SimCity preview

By Jason Wilson, Mar 28, 2012 5:00am PDT

The world has changed a great deal since SimCity 4 debuted in 2003. The American Century is over, and the United States is a nation mired in political infighting, recession, and high energy prices. China is one of the world's economic powers. And the way we even think of and construct cities has changed, with a greater emphasis on public transit, open spaces, and green building. And even buildings have changed, with a new generation of mega-skyscrapers towering over cities such as Dubai and Shanghai.

And just as the world finds itself in a different time and place, so does SimCity. The latest take on one of the oldest franchises in gaming (due out in 2013) is entering new territory, introducing multiplayer for the first time in the series' history, bringing online leader boards (and, more controversially, requiring you to be connected to the Internet every time you play), and something many players have wanted for years--curvy roads.

SimCity 4 had interconnected cities. In the new SimCity, you've got interconnected cities over a region (aka the map) filled with your friends or whomever you invite into your region. Multiplayer isn't random, so you shouldn't have to worry about your friends making penis-shaped cities. Unless your friends are also dicks. Or you can be the dick, allowing your town to become a crime-ridden Gotham or a Superfund site, spreading crime or pollution to your neighbors. Artistic Director/Creative Director Ocean Quigley (sporting a stylish mustache and a full beard) says you can set up a private game if you would rather play SimCity old-school single-player (though your progress will still appear on online leader boards for things such as crime, resource production, and wealth). The benefits of playing with friends, however, likely outweigh the privacy of a single-player game.

The world has become more and more interconnected in the years since SimCity 4, and the new SimCity reflects this. In your region, you can engage in commerce with other players, such as selling them coal to power their power plants. You can even send resources to your neighbors--your power grid can transmit electricity to a city lacking in the resources needed to develop power, making a tidy profit while doing so (or you could do it out of the kindness of your heart).

Or you can sell your excess resources. SimCity's new interconnectedness extends to a global economy. Markets exist for resources, and one way you can make money in the game is by selling commodities on the open market. It'll be interesting to see just how this works with players--while showing us a number of design docs pinned to the wall outlining the game's basic systems, Lead Designer Stone Librande mentioned how a group of players could fight back against a player-cum-oil cartel by organizing a boycott on the game's forums for a day, causing a sharp drop in the price of black gold.

As you build your city, you're no longer locked to the traditional SimCity grid; your city can now assume many shapes, allowing for you to build suburban areas off your main city or other industries, such as mines or electrical stations. This includes, in a move that mirrors Civilization's decision to ditch squares for hexes, curvy roads. If you want to build villages and small towns, full of sweeping roads, you've now got the tools to do so.

One thing sure to provoke ire in some gamers is SimCity's always-online requirement. Even if you want to run a private, single-player game, you must be online in order to play SimCity--you're still part of the game's global economy and leader boards even if you're not playing with other people in your region.

At release, SimCity won't support modding, as was the case with SimCity 4, when the team was more focused on getting the game out than allowing for mods. Quigley said that "the data set in Glassbox is modable.” Maxis always realized the value modders brought to SimCity 4, a game people still play nearly a decade later, thanks in part to mods. "The mod community re-created [SimCity]. We recognize it. We're not idiots."

Sims are resources of a sort as well. Each city has lower class, middle-class, and wealthy sims. But you want to make sure you have a balance of the three to make your city hum--rich sims consume more resources, and many industries don't hire them in large numbers. Buildings need a specific number of workers by class; a factory will have more low-class workers than middle and high-class sims, and a high-tech business is going to employ more high-class Sims. While explaining design documents about the Sims, Librande emphasized how important it is to get your sims to spend money in town--it improves their happiness. Sims stay in a city if they're happy, and they leave (if they can) if they aren't. And this is why businesses are a new addition. "Businesses feel real," Librande said. "If it were all offscreen, you wouldn't care. It's another facet of managing a city." If your sims can't find work, those that can will move to another city; the poorer sims may end up abandoning their houses and become homeless (and street gangs could move into those empty homes, boosting your crime and further wrecking your city's happiness). Parks also boost your Sims' happiness.

SimCity also has tourist Sims, which are important; they come into town (by car, by train, or by plane), spend money, and leave once they've spent all their money. You want Sims to do this--tourists are low-upkeep for you because you don't need homes, and they benefit you by adding to your local economy. Just like in real life.

SimCity has three different zones for buildings: residential, commercial, and industrial. The best way to see the information coming out of your zones is by digging into the Google Maps-inspired visual layers, a component of the Glassbox engine that segregates specific data sets on an information layer, making it easy for you to see and process. If you don't have power to your city, the power layer will be red. When you connect power (or gather more resources for your power plant if you're out), you can watch a surge of energy pulse through your town as the power comes on.

You can upgrade buildings as well. "You can unlock gyms, buses, and 'bling' like signs," said Lead Producer Kip Katsarelis. Some of the cities in the videos Katsarelis and company showed off look like a digital Levittown (the first modern suburb, constructed shortly after World War II in New York). The homes and roads are, for the most part, in nice, orderly layouts.

Cities now have specialties, which work kinda like classes in an RPG. Katsarelis showed us a region where a casino city was not the only one dealing with crime--it had spilled out to affect its neighbors. Another city grapples with homelessness, and with skyrocketing coal prices, an "Occupy Thing," as Katsarelis describes the protest, appears at City Hall. This protest, led by the plant's shop foreman, is actually a mission. Build a coal mine and the protest goals away, providing jobs for the protestors and the homeless. You can specialize in other areas as well, such as becoming an industrial giant or a green city.

It's a new age for SimCity. The cities you build no longer stand alone; they are not only part of a region but a global market as well. Your sims play a greater role in your city's life. You must balance the needs of your situations with the resources you can find, create, and afford. Yet the core of SimCity remains the same--giving the player a real influence on the world. As Morgan Freeman says during a voice-over of one of the videos we saw, "A single decision does not change the world. You do."

In case you missed it, be sure to check out our in-depth interview with Lead Producer Kip Katsarelis.

Disclaimer: EA Maxis provided lunch and various refreshments during our preview of SimCity 5. No other accommodations were provided.

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