I found the SimCity beta invitation that arrived in my inbox last week to be quite a bittersweet occasion. I’ve mentioned here before that SimCity was the most exciting release of the year for me, thanks to the promised overhaul of traditional mechanics and systems within the shiny new GlassBox engine. Years of substandard copycats, full of ambition yet completely rubbish at converting it into playable form (hey there, Cities XL), tended to miss the point of what made the original Sim City so spectacular.
It wasn’t just about developing ridiculously sprawling cities, full of 86 different forms of transport, nor was it about ridiculously complex and expensive water pipelines. It was about the perfect whole; creating a city that organically grew around your choices, balancing the books and keeping your people happy. While I only had an hour to preview the changes, I came away not only impressed but a little disappointed that some of the more heavily touted multiplayer options were not available to test.
It was unfortunate that EA, for some reason that I can’t begin to fathom, decided to place heavily restrictive conditions on this particular beta period.
First of all, the period was only 3 days long — which wouldn’t have been such a problem, except for the fact that you could only play a very limited set of parameters for one hour. So while it was great to experience many of the bells and whistles we’d all become teased and tantalized with via the various development videos released over the past few months, the portion of the title that would have benefited the most from a beta test wasn’t even available. Regions, first introduced in Sim City 4, have been thoughtfully expanded into an integral part of the game, pushing SimCity into MMORTS territory and almost forcing players to collaborate (or compete) with other cities created by other players or themselves.
Both the tutorial and the free-play modes refer constantly to all of the potentially cool and interesting new possibilities of these features… but then forbid you from actually testing any of them.
Fortunately, what you are able to do in the hour provided is play one of the most refined, streamlined and clever interpretations of a city sim since, well, the original. While the original core elements still exist, from RCI to the various transport and power options, many of the bugbears that plagued both casual and hardcore players alike have been given a much needed work-over No longer do you need to spend hours underground, piecing convoluted water grids together, attempting to wrangle highway chunks or digging subway trenches that end up coming expensive white elephants.
Roads, as they are in reality, become the veins of your city, automatically carrying everything from power to sewage, removing the need to create pointless overhead power lines (almost obsolete in most modern cities) or sanitation systems. Instead, the onus turns to the cultivation and conservation of those resources, from creating the correct placement for wind power, finding a coal supply or a continual source of clean water.
It’s a radical change of pace, and one that will probably upset a lot of long term players, especially those that found an almost masochistic pleasure in developing the same grids that I despised. Much of the budgetary issues that prevented many players from enjoying earlier titles were due to the obscene cost and “no going back” permanency of those investments, and the change from grid maintenance to concentrating on the things that matter, like the safety, education and economic success of your citizens, is very welcome. The big changes continue with the new zoning system, that allows free cultivation of Residential, Commercial or Industrial properties, again, removing budgetary problem stemming from early misplacement of growth, but at the same time, a lot of the difficulty that came with the decision of placement.
But that’s not to say that SimCity still isn’t hard, especially as your population expands — but these changes have made it significantly more accessible to new and casual players. These changes come with a distinct price, however, and that is the drastic shift to the importance of road placement, city specialization and building placement.
Government is now an industry of its own, and the placement of important buildings can not only unlock certain financial benefits, but features that improve the wealth of citizens or transport capabilities. Roads are now obscenely expensive, due to the reduction in cost of the now automated mechanics, and are now the primary factor in how your city will live or die. Go cheap on roads, and your essential utilities will not route correctly. Build plants and towers too far away from your populace and they won’t reach many citizens. Put fire, ambulance and police stations too far out or create poor road networks and the cars will get stuck in traffic or simply too long to get where they are needed. Not only that, but special buildings are significantly more expensive, and can be the catalyst to an advanced, successful metropolis or a crime ridden backwater.
The jury is out on whether many gamers will find the game is “too” simplified. Sure, there’s less of an emphasis on charts and numbers, but they are still there, just in places where they actually matter (like surplus power or water, for instance, or how many ambulances you have and their response times). Your city is stuck within a 2x2km grid, but this is due to EA’s decision to shift the focus to the much more accessible region system — although, as previously mentioned, I wasn’t able to see how this actually worked, or if this negated the loss of a sprawling metropolis.
But at the same time, with our planet becoming more focused on tighter, more urban spaces, consider: is sprawl itself a mechanic, like overhead powerlines, that is obsolete? Is Maxis possibility trying to get us to change our minds on how cities should interact with one another, sharing resources and specializing in particular industry that complements its neighbours? Hell, even their Education mechanics state that a schooled citizen is much less likely to “get injured, commit a crime or start a fire”. There is a lot more to this game than a little tidbit scraped off the surface and stuffed into an hour block.
I loved SimCity, and I’m more excited than ever to check out the final product in March. However, beta restrictions meant many of the other more interesting changes, like city specializations, are barely covered outside aspects of the “Gambling” option, which while fun was neutered to seemingly offer only the benefits and none of the disadvantages. It also was obvious how integral the multiplayer is once the hour was over: looking at my barely developed city, it was almost begging for some kind of partner or influence to help it become something special or unique.
It was honestly surprising that so little was offered in the only chance before final press access to make an wholesome impression, but, to be fair, I enjoyed every single second of it. Welcome back, SimCity. We missed you.