SimCity hands-on: "clever, beautiful and terribly, terribly addictive"

Tom Senior

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Curved roads look nice, but grids are more efficient.

Hobo Town is thriving. I've just upgraded City Hall from a modest townhouse to a sandstone palace and the entire city is celebrating. Fireworks burst overhead. Citizens cheer. Green smilies spring from every building in a great concentric shockwave with City Hall at its centre. I've set off a 20-ton payload of pure joy. It feels amazing. I am a brilliant mayor.

"I've set off a 20-ton payload of pure joy. It feels amazing. I am a brilliant mayor."

It's not the sort of hit I expect from a citybuilding sim. The SimCity series has always provided a banquet of slow-burn rewards for the patient, analytical player. The compulsive pleasure of creating well-organised districts with perfectly spaced roads and excellent healthcare. The smugness of seeing your city's coffers swell with tax takings as big industry takes root. With the help of the new Glassbox Engine, this reboot from Maxis adds a sleek layer of polish and a spark of instant gratification.

Hobo Town wasn't always a paradise. Not long ago my people were wading through sewage. My lazy scattering of health clinics were stretched to breaking point as citizens fell sick. The prosperous grid of industrial complexes I had constructed to the north started farting putrid yellow clouds into my high-rise apartment blocks in the city centre, poisoning more people and damaging property values in Hobo Town's most opulent area.

Sims love a good fireworks display.

The Glassbox engine lets you examine the damage through a collection of visual overlays. Information contained in tables and popups in previous SimCity games is projected onto your 3D view of the city in real-time. Select the sewage overlay and you'll see waste flowing in dark blobs as if down your city's streets. Blobs that emerge near outflow pipes lurch towards them in waves, like dark blood cells pulsing through asphalt veins. The rest coalesce and come to a stop. If you zoom in you hear disgusted citizens retching.

"Hobo Town's citizens now only existed to support the city's growing germ population."

You can view your city through dozens of info-lenses. The water overlay renders the terrain in shades of blue. Deeper shades indicate superior water tower sites. The land value view draws 3D graph bars on every building in the city. The tallest, greenest stems are on the cusp of upgrading to larger, more productive structures. Public transport coverage is drawn like a heat map on your streets. You can even see which buildings in your city have highest germ population.

It was the final view that told me all I needed to know about Hobo Town's single biggest problem. Every building burned bright red. I realised that Hobo Town's citizens now only existed to support the city's growing germ population. If germs could vote, I'd struggle to think of a reason to keep people around.

Surviving germ-o-geddon proved tricky. Citizens require jobs, good transport, places to shop and parks to have romantic walks in. Running a city means facing down a cacophony of needs, and it's impossible to please everyone. The extra sewage outflow pipes I had to install triggered waves of disgust in local areas. Then a serial killer started a rampage. There are many, many plates to spin.

Tornadoes choose the worst time to strike.

SimCity's complexity is softened by disarming, vibrant visuals. Every building looks like a pristine miniature. Peg-like citizens garble nonsense to themselves as they walk the streets. With a flick of the mousewheel you can drop from your heavenly perspective and observe their daily routines. Click and you'll find that every citizen has a name, concerns, a home and a job. If they're unemployed and unhappy they can turn to crime and police officers with tiny guns will arrest them in the street.

"Sims' movements directly affect the running of your city."

This isn't just visual fluff. Your sims' movements directly affect the running of your city. A shop won't open for the day until the individuals that work there have arrived, and it shuts when they leave. A new power plant won't give up any juice until workers have accepted jobs and driven up in their cars. Unhappy Sims will picket City Hall. Curved roads look nice, but grids are more efficient.

It's a significant step away from the invisible, zone-based calculations of former SimCity games. The result is a more intricate system that pulls you deeper into the streets. Service buildings such as police stations, schools and hospitals can be upgraded with additional modules. You can plop down individual ambulance bays, then watch those ambulances sweep through the streets, rescuing the sick and injured. From garbage collection to bus transit, the humdrum operations that prop up urban existence are modelled in fine detail. The city behaves more like an organism than a mathematical construct.

If Hobo Town is an organism, it's a vast, flatulent badger. Its residential zones flank a central stripe of rich commercial avenues. In previous SimCity games, you'd build cities by boxing out zones. Now they're built around roads. You start a city by sketching out a skeletal frame of streets, then paint the roadsides green (residential), blue (commercial) or yellow (industrial) to decide the sort of buildings that will pop up there. Public service buildings – police stations, fire stations, water towers and power stations – must be placed manually.

Tall buildings only appear in booming cities.

It wasn't until I built a huge nuclear powerplant on the southern outskirts that I realised my city had no schools. I'd smashed my coal plants to make room for the beast, so it was nuclear or nothing. Unfortunately, nobody in Hobo Town was smart enough to run it properly. Should I shut it down and deny the city power, or let a band of idiots take control and risk a nuclear meltdown? I chose the second option. I am a terrible mayor.

"This level of detail comes with constraints. Towns are much smaller than SimCity fans will be used to."

I love that I can follow those unskilled workers to the nuclear plant every morning and tell them “please god don't set fire to the uranium” in the misguided hope that the words sink into their AI subroutines, but this level of detail comes with constraints. SimCity's towns are much smaller than fans of the series will be used to. Maxis reckon that the building size is equivalent to a medium map in previous SimCity games, but it feels smaller than that. That's partly because terrain elements like cliffs and water can render areas unbuildable, and partly because the new ability to build curved roads can result in beautiful but inefficient city layouts.

