GC 2012: Hands-on with SimCity

It’s been years since I’ve played a SimCity game. I have vague recollections of playing the original when I was much younger, but I never managed to get my eight-year-old mind to focus on making the cities thrive – I just liked to watch whatever I’d managed to build get destroyed by random disasters. Since the original SimCity in 1989, there have been additional games in the franchise that I’ve always been tempted to try, but have always been put off by the somewhat complex user interface.

When the new SimCity was revealed some months ago, I was immediately intrigued thanks to the sheer volume of stuff that was being crammed into the title. My interest had a caveat of course: with so many simulations running at once, this game’s UI would surely be a nightmare?

After spending time at Gamescom playing SimCity, my enthusiasm for the title is no longer tempered by my (incorrect) expectation of a complex learning curve or convoluted UI. Yes, there is complexity in the game, but the whole experience is executed in such an approachable manner that any hesitation you might have had should be immediately expunged. And no, I’m not saying the game’s been “dumbed down”; SimCity looks like it’ll scratch any management itch you could possibly have.

The little town that I began with was already fairly well established: it had a small suburb, a commercial area with shops, an industrial area some way away and a town hall with a park just opposite. My immediate reaction to the entire scene was unbridled delight: everything about this game’s presentation is so attractive. The colours are vibrant, the music is cheerful and the way the camera swooshes and swoops around the world makes you feel like an omnipotent controller gazing down from your lofty confines. Another incredible graphics trick is the depth of field blur around the edge of the screen. This makes your city look like a miniature model and further creates the illusion of you playing with a big box of toys.

After I’d managed to stop myself from whizzing the camera around and grinning like an idiot from all of the detail and charm, I realised that my dinky, happy little city wasn’t really that happy. There was a protest outside my city hall. “That won’t do,” I thought to myself. So I turned my mayoral gaze to my tiny sims with their tiny placards and not so tiny voices. They were very upset about something. Luckily I had an assistant: a little city counsellor of sorts who was well and firmly on my side. She soon told me that people were unhappy because the town was cut off from the region’s main highway. “There’s a main highway?” I thought to myself (in a mayoral voice). Sure enough I whisked the camera away from the City Hall to see, far off in the distance and over the trees, a bustling highway full of zooming cars. The solution was easy: I built a glorious road between my town and the regional highway, and within an instant I had cars turning off the highway and heading towards my city. But that was only the first of many woes my sims had.

It turned out that the influx of cars meant that people wanted to move into my city and so I had to create residential zoning to develop more homes for my burgeoning population. The zoning pallet will be familiar to SimCity players, only this time it’s less rigid and you’re free to create curved zoning area. My new residential zone followed the gentle curves of a street lined with tree – surely this would become a delightful street to live on? With the zoning placed, land surveyors moved in and began checking their theodolites. The ground was then cleared and soon enough construction crews arrived and the houses started mushrooming. “Such enterprise!” I thought as I gazed down at what my tiny sims were building before my mayoral eyes.

With the new housing came the need for water in my fledgling suburb. Hitting the water button on a panel on the bottom of the screen brought up my first glimpse of a data overlay. My city disappeared and a graphical representation of my area’s water table filled the screen. I needed to erect a water tower on an area with the darkest blue, as colour intensity indicates the level of underground water reserve. However, my tower needed to be near a road because whenever you lay roads you’ll lay water pipes underneath the road as well. Fortunately there was a healthy water supply near one of my roads, and in next to no time I could see water flowing through my piping and into my city with a satisfying glugging noise.

And then a house caught fire.

Actually, I probably wouldn’t have noticed were it not for a very observant sim who shouted up a speech bubble above her house. Sometimes sims will ask you to complete tasks; in this case the sim was telling me that she could see smoke coming from her neighbour’s house. Unfortunately I had no fire department, but after a quick button press on the lower button bar, I had a fire department hovering above my city and ready for deployment. I picked a spot near to where the fire was raging and in no time I had firemen on the scene dousing the flames.

That was not the end of my mayoral requirements. With only one rubbish truck in my town, refuse removal was becoming a problem thanks to my growing suburbs and population. This issue was easily fixed by clicking on the garbage dump (thankfully situated some way out of my suburban area and closer to my industrial centre) and adding another truck. The truck was added via something called a “module”. You’ll be able to customise many of the buildings in SimCity through adding modules to the various “snap points” located around a structure. My new garbage truck cost me 225 Simoleons of upkeep, but it also provided two jobs for my population.

Things were beginning to look up once I’d solved the city’s sewage problem. Turns out my city never had a sewage plant to begin with – a fact that was made aware to me thanks to a sludgy brown overlay seeping its way around my town. Gross. I even ensured my power stations were pumping the required amount of juice to all my buildings (what’s so hard about that, ESKOM?). The protest from when I started had completely subsided – my sims were happy. Until a meteor shower destroyed all of my hard work and the screams of my frightened population assaulted my ears. Typical.

SimCity is looking excellent, even in the pre-alpha state that I toyed with today. The online features were also emphasised, and the collection of PCs that were available to play on were all connected. Prior to our hands-on, the developers issued a Challenge to see which city could amass the highest population in our allotted hands-on time. These Challenges will be fed to your SimCity game and you’ll be able to partake in them with your friends (the game will have full friends list features) or the world in Global Challenges. What’s more, the social side of the game is being handled by something called Citylog, which the development team told us is SimCity’s answer to Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit’s excellent Autolog feature. The global online aspects, dubbed SimCity World, will have a Global Market where commodities can be traded. This means you could specialise your city to produce loads of oil for example, which you’d then trade in the Global Market area. Alternatively, you could ignore all of the integrated online features and just do what SimCity allows you to do best: build your own city. Only this time the cities feel more alive than ever.

SimCity will be out in February 2013.

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