In 1989 Maxis gave us the world’s first city-building game. Now, 24 years later and almost a decade since the last proper SimCity game (totally ignoring the misstep that was SimCity Societies), we have a new game in the series.

Retooled and rebooted, does the new SimCity have the chops to continue the legacy of this classic gaming franchise?

Let’s get it over with straight away; SimCity’s biggest difference from the previous games in the series is that needs to be connected to the internet during play. There is no offline mode.  SimCity is an online game.

Simcity 2013The first thing that SimCity asks a new player to do is choose a server. EA’s servers are scattered about the world and it is important to choose the right one. Not only does it make sense to use a server geographically close to you but also, you can only play with friends that have cities on the same servers as you. It’s worth coordinating your server choice with your mates if you intend on playing together.

The game’s, rather contentious, requirement for a constant connection to the internet and its reliance on connecting with EA’s servers was the reason for the game’s rather difficult launch. With EA’s severs unable to cope with the day-one SimCity logins, a multitude of players found that they couldn’t play the game. There were also issues with severs going down mid-game and players losing their cities. EA were well and truly caught with their pants down.

Now that the dust has settled on the game’s laboured emotional birth, for the most part SimCity’s problems are behind it. The requirement for an anyways-on internet connection remains an issue for some, with both EA and Maxis not really doing a very good a good job in justifying why it is needed. Personally, I don’t see it as a problem, as long as the EA servers are OK; really it’s no different to any MMO. No one moans at not being able to play World of Warcraft offline. Why EA didn’t just call the game SimCity Online, and save themselves all the fuss, is anyone’s guess.

SimCity 2013Having chosen a server the game takes player through a rather vital tutorial that I recommend isn’t skipped.  SimCity games, by their very nature are complex affairs. Even though the tutorial is a good half-hour in length, by the end of it there is still much to learn. Luckily, SimCity continues to ease new players into the game beyond the tutorial.

With the tutorial out of the way it is time to choose the region that you wish to place your new city.SimCity is a city-building game. Players get to plan, build and run their own city. But things don’t stop at the city limits. SimCity cities exist in regions – a concept first introduced in SimCity4. Each region has a number of areas for potential cities. As cities grow they can interact between their neighbours, sharing resources and pooling efforts.

Players can chose to found their city in a fresh, unpopulated region, or in one with other cities run by other players.  It is this regional interconnectivity that requires that much-maligned internet connectivity.

With a city area chosen in the region, it is time to lay the foundation of the future metropolis. Cities are connected to the region by road and sometimes rail. If the city has a coastline a ferry connection will also be available with the creation of a harbour. There are also airports, but they come later.

The most important thing, early on, is getting a road network down and connected to the region. With the road network in place zoning can start. In SimCity land is zoned a either residential, commercial or industrial.

SimCity 2013People (known in-game as Sims) build houses in residential areas, offices and shops in commercial and factories in industrial. The success of a city depends on the right balance of these three zone types. Over time the Sims will want to intensify development, this is facilitated by upgrading roads which can range from dirt tracks to huge separated highways.

As well as roads and zones, the city needs utilities. Power, water, sewage and garbage infrastructure needs to be put in place, or purchased from neighbouring cities; see the importance of that internet connection and regions now?Failing to provide the Sims with the services they want will result in them abandoning your city.

As the city grows the Sims need schools, fire stations and police; all of which cost money. To avoid rising taxes, which nobody likes, these service can be careful customised according to the likely usage. For instance the amount of classrooms can be increased in order to provide enough education for the population, but no more, saving money. The same goes for the fire stations, police stations, medical clinics and hospitals.

Things like industrial zones, sewage outfalls and coal-powered power stations need to be carefully positioned away and downwind from residential zones, unless you are planning a ghetto city. The same goes for coal mines, ore mines and oil rigs. Nobody wants that sort of thing in their back yard, but it is a bit difficult if that is exactly where the coal seam is!

As the city grows and the zones intensify, more vehicles hit the roads. Just as in real life, you’ll never get all the vehicles of the roads, but the implementation of a public transport provision can lessen the strain of the road network. Buses, streetcars and trains all help reduce traffic congestion.

SimCity 2013The vast upgrade tree that powers the cities growth is dependent on City Hall upgrades. The Department of Transport upgrade allows for more efficient public transport and the Department of Safety better healthcare, fire stations and police services. The Department of Finance opens up better control of city budgets and taxation. What’s great is that once any of these special departments have been built elsewhere in the region, even if they are in cities run by other players, the upgrades are unlocked for all.

