25 January 2013

SimCity BETA Impressions: The King of City Builders?

The new SimCity looks so much sharper than its predecessors as a result of the GlassBox engine and while visually it may be far removed from the likes of SimCity 4000 it soon becomes apparent that this is very much a traditional city builder.

This is both SimCity's strength and weakness. If you're looking for a solid game to spend hours tailoring away to build the city of your gaming dreams than the 90 or so minute long BETA (more of a demo really) should reassure players looking for just that experience as well as long term fans of the series.

Those looking for something truly revolutionary however are likely to be disappointed. The BETA puts you guides you through a tutorial which covers all the basics, building roads, creating the franchise's traditional residential, commercial and industrial as well as bringing electricity and other utilities to your citizens. Perhaps the most contentious change is the game's always on DRM and the permanent connection of your settlement to the other cities in the region.

Though this aspect was missing from the BETA the tutorial showed players how it works by tasking gamers with arranging for an AI controlled city nearby to collect your sim's garbage. It's a simple process which takes place with the press of a button, the benefit being you don't need to have your own polluting waste-dumps which drag down the value of nearby properties at the expense of your city's budget.

This connectivity isn't the only thing that's changed from past titles. You can no longer build a subway system, a popular feature of previous SimCity's (you must instead settle for buses) and perhaps most frustratingly you cannot alter the terrain of your city to add mountains or lakes and so on as you could with all other entries in the series.

Another aspect which was somewhat annoying was the relative small size you're allowed to build on. After the tutorial BETA users have an hour to build their city and test out the game's features, despite many buildings and amenities being precluded from the BETA I still found I had nearly used up all available space. This isn't to say more couldn't be done with rezoning and demolishing structures to build new ones but it was concerning.

While it is possible that the finished game will feature bigger maps or the ability to purchase more land to expand your city the option did not appear to be present in the trial.

Despite those gripes SimCity is a rich experience layered with information. There are bars and graphs for virtually any statistic you might want to know; your citizens' happiness, the value of their property, whether they're within reach of your city's bus network. The list goes on.

Occasionally the city's populace will also alert you about what you can do, or need to do, in order to keep your budding metropolis running. Protests will form outside City Hall demanding a new school or clinic, occasionally bubbles will form over houses with the occupants giving you an idea of how you're doing or what you need to do. Sometimes an adviser will approach you with a goal, such as reaching 25,000 citizens, the usual reward being access to new buildings.

Specialisations also form part of the new SimCity. These allow you to decide the direction of your city. You can choose to turn your city into the next Wall Street or the next Vegas. Only a low level gambling den is available to build in the BETA, so it isn't clear if selecting a specialisation locks players out of the others.

Ultimately SimCity appears solid if unspectacular and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. In some ways it may be the SimCity fans have been waiting for, an evolution of the franchise if not quite a revolution. Maxis have called this game 'the king of city builders' and though it is a pity the title fails to reach for emperor of the city builders the developers have certainly made a good attempt.

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