When I was a kid, I would go and play at my Uncle’s house occasionally. He was an engineer, and like most engineers, he had a computer set whose sole purpose in life was to out-calculate all the other computer set-ups in the family. My Father owned a 486. This was a Pentium I. On this computer I experienced many firsts. The first time I used Windows 95, the first time I used the ‘Start’ menu. The first time I saw a computer that had a scanner plugged into it, the first time I saw a computer with an internet connexion. In our family’s computing battle, this computer usually won. While the rest of us were on Windows 3.1, this computer was on Windows 95, when the rest of us finally made the upgrade to 95, this computer was onto 98.
My father himself was born in 1946. A true baby-boomer. He saw the Xerox PARC GUI project with his own two eyes, and was born the son of a man who had seen the worst of the 1930’s and 40’s. My Grandfather, despite this disadvantage, still loved games, and so my father loves games and cartoons, even to this day. I say all this because it gives you good idea as to why, even in the days when I myself couldn’t comprehend that you had to pay money for games, our 386 and the 486 that replaced it both had Clue, Frogger, and the original SimCity on them.
On my Uncle’s computer I also got to experience another first. The first time I played SimCity 2000. The original SimCity was an interesting game for me. It was the first time in my life, that at the ripe old age of 5 and 6 I could get into debates with my father over taxation policies when we played the game together. (He always wanted to tax the highest amount. I always wanted the least). It was the game where I could watch the green ‘R’ rectangles transform into little houses, the blue ‘C’ rectangles transform into business, and the small yellow ‘I’ rectangles transform into factories. (My father, being involved in industry for the majority of his life would devote the majority of his cities to factories, trying to teach me at a young age that an industrial base was the backbone to a successful nation. Being a child who loved the toy stores where I could buy shit, I would over load my cities with commercial and residential. Both our cities failed a lot, since neither of us were good at balance).
SimCity 2000 I loved because the houses, the businesses, and the factories all gained animations, and they gained a 3rd dimension. (It wasn’t really 3D, I know that now, but for this 90’s kid, SimCity 2000 had graphics so good, I could’ve assumed it was a Dalek plot to trap me in an imaginary world so they could invade with minimal resistance).
SimCity 3000 was the first time your advisors talked TO you instead of message boxing, and SimCity 4 was the first time that it was easy to figure out the exact relationship between a zone and the road next to it. It was also the first time that we saw the difference between streets, roads, and boulevards. The problem is aside from the introduction of more realistic looking cars, and colourful pedestrians, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 felt like SimCity 2000 with slightly different interfaces and mild improvements. Nothing too game changing, just EA milking yet another cash cow. (The Sim franchises are probably among the first franchises that EA figured it could suck the lifeblood out of. Later would come Medal of Honour, Battlefield, and any sports franchise you’ve ever played).
Then came SimCity Societies. It wasn’t actually made by Maxis, the company that originated SimCity for us. They were too busy making Spore, a mildly entertaining game you might recall that was supposed to be revolutionary, but really was unplayable after you made it to space, and was a place for the ever mature internet gamer to make a thousand and one cock, bum, tit, and vagina monsters to inhabit the player made worlds.
Thankfully, the underwhelming performance of Spore and the complete failure of SimCity Societies made EA and Maxis nostalgic. They tested the waters of their nostalgia with the release of SimCity Online, a browser version of the original SimCity. You know, the one that caused tax debates between my father and I. By most measures SimCity Online was a success. At least it was enough of a success to convince both EA and Maxis that it was time to give this whole SimCity thing another go.
Enter the reboot. This isn’t SimCity 5. It’s just SimCity. A Medal of Honour style reboot from a company that is realising they’ve defiled a lot of their best titles over the last decade. Now, here we go, I mentioned the Medal of Honour reboot, which was a racist, cliché failure. Mostly because it went up against the racist cliché success that is Call of Duty. (If you don’t think Call of Duty or the new Medal of Honour is racist, then you need a good, thorough lesson in Eastern Humanities, and the fact that not all brown people are enemies). So when we see this reboot, we have a right to be cautious.