The interaction between other cities in the region is important if players wish their city to specialise. A city in a region with a high workforce may not need as much residential zones, with industrial and commercial zones providing jobs for out-of-towners. Cities can also lean towards tourism and even embrace gambling to become a mini Las Vegas; stuffed with casinos and the criminal elements that go hand-in-hand.

There is never a shortage of things to do in SimCity.

There are so many upgrades and tweaks that can be carried out in creating the perfect city. To keep things exciting, there are a number of challenges that are offered to layers during the game, from building schools to providing the city with a superhero. And just when you think it is all going just right, a meteor shower or a monster attack will come along to mix things up a bit.

There’s just something about these strategy sandbox games that makes them so hard to put down, and SimCity is no exception. Whilst a good shooter or RPG will suck you in, a game like SimCity is more likely to have you switch the lights out to go to bed only to find the sun’s up and you need to be at work in three hours.

SimCity 2013SimCity is far more accessible than the decade old SimCity 4. The city areas are smaller, and more intimate. Unlike the sprawling urban jungles of the past, SimCity players can concentrate their attention at a neighbourhood level rather than the sweeping adjustments in previous games.

Whether hard-core city-builders will be able to embrace this small scale remains to be seen. For some, this game will be more like SimTown than the SimCity that they were expecting. The level of detail and visual feedback that SimCity provides players with is astounding; it’s more than any previous SimCity game. But it is at odds with the more stats heavy game of the past. Veteran SimCity players are going to see this as dumbing the game down.

And they are right, to a point.

Whilst there’s no doubt in my mind that this incarnation of SimCity is a hugely entertaining game, I call into question its claims to be a proper city simulation such as the likes of SimCity 4 or CitiesXL. Under the games hood, the GlassBox engine is an agent-based network simulator; agents being cars, people, poop, water and electricity etc., and the network being the road.

SimCity 2013The more efficiently stuff travels around the network the happier everybody is and the more the city thrives. Throw in some building fires and you are done; that’s SimCity in a nutshell. Whilst this type of simulation is fine at a superficial level, it doesn’t seem to provide the same level of sophistication that previous SimCity games gave us. And that is a great shame.

All the time I found myself missing the vast toolbox of SimCity 4, I couldn’t just pop in a few trees, or place a subway system. There are only a handful of city components in SimCity compared to its predecessor.

This incarnation of SimCity is more of a game than bona fide city simulator; the cities are tiny compared to those in SimCity 4. Ok, so there are the regions as well, but even they only allow for a few neighbouring cities. The SimCity 4 game that I’ve been playing for almost ten years has space for over a hundred massive cities in a one region as opposed to SimCity’s three of four.

The reduced size of the cities and the smaller regions is a bit a step back. Resulting is an experience thatis outwardly is less impressive than the likes of SimCity 4. The always on thing I can buy into, but it is a bit wasted in only a handful of players connected in a region, why Maxis couldn’t have thought bigger connecting regions and have thousands of players affects a global economy; a SimWorld as it were. I can assure you that no one would be moaning about the internet connection requirement then (which is a lie, as there is always someone).

SimCity 2013Whilst the simulation may not have the depth of previous outings, this time it’s more about quality over quantity. SimCity is, without a doubt, the best looking game in the series. For the first time, the cities are realised using 3D models, creating a little world inside the screen that looks like it could be real.

The cities miniature, model-like appearance is helped by a unique depth of field effect, known in photography circles as tilt-shift. The game camera’s short focal length blurs the background and foreground, limiting focus in similar way to a photograph of a tiny object.  Cities can be viewed from high above them or zoomed right down to street level allowing players to watch buildings going up and the little Sims going about their business. It’s enchanting just observing the city.

As fun as it is, like SimCity Societies before it SimCity does come across as a city-builder for players of The Sims. If you think that playing SimCity is going to teach you anything about town planning, transportation planning or infrastructure design you are very, very mistaken.It’s like an urban designer’s view of how cities work; or how you could explain a city to a child. SimCity is a game first and foremost and good game at that.

Newcomers to the genre or fans of The Sims looking for something a little more involved will have an absolute blast with SimCity. It is charming and looks absolutely beautiful.

The absence of a lot of the features from the previous games is going to completely turn off the hard-core. Some glaring omissions, like the lack of subway systems make me think that EA has an aggressive DLC strategy planned for the game.

This potential DLC and the constant update patches that EA are releasing, suggest to me that this good game is only going to get better in time.

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