As a mea culpa for SimCity‘s disastrous debut, Electronic Arts offered a number of free titles as compensation. Reading other SimCity reviews, I caught on to a kind of collective fondness for the last game in the series, SimCity 4, which debuted ten years ago. Of course, that reminded me that it had been about that long since I’d purchased the game with its bundled Rush Hour expansion, played it for a handful of hours, and then stuffed it back into its double-wide box, never to play it again. I felt that maybe I had short-changed the game all those years ago, a strange thing since I loved 2000 and enjoyed 3000 nearly as much, but for the price of free, I was curious whether my opinion would change after so long, after I’d experienced so much.
God, Mayor and Beyond
Boom! The first thing SimCity 4 slams in your face is its loud-and-proud “Challenge Everything!” stamp that adorned all of the game’s contemporaries at EA, a fine relic of the Probst era. Once the formalities are over, you’re introduced to the region view. It’s like what you’d see in the new SimCity, but these lots are of varying size and all snuggled up next to each other in a sensical manner. Picking a lot, many of which are about four times are larger than the ones in the new game, you’re offered to sculpt the landscape with the game’s much-advertised God mode. Many people have complained about the feature’s absence in SimCity, but modifying terrain was something I got over in 2000 (which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed some hill grading in the new game). The first thing you may notice, or at least I did, is how old the game feels. Despite the landscape being rendered in 3D, zoom is constrained to a few drastic notches, making any use of the scroll wheel a jarring experience.
Slipping into Mayor mode is how the game starts and when my irritation with the design begins. You’re given multiple difficulty modes, with the hardest taunting that growth rate will be slower than normal, but at each step, you’re given wads of cash to start with. The aforementioned hard difficulty grants you $100,000 in Simoleons to start while the easy difficulty gives you a half-million, effectively making the game a sandbox. You can still zone for density here, which makes sense when you’re trying to paint a downtown area or what have you, but the way the new game handles it is so much more organic and fulfilling that I can’t say I missed being able to specify right off the bat.
With a surplus of money, creating cities is a talentless job. In a hybrid of ideas, you still mark parcels for zoning like the old games, but the roads are automatically generated inside them along with individual lots, which removes much of the joy of, well, laying out a city. I suppose you could take the time to lay down your city block by block and let the game automatically adopt its lots to your style, but that becomes time-consuming and ultimately useless. After a few hours of this and laying down mundane utilities like pipes (yes, tucking the infrastructure into the roads was a brilliant idea), I was really getting bored with the game. There are even ploppables, tons of them, and they’re presented in lists with such indifference that it never made much sense why I should be laying down one kind of park over another aside from aesthetic reasons. Schools and other institutions fell to the same issues. Playing SimCity 4 feels like you’re merely painting the landscape. Maybe there’s some hidden joy in filling your assigned lot and then tuning it for maximum population, but I wasn’t tempted to invest that much time in the game.
One of the biggest things I remembered about this game was the content added in Rush Hour, back when add-on content came in a separate big box for thirty to forty dollars and included a lot of it at once. Because EA felt we were asking for it, this expansion allows you to commandeer a variety of vehicles for missions around your town. These are simple things in which you play a cop racing from one end of the city to another, or you’re driving the mayor (despite being the mayor) from one end of the city to another, but it’s not the missions themselves that are a drag, it’s actually having to drive a car from the same isometric perspective you build the city from. Once you hop into one of these cars, you’re stripped of your HUD and zoomed into the landscape. Handling could not be less awkward and you’ll be thankful of the plentiful health bar as you strike vehicles over and over again. You’ll even drive over the corners of many of your city’s 2D buildings despite some otherwise decent collision detection. You’ll complete these little quests for reputation or simoleons, but never really feel satisfied.
Maybe people were excited about the game’s crazy new disasters or its discrete God mode or the ability to import their Sims from that Sims game that was selling super, super well in those days, but as a city builder, SimCity 4 is a clunker. Maxis threw plenty of content in here, perhaps even the kitchen sink, but little of it matters when the core principles of the game are so misguided. Being handed the game for free, I felt like I paid for it in wasted time. I’m not sure what lit my colleagues’ fire about this game when it debuted, but I’m glad Maxis learned so much from it.