From The Ground Up
To this day, the original SimCity is a model of brilliant simplicity; by providing just basic tools, primitive graphics, and a top-down view, the game allows you to design your own city and watch it grow. Some of the sequels have been well received—and, of course, the franchise eventually spawned The Sims—but to be blunt, the Sim universe has never quite topped its starting point.
Twenty-five years later, the folks at Maxis are ready for a reboot. The new entry, entitled simply SimCity and due in March, is a complete overhaul of everything that came before. The basic idea remains unchanged—design a city, make sure it functions properly, and deal with crises as they arise—but everything from the technology under the hood to the coat of paint on top has changed. Those of us with fond city-building memories from the 1990s will want to give this a shot.
The biggest advancement here is in the technology. Previously, SimCity games worked by generating overall trends and then creating an image to represent them: There would be too much traffic if you didn’t build enough roads, too much pollution if you built too many factories and not enough parks, and so on. Those trends will still be around, of course, but the game won’t process them that way.
The new game runs on the GlassBox engine, which is designed to process large numbers of individual objects at the same time. Each citizen, each vehicle, and each building in your creation will function separately—in other words, trends will develop from individual decisions, the same way they do in real life. You can even click on individual actors in your city and receive detailed information about why they’re behaving the way they are.
Basically, you can tell by looking at your city how things are going in general, and you can dig into specifics if you want to. And bizarrely, even the audio will work this way: Each item will create noises that work in sync with the beat of the soundtrack, and zooming in will remove instruments from the score.
There will be major aesthetic changes as well. Inspired by “tilt-shift” photography—in which camera work slightly distorts the image to create a “miniature” type of look—the developers have gone out of their way to make cities look like models. Everything will be rendered in 3D, and you’ll be able to twist and turn the terrain any way you’d like for a better view. Various physical processes will be realistically modeled as well: Water will flow downhill, pollution will follow wind patterns, and wind farms will be ineffective when nature isn’t cooperating.
Another significant development is the addition of multiplayer, which hasn’t been included in a SimCity game for years. No, your cities won’t be going to war—but you will have the option to play in a “region” with friends or strangers, and even playing by yourself you can build multiple cities at once. You’ll no longer need to make your city self-contained—you can build an industrial powerhouse, a bedroom residential community, and a casino resort that all interact with each other. Everything that happens in one city can have a ripple effect throughout the region. You can also try to win challenges and compete for a slot on the leaderboards.
The basic multiplayer gameplay will be asynchronous, meaning players don’t need to be logged in at the same time. It will involve joint projects between cities, and it will help to have different types of cities working together—for example, one city’s residential workers might head to another city’s factories to help build a new development.
Your fellow players will also come in handy when disaster strikes and your cities need to rely on the kindness of strangers. The disasters will include the usual smorgasbord of bad events: meteor strikes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and even UFOs.
All of this interactivity does come with a price, unfortunately. The EA servers will perform some of the calculations and keep all players in sync, so the game will have “always on” DRM. This is bad news not just for pirates, but also for anyone who likes to play offline for any reason. The interesting twist, however, is that you’ll no longer be able to wipe out your screw-ups by loading an earlier save.
It would be hard to recreate the sheer magic that Will Wright devised a quarter century ago. From the looks of it, though, SimCity’s 2013 installment just might be the reboot the series needs. It promises to preserve everything that makes the franchise great while harnessing the potential of modern technology.