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SimCity Is More Magical Than Mundane

SimCity Is More Magical Than Mundane

Detroit could finally see a turnaround as the once-great Motor City heads to a state takeover in the real world, but players of the virtual community building game SimCity don't have to worry about such things. In the latest version of the long-running franchise, those who face fiscal ruin need only to restart the game to get their virtual do-over.

SimCity, developed by Electronic Arts subsidiary Maxis, is available for the PC as a digital download or a physical disk for $59.99.

The latest version of the long-running SimCity was a long time coming, and when it finally arrived, server issues kept many gamers from getting to the good stuff.

It's been nearly a decade since the release of SimCity 4, and now the fifth version -- titled simply SimCity -- is offering gamers the chance to once again build the city of their dreams.

SimCity
Unlike past outings, this one features both more and less at the same time. Visually the game is breathtaking and incredibly detailed, while the interface is streamlined, making for easy game play. At times it is almost "too easy" to do stuff -- especially since there are no committees, no private property to deal with and certainly no opposition such as the EPA or labor unions to get the way.

In some ways the game allows players to be "Sim Despots," but since there are no secret police to call out, they're mostly benevolent despots.

Less Micromanagement

The SimCity that started the franchise nearly 24 years ago was also quite simple. Players needed to worry about zoning a city, laying roads, supplying power and water. There were police and fire departments to manage, railroads and airports to add, and not a lot else. With each subsequent version of the game, new features were introduced, including sewage and garbage disposal, subways, and so much that the game veered into serious "SimWork" territory.

This time around, city planners don't need to worry about supplying each and every property with water and power. Instead, this is all accomplished via roads. The power lines are accepted to be under the streets. This solves some serious micromanaging that could have bogged the game down.

Gone too is the data crunching with advisors providing endless spreadsheets. Instead, as would-be mayors, gamers can listen directly to the individual "Sims," which include the residents, businesses and everything else in the city. The game carries on the use of the annoying gibberish from The Sims, which is accompanied by a text bubble. Fortunately the auto can be turned off!

These wishes provide players with clues to help them understand what individuals actually want -- be it better schools, more roads, less taxes. Everyone eventually wants less taxes, which we'll get to in a minute. The actual communication from individuals can be a bit much at times, and it's not always clear exactly what people want.

The Sims may say, "This town needs more schools," even if a school is nearby. Why would someone living close to the school complain? This is never really clear, but it indicates that perhaps a second school needs to be built in the community.

Tax and Spend

The game does seem to favor a trickle-down economy in which taxes allow the city planner/gamer to spend, spend, spend. As with past SimCity games, however, it still remains very much a balancing act. If taxes are too high -- even if services are plentiful -- Sims will flee the city to one with lower taxes. If taxes are too low, the city can't support the services, and citizens will express their displeasure.

Obviously, this is what many real communities face. The multiplayer aspect that allows other human players to create their own cities, makes it all the more complicated. If one player lacks services, it could mean an influx in population, but that can create problems as well.

SimCity
To achieve a good balance requires early thinking. Should the industry that causes pollution, lowers property values, and is far from pretty be pushed to the edge of the city borders -- perhaps downwind? This is a great idea, but it can mean long roads and a lot of infrastructure. That costs a lot of money early in the game when income via taxes is light.

However, if you build the factories and waste management facilities too close to the residential and commercial businesses, it can be difficult to expand. Rezoning is always an option, especially as a city grows. However, that also costs money, and it can result in actually shutting down a business for good. In this game, you can't exactly get the factory owner to move across town.

The game doesn't allow for rezoning of specific buildings. As a result, you can't turn warehouses into luxury lofts. Commercial property instead reverts to houses. It's a shame the developers couldn't figure out a way to allow buildings to be rezoned without having to be removed. So don't expect to see a Manhattan-style transformation of an old commercial district. Instead, it's more like a Manhattan- style bulldozing to clear old property for a new high rise.

Still, if you can find the right balance, your city can happily find itself in the black with plenty of money. Of course, if you don't spend that income wisely, you could be in trouble territory very quickly.

Multiplayer Action

While past SimCity games had cities that existed in a vacuum, that is not the case this time around. This game requires an online connection not only as a means of preventing piracy, but also because the designers have opted to create a game in which cities must interact and coexist -- as in the real world. The result is that players need to work together, at least after a fashion.

SimCity
For example, if you have a surplus of power, your neighbor may buy it from you, but because this game is still a game, it is hard for you to alert the neighboring city that your surplus runs out. Does that leave some Sims in either/both cities in the dark? Unfortunately, it can.

This game doesn't need to be completely multiplayer, though. It is even possible for players to found neighboring towns to support one another, which opens the possibility of creating a seeming utopia just down the road from a hellish working-class town fouled by industry and waste disposal.

The same things happen with police, fire, schools and even jobs. It is possible for one city to have more low-income workers, but they can hop on a bus or even drive to another city for work. This makes for a far more realistic economic situation than in past games, but it can be frustrating at times, even taking the game back toward that "SimWork" type of experience.

Those who like to micromanage and fine-tune things will no doubt find all this addictive.

Online Connection

One downside to the requirement for an online connection is that SimCity can't easily be played while traveling. This could be a great airplane game, but the DRM and necessity to have that online connection make that impossible. It is disappointing that the game can't be played offline -- even in the sandbox mode -- but that decision rests with Maxis and EA.

This remains a hot issue, because it follows the approach of many massively multiplayer online role-playing games in that the world exists on many servers in parallel.

In other words, if you build your dream city on an East Coast American server but your friends log in to a West Coast American server, they can't connect with your cities. Moreover, if the servers are later full, you can't get back to them.

Eternal City

SimCity is not the sort of game that will appeal to everyone. There is no option to put down civil unrest -- not that there's much of it -- and it isn't about a grand adventure. It is simply a "sim" game and an excellent one at that. Those who have played past titles will likely love every second of it.

It offers much more than the original, is far more robust visually than past versions, and it's a whole lot more accessible. With the added multiplayer options, it could be the game that becomes the Eternal SimCity.


Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing.


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