The boundary constraints are as much a design choice as a technological limitation. In SimCity you're encouraged to build a network of multiple cities spread across a pre-built chunk of terrain called a 'region'. You'll get several pre-ordained areas to build in, which can't be modified. Each town must specialise, and use its surpluses to sate the needs of the others. SimCities would be a more accurate name. I asked lead producer Kip Katsarelis why Maxis opted for this model.

“We wanted to put more game back into SimCity,” he told me. “We know there's going to be a sandbox, we know there's going to be crazy unlimited creativity, but we wanted to bring back more game. One of the things about game design is putting constraints around gameplay, because that's going to afford the players more decisions and put more control in their hands.”

SimCity presents complex information in beautiful ways.

City specialisations are built into the game as a series of advanced buildings that Maxis call “the big businesses.” These constructs can dramatically influence the look, tone and resource output of your city and offer a series of miniature challenges that bring some clear objectives to your sandbox tinkering.

"Big businesses can level up over time. A high-level gambling HQ unlocks new mega casinos with various exuberant themes."

I decided to turn Hobo Town into a gambling city and started scattering casinos throughout my residential zones. Once they'd earned a enough of revenue, I was able to build a gambling HQ, an ominous silver building that dwarfed my town hall. Like the town hall, big businesses can level up over time. A high-level gambling HQ unlocks new mega casinos with various exuberant themes. It wasn't long before I was dazzling my citizens with a glowing pink science fiction-themed establishment.

There's a good selection of specialisations to choose from, and they're entirely optional. If you don't fancy fleecing your citizens with a network of gambling joints, you can turn your town into a microcosm of Silicon Valley, full of sleek laboratories developing the technology of the future.

Alternatively, you can place landmarks and build airports to create a top tourist destination. If you've ever fancied being an oil baron, you can set up a big oil corporation and start drilling the earth. Each HQ comes with its own set of challenges.

Hobo Town had reached maximum capacity when I started experimenting with big businesses. I had gone too far. My people were addicted to gambling, and I was addicted to building gambling buildings. I was knocking down peoples' houses to make room for 24-hour poker bars. It was time to move elsewhere and found a new town. A clean, germ-free place full of hope and, more importantly, water. Hobo Town was running dry. I needed a pipeline. Out of this single need, Aqua Town was born.

Aqua Town's water plants supply two cities.

Managing your cities' relationships is straightforward. With a single click you can pull out from city view to your region view, which gives you a bird's eye angle on your city states. From there you select resources from a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, and order your cities to trade. Once Aqua Town was up and running, I had it piping vast volumes of H2O south into Hobo Town. In return, Hobo Town was able to divert spare squad cars to keep Aqua Town crime-free.

"Citizens were much more productive once the threat of imminent atomic doom was removed."

Vehicles that have travelled from other towns are highlighted in city view, which makes their trading relationships feel more tangible, but there's plenty more going on behind the scenes. Citizens will migrate organically according to their needs. Soon my university in Hobo Town was full of bright-eyed students commuting from Aqua Town, and I was finally able to recruit some skilled workers to stop my power plant from having a nuclear meltdown. Hobo Town's citizens were much more productive once the threat of imminent atomic doom was removed.

It's these subtle knock-on effects that make SimCity so engrossing. The new layer of presentational flash makes construction feel tactile and instantly enjoyable, but it was the plans I had that made me want to keep playing, and playing. I wanted to create a city of pure industry supported by a town of power plants, both backed up by a hedonistic gambling paradise to keep the workers happy. With that productive and highly exploitative ecosystem in place, I'd start pooling resources toward a 'great work'. These million-buck mega-builds are single projects that occupy a city-sized space in the middle of a region. They're expensive, but it's the price you've got to pay if you want to send a rocket into space.

Disgruntled citizens picket City Hall.

If you need a hand gathering funds for a space centre, you can invite players to take control of cities in your region. SimCity's multiplayer mode encourages players to coordinate their builds and trade wisely to ensure mutual profit for all, although you're free to build a factory town and smother them with pollution if you wish. Online leaderboards will rate your cities based on dozens of factors, including how densely populated, profitable and eco-friendly they are. Regular challenges should encourage players to build new types of city for a specific purpose, like taxing the rich, for example. The top 20 percent of city-builders will receive an achievement for their efforts. It's another stage in Maxis's plan to give SimCity sessions more structure without ruining its sandbox element.

"You won't be able to play if you're not connected to the internet. I'm not convinced this is a good trade-off for players."

Leaderboards will surely trigger fierce competition in the PC Gamer office, but the real-time multiplayer option feels redundant. Why would I give up control of a big chunk of my carefully planned intercity ecosystem to some stranger? The multiplayer mode is also one of the reasons for SimCity's always-online requirement, which ensures you won't be able to play at all if you're not connected to the internet. The promise of constant updates and hands-on time with the multiplayer mode has done little to convince me that this is a good trade-off for players.

It'd be a real shame if that ends up alienating people. After six hours with the game, I was hopelessly hooked. The shift in scale may irritate long-time fans of the series, but this slick new SimCity is clever, beautiful and terribly, terribly addictive. You have been warned.

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