|Back when full-motion video was all the rage, and CD-ROMs were the cutting-edge in computer gaming, I picked up a copy of the enhanced edition of SimCity. Already a gaming classic at that point, it featured all the simple and addictive gameplay as the original title, spruced up with the addition of occasionally funny but generally cornball full-motion video. With a cast of half-dozens, the enhanced SimCity tried to make something flashy out of a very simple premise, and ended up penalizing itself in the process. |
Three iterations later, the same thing could be said for the latest title from Maxis, SimCity 4. Building on the genre-building premise of its predecessors, SimCity 4 provides players with the chance to nuture their mayoral skills, building a tiny hamlet into a thriving metropolis. With a slick new interface and even more control over both the terrain and the administration of their cities, players can live out their municipal fantasies more vividly than ever before.
Unfortunately, a number of SimCity 4's greatest perks are also its worst drawbacks, making what could have been an excellent game into merely an entertaining one.
The first new thing you'll notice upon loading SimCity 4 is the Regional Map, a large grid of various terrain types, each providing slightly different choices for players to dive into. Depending on the strategy taken, each region could contain a completely unique SimCity, or could act as components of a much larger mega-metropolis. Regions can be interconnected by road or rail links, and can even allow players to establish agreements with neighboring communities on items as simple as trade, and as controversial as garbage dumping. Developing a vision for these regions and building them up individually is the overall thrust of the game, providing a formidable long-term goal for the dedicated SimCity player.
For the more casual, though, there's still plenty to entertain. Once a region has been selected, players enter into a God Mode, through which they can shape the geography to their whim. SimCity 4 provides tools to lift, carve, flatten, erode, flood and renew the terrain as the player chooses, and even goes to the extent of offering a variety of wild animals to populate the soon-to-be-civilized wilderness. This alone can be a fun experience, as a relatively flat plain can quickly be turned into an almost alien landscape, and then just as quickly restore it again.
It's at this point, too, that players become familiar with the amazing detail that's available in SimCity 4 -- zoom in closely enough, and the wild animals a player just placed are clearly visible roaming through the trees, or stampeding across the open grass. It's fun to watch, and it's tempting to see just how pristine a wilderness you can create before you pave it all over.
The real fun, though, is in the city building. The initial approach is basically the same as any SimCity title since the beginning: To flourish, a town needs power, water and proper zoning. Players can choose between a number of power and water sources, some less friendly to the environment than others, working from initially appears to be a generous coffer. Zoning it still as simple as choosing between residential, commercial and industrial, though players have the choice between cheaper low-density and costly high-density properties from the get-go. And, like other titles, laying it all down on the map is as simple as dragging a colored square and waiting for the Sims to come moving in.
This is made all the more simple by SimCity 4's tendency to automatically lay streets down within larger zones, to prevent inattentive players from zoning houses or businesses with no street access. For neophyte mayors, this can provide a valuable example of how to lay out zones; for more experienced players, though, this can prove to be a bit of an annoyance, as the game-generated streets often don't line up, even in identical adjacent zones.
Still, such features stand in evidence of SimCity's intentions to be as player-friendly as possible, reflected clearly in its heavily Sims-influenced interface. A series of floating menus sits on the lower left side of the screen, each offering access to different construction, infrastructure or political tasks. Anyone who's played The Sims will recognize the VCR-style time control, as well as the red-to-green climate bars on the bottom of the screen, which describe the needs of SimCitizens. Through that same space, players can also view the various graphs, maps, charts and statistics that bring out the statistics nerd in all of us, which slice and dice the data any which way you can imagine.
Most significant of those are the demographic stats, dividing up the Sim population by wealth, education and health. Depending on the condition of the city, demand for property will come from different segments of the population, requiring a careful balancing act from aspiring mayors. Want to attract the lucrative high-tech industry to your neighborhood? Then you'd better make sure you've got an educated population, and some industrial property that's zoned well away from polluted areas. Looking for a place to build some low-income housing for your lowest-paid workers? Go ahead and build a bustling subdivision across from the City Dump, but don't expect the commercial areas nearby to develop along with it.
These checks and balances make up the heart of SimCity 4's challenge, and just keeping track of them is enough to keep players busy for quite some time. More importantly, the attention to detail required just to keep a city from falling apart makes each planning decision all the more crucial, and leads players to genuinely care about keeping their cities afloat.
Which is good, because the game doesn't exactly make it easy to stay alive. Impatient players who build too much, too soon will quickly find themselves out of money and up to their ears in debt. SimCity 4 rewards players who are patient and attentive enough to run their growing towns on the barest of necessities, building up their infrastructures so that they can add essential services only when necessary. Even something as simple as building too many schools can have a devastating effect on a starting city's budget, so it pays to start small and keep an eye on the details.
And there's plenty to keep an eye on. Visually speaking, SimCity 4 is a delight to watch. Cars and pedestrians rumble by on the streets as they commute to work; garbage trucks do the rounds in the local neighborhoods before heading off to the dumps; tiny chalk outlines appear on the streets in zones where crime is running rampants; Sims line up outside of nightclubs and march angrily outside of striking schools and hospitals. There are a number of different building types for each of the three zones, so many that you'll quickly lose track of whether you've seen them before, each immaculately detailed. Most interesting of all, these visual cues are for more than just eye candy -- they can provide vital information about the economic health of players' neighborhoods. Once-wealthy households that have fallen into disrepair, or that have been sold to less-prosperous Sims, will start to take on a fatigued look. The sports car in the driveway might be replaced by a jalopy, and the swimming pool in the backyard will become a dirt patio. It pays for players to occasionally take some time to simply observe their city, to understand where there are trouble spots, and to decide which squeaky wheels need the most grease.
What a shame that this same detail is what makes SimCity 4 so difficult to play. While initially it's quick and easy to sweep across the city and peek into various neighborhoods, as the city grows, the game slows. Considerably. By the time a town is up to only a few thousand residents, it takes a surprisingly long time just to move from one section of the city to another, and even longer to zoom in -- and worse, each time players zoom in to a greater level of detail, they get to watch the screen re-draw itself. All too quickly, players feel almost deterred from growing their cities any larger, for fear that the game's performance will fall through the floor. Everything that makes SimCity 4 so entertaining initially will make it tremendously frustrating in the long run.
Still, if there's anything that's typical of a SimCity fan, it's patience. Most dedicated players will still find plenty to enjoy about the game, even if it takes a surprising amount of horsepower just to play it, and casual fans of The Sims will definitely enjoy the possibility of moving their Sims into a bigger, more complex world.
Performance issues aside, SimCity 4 still has plenty of meticulous, addictive gamplay to recommend it.