New gameplay or rewashed concepts, polished graphics or over-rated hype? I'll be telling you about all that and more, right from Maxis's latest installment in the ever popular SimCity franchise.
After rather high anticipation for this title, I decided to lower my expectations, as too much hype can be harmful (Daikatana anyone?), I calmly walked down to a retailer around town, bought me a copy of SimCity 4 and went home, as if it was yet another budget title.
I'll spare you all the moochie talk about how I installed the game and how casual the installation process went, it should be noted that the 2 CD's included were a bit of a surprise, although games have went from large to gigantic the past couple of years, I just didn't realize SimCity could be that large...
I fired up The Sims, oh sorry, did I say the Sims? I meant SimCity 4... the first thing you notice after launching the game, is the sheer resemblance between the introduction movies in the two games. After that weird moment, I noticed another resemblance in the main interface, that frankly I did not expect.
Maxis, it seems, enjoyed the amazing success of its The Sims series of money milkyHood and decided to make SimCity 4 look more like it. At first this seemed daunting, I personally disliked the less-management-more-randomness that was put into The Sims (add to that some idiotism of the goal of the game), but I wasn't about to hate it just yet.
Starting a new 'game' involved choosing a region to build in; you are presented with a colorful map of available regions you could mold into your beloved city. After picking one to your own liking, you drop right into the action. Before you actually start building up, you are presented with a "God" mode, similar to previous titles, you are given the chance to terraform the landscape you chose (usually flat), for those who are more creative than others, this is a complete heaven in landscape modification, mostly due to the robust engine Maxis had put together. God mode presents the oh-so familiar tools like raising land, creating valleys as well as mountain tops, all the same only more polished, better looking and as fluent as one could imagine.
What differentiates the tools from previous titles, is that they hold more variety of landscapes, from beaches to canyons with water and various other lush scenes you usually only find on the national geographic channel (if you are lucky enough).
Feature wise, there's the added wildlife; you can now add wildlife to your region or city, and this is especially helpful if you'd need to build an animal related facility, specifically a safari...
After looking into the bag of new features Maxis has put into SimCity 4, I can just say it's a joy to see the pioneers back at work; at first, you'd get the impression it's the same-old SimCity with a different interface, new graphics, maybe even some new features here and there, but what the game promises it keeps, City Management.
SimCity has gone through a realism upgrade. Everything is simply more realistic and more accurate; you will see soccer stadiums with actual soccer games being held, real 'Sims' demonstrating on funding cuts, traffic jams and tens and even hundreds of smaller details that make this game a joy to watch.
Gameplay wise, the new interface, which is derived from The Sims' interface, is a notable improvement over its ancestors; everything is well placed and easily accessible at all times. The interface gives a much more wide appeal to a broader gamer audience, while still being true to the core SimCity fans.
Arguably, the most noticeable difference is the engine; the engine handles 3D graphics, and not only that, but Maxis made the game look astounding, keyword being detail and variety. The amount of buildings present in the game is really satisfying, especially the landmarks they included as 'special' buildings. All the artwork is simply top-notch; Maxis went for the jackpot on this aspect.
Some of the details I was mentioning include street traffic, moving down the latest in a more or less realistic manner, fluently and responsibly (you won't see that many cars crashing one into the other); 'natural' effects such as clouds, smog (due to pollution), various added hazardous intended accidents (tornadoes, killer robots, volcanoes and various other evil doings) and overall small details simply perfect the atmosphere of the game.
Details, though, will bring your computer to a beat-less state, my AthlonXP1800+ with 512MB DDR (Geforce 4 TI4200 128MB) simply didn't cut it for 1280x1024 with everything turned to high; after the city grew larger, the game began to look choppy and undeniably unplayable (to a fair extent). I did tune things down a bit, went back to the default 1024x resolution and winded up lowering the details to the lowest settings.
Amazingly the game still looked great, and was very much more enjoyable, so I won't go complaining because my fun rate stayed the same without noticing any difference; actually I thank Maxis for keeping the game extremely highly detailed even when turned down to its lowest forms...
Something you will definitely notice while playing SimCity 4 is how tough it is to get things going; at first glance, you might think the initial $100,000 will make things easy for you, only then you will find out that not only they will run out within 30 minutes of play time, but it'll also be difficult to turn in profit. As you slowly advance though, things get easier, and profit starts to amass, all it takes is planning and taking things slow (yes, slow). It’s a bit frustrating at first, but it's a matter of pace change (told you not to play all those FPS's for the past 3 years).
Managing the city is in many ways done the same way you’re used to. You build residential, commercial and industrial zones, of varying density. A lot of planning and logic is needed if you want an optimal city, because for instance schools should be placed in an area with both a low education rating, and low average residential age. The police and the firemen only cover a certain area, but by assigning more money to them you’ll enable them to cover even more. You always need to tweak the budget as far as you can, sometimes gamble, and hope things work out in the long run. Also, as your city grows you’ll be able to unlock special buildings that require for instance a certain amount of population, a number of good libraries, or maybe a certain number of high-tech industries.
Back in the days of Transport Tycoon I often used to let the game run once I was making a profit. This is very much possible in SimCity 4 as well, but doing this now only makes me feel like I’m missing out on something, so it’s not something I recommend, because before you know it your newly purchased powerhouse will start burning without you noticing.
There are quite a few ways to make money in SimCity 4, and one of them has to do with your neighbor cities. You see, if you build a small farming community in one part of the region and then a more industrial city next to it, you can form relationships. By connecting roads to the side of the map, you’ll be able to continue the connection when you go back to the other city. If you for instance built a nice railway station next to the farms and then let it go into the industrial city, you’ll most likely be asked to form neighbor deals, where you export and import things that one city has and the other needs.
Those of you who have raised your very own The Sims family will also be able to use them in SimCity 4. Letting people from “your family” move in is just a matter of clicking the specific mode, and choosing who you want. By doing this the sim you selected will give you various pieces of advice when playing, which can be useful if you’re overlooking some problems that might not seem important at first, but which may grow to more serious ones over time.
The soundtrack included with SimCity 4 is also top notch. Some of the tracks should remind you a bit of those of earlier games, but now you get a nice selection of tracks, fitting in several genres. Jazz, hip-hop, and rock is what most of the music can be described as, but what’s great is how everything sounds so ambient and non-disturbing. However, SimCity 4 is the kind of game you’ll most likely play for many hours at the time, so you’re likely to get somewhat annoyed by the music, but there is no denying that Maxis did a good job in this department.
I didn’t really expect a multiplayer feature in SimCity 4, and much less a cooperative mode. It does however exist, and when you think about it for a minute it really introduces some interesting new possibilities, like never agreeing on where the budget should go, where your college should be placed, and what to do about the dirty industry.
SimCity 4 is neither an easy, nor a perfect game. At first it might seem a lot like its predecessors, but as soon as you zoom in as far as you can it is obvious that a lot has been improved. Running a successful city isn’t easy at all, but once you do make a profit the game feels very rewarding, because it simply has so much variation and things to do. I do however feel that the game could’ve introduced you better into the more advanced features of city management, so that newer gamers wouldn’t feel too frustrated by not being able to make a profit.
If you want a very involving game of city management, with very attractive graphics, a really solid soundtrack and deep gameplay then you can’t go wrong with SimCity 4. Just be sure to have a powerful PC.