Well, I preordered the new SimCity. Out of a sense of loyalty to the brand name. SimCity 4 still sits in my Steam library. I still play it whenever I want to build a city. With the preorder came access to the closed Beta, which was scheduled to happen on 16 February, 2013. The morning of 16 February, I awoke to an email sitting in my inbox telling me that today was the day. I would get 1 day to play SimCity. Each city would only last an hour before I’d have to start a new one, but I could play for all of 16 February and into the morning of 17 February.
First of all, I’d like to make it clear. I made it up to about 20,000 people in my city in my best hour. And I did 7 different cities. (That’s seven hours of play time, yes I’ve been waiting ages for a decent SimCity sequel to come). And yes. SimCity has been successfully rebooted. Maxis hasn’t lost its touch (despite whatever Spore may have suggested) and they’re not just hashing out more of the same old.
So where to begin on this amazing reboot? Well, let’s examine zoning again. We’ve come a long way from the rectangles of the original SimCity. But even SimCity 2000 got away from those. What’s interesting is how they cling to the street now. What is more, a smart grid, not unlike the one from Microsoft PowerPoint pops up when you’re drawing the roads that you will be lining the zones on. If you’re a very grid-based thinker when it comes to planning your cities, SimCity helps you draw the best grids with roads. Once again, you have several varieties of streets that can accommodate different load sizes, and have different upkeep costs. The interesting new road type? Heavy traffic with a street car down the middle.
Finally gone are the ‘light’, ‘medium’, and ‘heavy’ zone types. The load size of the road helps to determine what kind of building goes into the zone, in terms of its heaviness and such, but so does the improved land value system as well as an improved demand system. If a lot of people want residences, but there aren’t that many residential zones available, you’ll get a large block of flats, just as you’d expect from a ‘heavy’ residential zone in the older titles. It’s dynamic now, and frankly, more realistic. Your downtown areas are going to be more realistic now.
And let’s talk about the organic growth of cities. The growth from small village to big metropolis feels a lot more organic over all. The things your city requires grows as the city itself does. You no longer need a police and fire department right off the bat. You can share those resources with neighbouring cities much more efficiently than ever before, so your village of 1,000 won’t need a police department, clinic, or fire department until it grows into a real city. You can build fewer schools than before and expand the schools influence by adding bus routes to cover your residential zones. You can build a mass transit system and draw the bus lines yourself. Resource sharing, and utility management are much cleaner and friendlier than before. The interface feels natural, and lets me get my city what it needs faster and more efficiently.
The coolest feature, that makes me feel like a real powerful mayor, is the ability to modify city buildings. Is your school filled to the brim? Build extensions to it and add more classrooms! Does your clinic/hospital fill up to quickly? Add additional wings to treat more patients. Do the ambulances take too long to respond to calls? Add additional ambulance bays to the healthcare centre so they can get additional ambulances. Police departments can have more jail space added to them, as well as additional car parks for more patrol vehicles, fire stations can get additional garages for more fire engines, the city hall itself can expand and gain additional departments and a whole city hall complex.
And yes, the city hall is a new feature, and an important feature. It is a hub of information, and a part of the streamlining of the interface. Protesters gather to tell you about the major problems, your advisors scream from it if they see a problem coming. And all across your city you can drop in on the Sims inhabiting the city and find out what they’re thinking and saying about the governance of their city.
Traffic is real this time. The Sims walking are real. They’re not just representative of data on the road, showing you which roads are busy and which aren’t. Cars no longer just vanish in the middle of the motorways after showing you just how busy a certain motorway is. They go from point A to point B. Each Sim has a name, each house has a specific family. The children go to a specific school, and each Sim goes to a specific job. There aren’t just faceless citizens of your city anymore, there are real people. It blows my mind how realistic the people in the game are. The whole thing feels much more organic, and much less mathematical than the previous SimCity titles ever felt. I really do feel like a mayor of a living city this time around.
Too bad I have to wait until 5 March to get that feeling again.