Surely almost everybody, gamer or not, has heard of SimCity, Maxis’ city-building simulator which first appeared way back in 1989 on PC, before eventually being ported to the Super Nintendo and later spawning multiple sequels in the shape of SimCity 2000 – yep, that’s right, set in the “distant future” – and eventually SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4.
If SimCity is perhaps just about too obscure for some to have heard of, then almost without fail people will have heard of sims, the denizens of SimCities everywhere as popularised by their own interactive version of Big Brother, The Sims, which rapidly became one of gaming’s biggest ever sellers.
Bret Berry, VP of Maxis, was recently on hand to introduce the game to us, keen to emphasise the improvements made between this current reimagining of the series and previous entries. The most notable of which is the engine itself, christened “Glassbox” – ‘what we sim, you see’ the sound bite he uses when describing what’s going on underneath the hood.
Glassbox speaks for itself anyway, as advances in graphics and technology allow for a much more user-friendly engine which is as happy with you watching your people going about their lives – driving to work, fleeing from a burning building or moving into their dream home – as it is in facilitating in-depth analysis of your city’s power grid to identify just why it is sections of your city are currently enduring a blackout, or being allowed to burn to blackened shells say.
The engine also impresses as a building tool, easing the player into its blank canvas and challenging users to create a masterpiece through clever – or else eccentric – planning and zoning; its interface looking the very definition of “pick-up-and-play” even at this stage of the game’s development.
Take the simple and fluid assignment of a section of land for example, our demonstrator drags the cursor haphazardly over a general area and the engine does the rest, effortlessly smoothing out the selected area into a coherent rectangle of green residential zone. Finally, details such as water, electricity and public services coverage are checked – simplicity itself thanks to a series of colour-coded overlays – and it’s job done.
Soon migrating sims are heading to town along the “Regional Road” – a literal information superhighway which links your city to those of other users. It’s entrancing to watch those tiny moving trucks trundle into town as brand new virtual tax payers unload their vans (while causing a traffic jam behind them no less) and begin their new lives.
Berry is also keen to point out that the Regional Road is also responsible for allowing ne’er-do-wells such as pyromaniacs into town, as well as the gateway via which the smog of nearby polluters will drift into your city. He stops short of unveiling exactly what alliances you’ll forge with neighbouring cities, but confirms that the player will be able to explore rival towns before presumably drafting deals with fellow mayors.
The new 3D tilting landscape, also powered by Glassbox, is a further improvement, allowing for the cartoon beauty of the visuals to really come to the fore so that developed and undeveloped areas alike can be explored at your leisure. I can imagine getting lost for hours amid my own personal metropolis, whether that’s while admiring my perfectly oiled machine-like city, or watching my populace deal with one of the many disasters to befall it – one such example being blazing inferno to which fire and ambulance services respond to save their fellow sims from catastrophe.
As is ever the case in SimCity there’s no planned ‘end game’ as Berry puts it, instead users can set their own goals; whether that be to hit a certain population mark, build a city to a specific shape, or simply build one in order to ultimately rip it apart – Berry confirming the return of disasters such as volcanoes, UFO invasion or Godzilla attack.
Multiplayer options are sketchy right now, with Berry unable to confirm or deny most of our questions. One thing he did say was that cities won’t be able to go to war, the unleashing of pollution or aforementioned criminals the only real way to affect neighbours, and even that’s indirect.
Worth the wait? Frankly, even at this early stage of the game’s development, I can’t wait to get my hands on SimCity, just to witness all those graphical flourishes first hand. There’s something of The Settlers about this latest version of Maxis’ classic and by allowing the sims to become as integral a part of the city as the buildings themselves I’m fully expecting to be playing with a smile on my face once the game lands on store shelves.