build a mega project like an arcology. One town will be a casino town, another will be a tech haven, and so on. Each one will have a different point. That’s what SimCity is getting at.
In this space, you arrange the framework of a city with roads. Unlike previous games, you don’t lay out parcels for particular zones, you place the roads and map zones to them. It’s an interesting shift from the old games in which destroying roads destroys all the related property as well. You’re also given a lot of control over how these roads are laid out, such as arcs or even ellipses, generated wonderfully, although it has some issues. For the first few times you’ll play, your city’s layout will probably look like a children’s drawing. The game helps with guidelines that allow you to place more sensical lines, but they’re not perfect. When placing arced roads, the guides don’t provide enough space between them for two rows of properties, leaving you with many single rows of houses with large back yards. There was no way I could tell to adjust these and although I have no diagnosed OCD, I was a little disturbed at all my wasted space. Structures stretch themselves out for the space they have available, but not quite well enough for my taste. If you have an eye-shaped, narrow space between two roads, forget placing residential: those properties are narrow and deep, leaving you with one or two before the rest of the space is wasted.
Like zones, water and power are propagated through the road system as well. No need for power lines or elaborate underground pipe systems anymore: they just need to fly along your existing road structures to get the job done. Named structures like schools and police departments are upgradable through a Spore-like modular system that boosts their ratings and responsiveness by adding police cars or helipads. It’s fantastic. The game also has incredibly innovative ways of presenting information to you, such as sewage, population (since each Sim in your city is an actual entity, rather than an abstraction, you can see their exact composition) or power. Also fantastic. The best simulation may be the traffic, in which a poorly laid out city will cause endless bottlenecks that were merely a passing nuisance in previous games. You understand your Sims’ pain when they’re sitting at light-free intersections waiting for generous drivers to stop, which they won’t, while lines and lines of cars wait and wait.
The game ran poorly on my laptop and fine on my older desktop because the latter had a superior video card. I thought the opposite would be true because of the intensity of the simulation. Not so much. I was only able to run the game at medium lighting, which is the “make game look good” setting, and it was a dazzler. The amount of procedural work this game does is amazing. The tutorial, a major first for the series, was a bit stiff. It throws a lot of information at you and since your hand is being held throughout, I didn’t get to retain much info.
The game’s in beta and while I don’t expect much to change ahead of its gold pressing (which is soon, no doubt), I am more excited about Maxis’ new flagship game than ever before.
Yeah, look…I’ve played pretty much every SimCity game there ever was. Was that because I like the concept of running what amounts to a graphical spreadsheet? No. It was because everyone I knew was playing the latest and greatest version and in order for me to have something to talk to them about, because that’s all they were talking about, I had to get with the program.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my time with the game because, for the most part, I did. I would have a lot of fun, right up to the point that I found myself wanting more. I wanted to have more flexibility. I wanted to have more control. I wanted to have more detail. I wanted to see the city growing and bustling and becoming a living, breathing space. Unfortunately, I was never given any of these things.
With the new SimCity, though, Maxis has handed all of that to me on a silver platter. It’s like they read my mind and gave me almost everything I ever wated from a SimCity game. gone are the days when I would set up a building and watch it slowly grow, with no input from me. Gone are the days when I would look at my streets and see little dashes moving around. Gone are the days, I dare say, when I played SimCity and thought “this game would be a lot cooler, IF…”
I think N covered most of the great points…the technical stuff. What I have to say is simply this: Building a casino town in beta and watching that town grow so busy, so alive and so crowded due to my being TOO efficient with the population growth and not efficient enough with my transit system, to the point that fire trucks, ambulaces and police cars couldn’t get out of the fire station, hospital and police station, while a building was burning down and a murderer was on the loose… That filled me with a kind of warmth that I haven’t ever felt for a SimCity game.
No, not because a murderer was on the loose but because the city my hands built was alive. It had a mind and a life all its own… and I was the architect of that. I made ALL of the choices. I decided to make certain areas higher value. I decided to put more police presence in the high value areas and I decided to leave my inner city overcrowded and the results of those decisions exactly mirrored the expected outcomes.
It wasn’t just a SimCity, it was MY SimCity.