E3 07: SimCity Societies Impressions

Walking up to the guys from Societies developer Tilted Mill, I felt a little guilty. After all, I reported on the nightmare that was SimCity Societies' announcement--a story that stirred a bowl of shit to the point of puree, with die-hard City fans calling for blood in a matter of minutes. With that image in mind, I still managed to walk away from my Societies demonstration in an optimistic mood. As it turns out, the game is not so much evolutionarily stunted as it is more accessible; the city management isn't less detailed than in previous SimCity games--just less traditional.

City building is still the name of the game here, literally and figuratively. City logistics return, and dozens of power plants and other such mechanics are still required. A news ticker scrolls across the bottom of the screen updating you on urban developments, and disasters will be back causing frustratingly random--or intentionally hilarious--destruction, although none are in the game at this point.

Make no mistake, however--Societies makes a few significant changes to the established SimCity formula. Gone is the zoning and building evolution therein. A menu of hundreds of individual buildings takes its place. Each structure sits on a fairly large plot of land, which gives the game a slightly more intimate feel, though not in a simplistic SimTown way. The cityscape was large enough for a couple hundred buildings, and after zooming out to view the full countryside, it seemed more like a normal SimCity title than I had expected.

Buildings have attributes which both affect other buildings and directly impact the Sim citizens. For instance, the "Think Tank" building boosts the "societal energy" of corporate buildings within a certain radius, increasing their productivity. A strip mall can be upgraded to sell cell phones, which make Sims happy for six days. A pawn shop has a 5% chance to create a criminal, whereas an indie label or a cinemaplex might attract or create celebrities. Creating buildings came off as straightforward enough to not intimidate newcomers to the series, while maximizing their attributes seemed to provide enough depth for efficiency experts to play with.

Though the game is clearly designed around culture and society, the Sim citizens themselves aren't focused on those games as much as one might expect. Rather than being used as a random distraction or minigame within a city management frame, they are instead intended to be fun, visual indicators of how your city is progressing. As you are zoomed in on a particular street corner, you may notice a thief grabbing a woman's purse--and, depending on your police coverage, he may or may not be stopped. You can follow individual Sims, in my case the randomly-named movie star Poncho Escobar, who stopped by at a cafe after a night at a premiere, increasing its energy state with his mere presence.

Aesthetically speaking, Societies isn't quite breathtaking in its pre-alpha state, but it gets the job done with competent texture work and a few striking touches. Plenty of 3D cars zip by, and the Sims themselves are detailed enough to make a zoomed-in scene worth watching. The passage of time is accentuated with the use of real-time shadows, the sun stretching the dark across the landscape the more gameplay is accelerated. These shadows are currently a little overactive, appearing flickery and distracting, as time is always moving at a decent clip in a SimCity title.

When cities change from one energy state to another, be it to an industrial town or to an artistic metropolis, the appearance of all structures shifts noticeably. As the demonstration city moved from a balanced city to an industrial blue-collar hub, the sky shifted from a blue hue to a brown haze, and city streets exhibited cracks and general decay. If a city turns into an authoritarian state, security cameras might watch over potential protesters, and propaganda posters might be plastered onto buildings and billboards.

A representative from Tilted Mill told me that the game will be incredibly modable. Those proficient in C# and XML will have easy access to every asset in the game, and basic tools will be provided to the community for building creation. An official website is planned for the exchange of buildings, much like the way unofficial content is supported by publisher Electronic Arts' The Sims site.

I was ready to hate SimCity Societies like everyone else, but based on a quick look, it's time to cut Tilted Mill some slack. The game may never live up to the high expectations of SimCity fans who crave a more realistic experience, myself included, but that doesn't mean it won't be a good game with unique contributions. From what I've seen, there is a lot of potential in SimCity Societies for a successful spin-off of the traditional SimCity foundation.