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SimCity Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 1/27/2013

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It's been a while since the biggest name in life sim games, developer Maxis, made the kind of game that got them fame in the first place. The Sims franchise has dominated their operations for many years now, and this year's SimCity revival caps off about a decade of waiting for fans of the city-building sensation. For gamers like me who never really got into the series or only just played around with it a bit, we don't really have a clear frame of reference for what's changed and what's better. Still, first impressions of Maxis' SimCity beta make a few things clear, but the biggest one is that the look and style of The Sims has been transplanted into this game and made a central part of the UI and some game systems, and that's going to frustrate some gamers - especially those who have waited through countless The Sims expansions hoping for EA to return to the games that made Sim-anything so popular in the first place.

But does this integration make the game actually worse over, say, some kind of less cartoonish look and feel? I doubt it, and it seems like many of the more peculiar and interesting parts of what Maxis has learned simulating people has been brought in here to make a deeper game when everything's brought to the city level. Individual people and their families are simulated and tracked, and that necessity brought Maxis to build a deeper level of simulation in other areas just to sort of make things a little more consistent throughout the game. Could all of that have been done without the weird non-verbal speak, fake currency, or mildly bubbly interface? Probably, but those are all stylistic things, but a soundly-made game underneath is the most important thing to me.

The current beta is single-player only with a time limit of an hour and a restricted number of buildings along with what seems like a relatively small plot, and this leads me to believe that this beta is less about true beta testing and more about getting buzz out there, collecting some compatibility results, stress testing the game's online-only system (more on that later), and additionally some general feedback too, as the game does open a browser to a survey when you quit out of it. Even with all of those limitations, SimCity still shows us a deep game with interesting problems that players will have to solve if they ever want to upgrade beyond just a small town.

It starts out relatively simple for the player: you build some roads then zone for residential, commercial, and industrial so people have a place to live, shop, and work, and those houses and businesses get built automatically and without cost to you. Shortly after that, you spend money to build a little bit of infrastructure like water, sewer, and power, and connections for all of this automatically run along roads you build. Eventually you'll have to start doing more complex things, like making sure you've got high, middle, and low income housing, and keeping each of those groups of people happy with nearby parks and access to education. Then you'll have to get up a hospital, a dump for garbage pickup, and more.

All of this is delivered with a simple interface that reminds you of problems and shows you how to fix them, and if that's not enough, a nice tutorial at the beginning not only shows you how to get around the interface and solve basic issues in your city, but it gives you a glimpse into some of the features the full game will have that aren't running in the main beta - like regions where multiple cities occupy the same large landmass, and how you can work together with other towns to specialize and help each other out.

Many intermediate things are presented in the game, too, as you can play with tax rates, set up clean power, and improve roads to deal with the increased traffic of a larger city. Again, this beta limits players not only with its one-hour time limit but in the area you're limited to build in, but it becomes easy to see how SimCity will be layering on the complexity. I can't speak to how much or how little from the past games is in here since any intricacies of the originals are just a distant memory to me. But even just thinking back to the last city management game I played, Tropico 4, this one may lack the flavor and style of the Latin theme, but it's certainly got more meat to its management and strategy. (I'm aware that the comparison is weak at best, but it's what I've got.)

EA's already taken flak for forcing players to always be connected to their servers to play SimCity; there's no offline mode, even if you're playing alone. I do wish EA would back off of that and deliver a limited-functionality offline mode that simply works inside the same boundaries that you get when playing other Origin-based games offline, and some warnings spelling out what you are missing out when playing offline-only would be fine, too. Still, actually playing online is pretty interesting, because you can have people on your friends list making cities in the same region so that you have someone to play alongside - and yeah, they'll still be there when your friends are offline, too. None of that is shown in this beta, but it was shown at E3 last year and it looks like a blast.

From a technical perspective, the game looks wonderful and the up-close view of a bustling city is really entertaining. The high detail settings require some pretty beefy hardware to get running properly, and if you're not running a high-end gaming PC then you'll almost surely want to turn down the lighting setting to improve your framerate, but either way this game can show a pretty impressive amount of detail on a scale that we rarely ever see. The range of detail options isn't exactly exhaustive, but it'll help you get the game running on what I imagine could even be as low as Intel's current-gen integrated video like the HD4000.

Some gamers will not like the direction EA and Maxis went in with the cartoony Sims style and lack of offline mode, but I just don't see these as massive problems for the majority of gamers. What is important here is the difficulty curve being smooth on the way to some big complexity along with good feedback to let players know where they're doing well and what areas of their build they need to improve, and I'm highly impressed with all of that here. Will SimCity become a guaranteed success? I won't go that far, but I see its potential issues being worth the big payoff in how Maxis is making strategy and management much more fun than I expected it to be.



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