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

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.

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.

Tom Senior
Based in Bath with the UK team, Tom loves strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.