City that never sleeps: Had enough of the rat race? Then create your own metropolis courtesy of the SimCity 2000 video game. Rupert Goodwins investigates

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Not many video game reviews start in a pub in the East End of London, but when I overheard two elderly women in The Spotted Dog, Plaistow, comparing notes on power-station management it was clear that something was up. More judicious earwigging revealed that they were both ardent video game players, an unusual occupation for the blue-rinse set, and the object of their fascination was urban planning.

SimCity 2000 is a complete city simulator. You design, build and run a major conurbation of fearsome complexity; as mayor, you have control over every aspect of the budget and, refreshingly, nobody else is to blame.

The program gives you a balloonist's-eye view of your metropolis, a three-dimensional perspective in which every sort of building is lovingly depicted. Zoom in, and you can make out the names on the shop fronts, the decorations on the front of houses and the plumes of smoke from chimneys; zoom out, and the whole city is laid before you. Cars stream along the freeways, trains rattle across bridges and planes streak across the sky.

All this detail is glorious but confusing, so it can be turned off. Individual details of the city's infrastructure, from the plumbing to the power lines, can be examined and altered; rapid transit systems introduced, airports laid out and roads rerouted. It's all quite accurate although in true Docklands spirit there's no need to bother with planning permission or local bye-laws. You have complete executive control: providing there's money in the bank, you can build what you like, where you like.

At first, it's easy. Lay out some residential, industrial and commercial zones, build a few roads, a power station and lay on some water, and the population will start to rise. To keep the growth going, though, you need to raise taxes and build more; at some point, you'll need police and fire departments (and more taxes), but if the balance is wrong you'll get fires in downtown Indyville or the populace packing their bags in disgust at overtaxation. If you're really bad, you'll get both.

Catching crises before they happen is part of the job. The city publishes newspapers that cover minor happenings and your own departments report on revenue, crime and population change. The papers are particularly amusing, reflecting the wry humour that percolates through much of SimCity 2000. It feels as though the programmers cared about every nuance of the game, a perception reinforced by the section of urban poetry, prose and art at the back of the very detailed handbook.

It's the combination of that amount of pleasurable depth, total control and the slow but gratifying feedback as your city grows which makes SimCity 2000 such an addictive game. Once the basics have been mastered, it's nearly impossible to give up on a city that's showing promise. Players soon get fearsomely protective of their creations - one computer magazine has even asked its readers to send in their favourite metropolises so that a psychologist can divine their deepest secrets from the way they've built their cities.

As you get more experienced, more factors can be included. There's a wide selection of catastrophes that can be visited on the city, and you can impose educational and health programmes to fine-tune the efficiency of the place - SimCity 2000 introduces the first no-smoking ban in virtual reality.

This is a salutory product for those worried about the bad effects of video games. Apart from the occasional air crash or optional erupting volcano there's little violence in the game, and there's no high score or other overt aim. The only reward is the sight of a prosperous, growing city, and even if it all goes wrong you can pack up and start again. You'll love it, your father and mother and goldfish will love it. Just ask in The Spotted Dog.

SimCity 2000 (386 PC or better, 4Mb RAM plus SuperVGA)

(Photograph omitted)