When the giant space lizard attacked TrashZone 01, some part of me kind of hoped it would demolish my recently built and extravagantly expensive recycling center just so I could tell people “so that happened”. That’s the thing about SimCity – it’s not just a city planning and management sim, it’s an ongoing drama of ups, downs, all arounds, and the occasional giant space lizard. It’s also about roads, but I’ll get back to that.
For now, let’s just get the most obvious complaint out of the way before anything else – SimCity‘s persistent online connectivity requirement sucks, and not just because we live in a third world country where goats chewing on the phone lines are an unavoidable natural hazard. More specifically, your saved games are stored on a remote server, and you can only play your saved game on the same server it’s stored, or not at all. Most of the server wobblies from launch week have been sorted out, so that’s nice, but I’m just not convinced that forcing people to maintain an online connection if they want to play on their own is such a smart idea. Whether or not this is a dealbreaker is up to you.
But now, back to roads. SimCity introduces a lot of changes to the series, but perhaps none quite so fundamental to how everything works as roads. Previously, the appearance of those most-wanted skyscrapers were determined by a seemingly sorcerous lottery of numbers that changed according to the weather or inflation rates (or something), but now it’s much more transparent – building-density potential corresponds to different kinds of roads. Basically, put down a six-lane super-way in your city center, and sooner or later, the buildings on both sides are going to start going up, up, and up. Put down dirt roads, and don’t expect those ramshackle ranch houses to go anywhere. This also eliminates the task of zoning specifically for different densities, and that middle-game mass-upgrading that almost inevitably empties the bank you were saving for a subway. Oh, and zoning is now also totally free.
It’s changes like these (and many others) that, while ostensibly simplifying the game in a way that some people are sure to complain about just because they prefer to spend lots of time clicking on things that shouldn’t require that level of micro-managing and maintenance, keep SimCity‘s focus on constant expansion without the tedious busywork. The game shows rapid results when the player gets it right, and not only after the player gets it right several times over, in several ways, in several places, and then only because the game feels like it.
For example, at some point your city’s inhabitants are probably going to want a police station. Instead of placing multiple police stations around the whole place according to limited patrol routes and such, you can place just one and continue to expand it with additional snap-on “modules” that increase the number of available jail cells, patrol cars, etc., as needed. This applies to most city services and civic buildings, so you can maximise efficiency while minimising the space needed for more important things like… dumps. Or maybe not, as things go this time around.
Which brings me over to one of the most engaging new features in SimCity – region-based play. It’s also where the very controversial always-on Internet connectivity makes some kind of sense, because you can team up with other people to create cities that work together in clever, complementary ways that weren’t possible before. You can choose to do everything on your own, of course, but that means working asynchronously which is arguably not quite as effective in some aspects.
SimCity 4 also included some basic region-based features, mind you, but it’s something much more interesting here. Workers commute from one city to another, and shoppers and tourists will travel if you have big enough attractions, but much more importantly, you can also use one city’s infrastructures to supplement others, creating collaborative systems on a global scale. While single city size has been substantially reduced in this game, I think the region makes up for this by encouraging players to think more strategically and build with real purpose.
One thing I tried pretty much immediately because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do was to create a dump city. Nobody wants dumps cluttering up their pretty spaces and putting off those snobby high-wealth residents, so sectioning an entire city area to take care of the dirty business is one of those very obviously good ideas that the developers finally decided to make a real option in SimCity. With TrashZone 01 established then, not only was I able to keep the residents of nearby cities from slogging knee-deep in discarded chip packets, but I was even able to turn that waste management system into an entire economy on its own. Every morning, my recycling trucks visit neighbouring cities, return to TrashZone 01 with heaps of garbage, and turn it into plastics and metals that can be sold off at huge profits. That cash can then be transferred back to any of my other cities from the region panel, or perhaps invested in a hospital better equipped to deal with the recent outbreak of disease in TrashZone 01. There’s never a dull moment.
Launch troubles and the always-online requirement notwithstanding, SimCity is a superb game. Its somewhat intimidating depth and complexity is easily off-set by an extremely user-friendly interface and plenty of tutorial support that prioritises instantly addictive fun over the trial, error, and frequent bankruptcy failures of previous iterations in the series. This is the ultimate simulation game, or at least until the next sequel.