Attending the recent EA Summer showcase, there was a recurring theme amongst all of the gaming press; everybody loved playing SimCity. And I mean everybody. Guys who prefer wasting zombie Nazis in BLOPS2 were having a ball managing the waste system of their little toy city; people who enjoy living the life of a drug trafficker in GTA were instead figuring out how to handle the traffic jams of their tiny town.
I’m more of a Town’s secretary than Mayor – I played way too much Settlers 7, and something like SimCity seemed way out of my pathetic micro-management league. Yet after completing the introduction mission, I had mastered SimCity’s intricate and layered ecosystem. That’s the real beauty of the new SimCity – despite being an onion of complexity, with layers upon layers of stats, the Glassbox engine includes visual indicators that make understanding what’s going possible in a single glance.
Before you even lay down the first slab of concrete, it’s wise to figure out where the natural resources are. Doing so is a matter of simply clicking the right menu item and the landscape dissolves into a transparent box, revealing the underlying coal seams and gas ponds below, just waiting to be extracted by your eager minions. It’s clear, and easy to understand – almost like an infographic view of your resources.
Once you’ve settled on the ideal place to destroy nature, it’s time to roll out roads with the new road laying tools. These have been totally revamped, making it much simpler to create gentle curves or sweeping bridges. The refined tools end up giving more intricate road networks when you’re done, but are simpler to use in the first instance. Try going up a cliff and the tool won’t let you – all roads are limited to the same gradient as the real world, with a maximum of around 35 degrees. With a few major roads splitting off into dual lane streets, I’d soon laid the foundations for my very own mini Big Apple, using a grid system to keep my OCD impulses happy.
Time to lay some residential areas then – once again, the tool automatically shows me where I can place them, and it’s just a matter of clicking and dragging to fill the spaces. And then I just sat there for several minutes, watching the dozens of workers driving up to the empty lot and begin building. It’s astonishing how detailed the game is, yet it doesn’t bring the demo PCs to a screeching halt. A few commercial and industrial centres later, and I’ve got a living, breathing city right before my eyes. It’s filled with inhabitants, and clicking on each one tells me where they’ve been and just how content they are with my creation.
As my city grows, problems like crime and pollution start to swell, but again I can click a single button to reveal an infographic, transparent version of the city. Brightly coloured areas show me exactly where I need to fix problems; the sewerage view shows brown blobs surging below each street, forming a block around the sewerage plant and indicating that I need to expand my poop-carrying capacity. Red buildings show where criminals have set up shop, though I should have noticed the environment filling with graffiti before now.
It’s this ability to strip your creation back to a single layer, exposing only the information that is most relevant, that will make managing cities in SimCity even easier than ever. The fact that your city truly feels alive, with realistic animations for any action you can think of – from fireman spraying out fires to garbage dumps burning off waste – means watching the city develop never gets old.
If the idea of building a city is about as appealing to you as reading a street directory, SimCity could be the game that changes your mind. The clever tools unleash more possibilities than ever before, but their focus on usability means it should never become overwhelming without a 400 page manual nearby. If it can convince a Battlefield 3-loving, Hitman Absolution slaying player like me to buy the full game, chances are there will be a whole influx of new players come SimCity’s March release date.