We'd Started To think Maxis couldn't care less anymore. So bloated have they become by the hyper success of The Sims, and so busy squeezing it for all it's worth with one anodyne expansion pack after another, that we thought they'd forgotten all about their roots. Remember SimCity? The game that started it all for them back in '89? Of course, it was followed by some ridiculous sequels like Sim Tower and SimSafari, but it remains a massively influential title.
So, it's good to hear they haven't turned into some sort of gaming McDonald's, doing nothing but churning out Sims add-ons for the undiscerning masses (with plenty of cardboard and mouse-shit among the meat). And while Maxis is yet to divulge all the details, it's also clear that SimCity 4 isn't some sort of souped-up SimsVille (that being the aborted title that was going to take The Sims to a communitybuilding level).
However, neither does it represent a massive leap forward - at least not visually - from the last title, SimCity 3000, released to general acclaim three years ago. Rather than go for a tricky, and potentially fatal, 3D mode, Maxis has stuck by the isometric view. And that's just the way we like it, especially when you consider all the detail that goes into the game's bustling miniature cities. Buildings now look so real you feel you should be able to walk in and take the elevator to the top floor. Houses have become more personalised, each one growing and evolving separately from the old generic style. Water areas ripple as boats move across them, sending tiny waves towards the coast. Clouds drift above in cotton whirls, while beneath them the colours are alive and bursting off the screen.
All this will mean nothing, though, if the gameplay framework that supports it all isn't up to scratch. I'm not the only one who has grown increasingly frustrated with past titles because of the intense levels of micromanagement required to build a successful city. You can spend hours laying roads and water pipes, and then weeks maintaining and repairing them. While Maxis promise to expand on the options and involvement you have to control everything, there's also talk of agents to help you carry out some of the more menial tasks, and this would definitely be a welcome addition.
A Helping Hand
We do know that tunnels and bridges will start building themselves without you having to give each and every specific command, leaving you more time to play around with the spectacular and greatly enhanced disasters. You'll now be able to control where these disasters go instead of just watching them destroy random parts of the city. Which is great, for as much as we like building, we like knocking down even more.
Personally, I'll be happy if I can play a Sim game without hearing the awful, twittering, moronic squawks the inhabitants speak in. And SimCity 4 should certainly remind real gamers that there's more to Maxis than glorified dolls.
During the writing of this review, I took the liberty of flicking back through some old issues of the name of research (yes, yes, I know. Bring back Charlie Cursor and all that. Don't waste your breath, it's never going to happen. Get over it). Namely issue 13 and Duncan MacDonald's review of SimCity 2000. Along with 'topical' references to Jeffrey Archer and Steve Coogan (albeit in Paul Calf mode rather than Alan Partridge), it was alarming to realise I could pretty much cut and paste the entire thing here and it would be just as accurate. It would also save me a a lot of time and effort.
Nothing's really changed. OK, that's not true. Maxis couldn't get away with a mere graphical update after so much time and it knows it. Hence there are a few ideas on the table. Not enough, though, but then I always have been rather difficult to please.
The biggest change has addressed the problem of limited long-term playability. Instead of just throwing one city at you and piling on the stress until an artery pops, SimCity 4 introduces the concept of regional play. You're now responsible for an entire map of connected cities - essentially the neighbours from the previous title.
It's a bit deeper than just allowing for various power deals though. A region's cities can all interact, with one city's development able to affect another in various subtle ways. In practice this means you can spread out your designs, allowing middle-class suburbs to dominate one area, pollutionspewing factories another, soulless out-of-town shopping centres in a third. Connect them all with roads or rail networks and you've got quite the empire to deal with.
You can still pile everything into the one map and ignore all this if you like, but it does expand the game's basic concept in whole new directions, giving a much greater long-term appeal to the whole enterprise.
Nothing From Something
There's a downside of course. Namely that this now means doing business deals with neighbouring cities is dependant on your actually building those cities in the first place. Which is something of a pain, especially when you're running low on cash, but given the vastly expanded regional aspects, is something that you can live with. You've still got the business deals and building rewards to offer long-term incentive for each individual city, so not all is lost.
One area that could definitely have done with more thought is the creation of these regions in the first place. You're presented with two choices for a starting template - plains or water. Hmm, I thought. Landscapes awash with hills, valleys and mountains, or an island network with tropical beaches and intricate canal networks. I opted for the latter (on the basis that if my city burned to the ground I could always high-tail it to a nearby beach and sip Pina Coladas on a sun lounger) and was presented with a large square of seawater. Nothing else. Nary a palm tree or coconut in sight. Sure, there are a handful of pre-generated regions provided (loose approximations of London, San Francisco, Berlin etc), but what possessed Maxis to take out the random map-generating program? If you want vaguely interesting scenery, you're going to have to build it yourself.
Luckily the god mode has been somewhat expanded, although it's good and bad in equal measures. Good in that there's a raft of flexibility in what you can create, that it's as simple as pie to get to grips with and that it creates lovely looking scenery. Bad in that the controls are nowhere near precise enough to allow you to create exactly the kind of landscape you want. You're constantly struggling to get things just how you want them. A raised hill here will invariably bugger up the valley you just placed over there - that sort of thing.
New York, Old York
There are other new ideas on the table, but you keep getting the feeling these were the result of an afternoon's brainstorming session for cool new ideas' rather than the result of any serious analysis and development of the gaming concepts of the original.
Hence things like having characters from rhe Sims running around giving you feedback on the city (a gimmick that doesn't offer any information that's particularly different to that gleaned from various other sources). Or the host of new landmarks to add a bit of character to your game. Or a swish new interface that appears to have been lifted wholesale from The Sims. Design by marketing, basically.
What Maxis has done is to update the previous games for modern machines, then thrown a couple of new ideas in to justify the game's existence. Same as last time, in fact. What it's failed to do - what it should have really been doing all along - is address all the limitations that sprung up when playing the past instalments. Why the adherence to a grid-based nature, for instance? Is it really beyond today's technology to allow curved roads or oddly-shaped zones? Have the designers never seen the kinds of sprawling, random messes that make up most modem European cities?
Or there's the problem of micromanaging. In that there's not enough of it. If there's ever been one game in all of history that encourages the anal retentive paper pusher lurking deep within all our souls it's SimCity. For all of the sliders on offer, you still never get the feeling that you're making any direct decisions on how your city is being run. You're just constantly chasing numbers and letting the game's mathematical equations work out the results. No sense of being an actual mayor'.
Take transport for instance. In real life Ken Livingston gets to decide new bus routes and lanes, implement speed cameras and congestion charges, even drive the tubes making wooh-wooh' noises with his mouth when he enters a tunnel (probably). Here I get to say hpw much money is spent on transport. It's just not enough. And the same is true throughout. There's too much vagueness associated with your options. As a result you can never be too specific about your plans because you never quite know how a decision is going to directly affect things.
The stupid thing is that despite my moans and groans, I just can't stop thinking about it. When I'm not sitting at the PC, swearing like a bishop and throwing things about the room with pent up frustration, I'm sat at the coffee table or breakfast bar (it's a nice life) dreaming up imaginary town plans to try out. I expect this is what being a real-life city planner must be like, without the routine drudgery of everyday office life slowly sapping your will to live as pointless office politics serve to carve up what precious little time you have left on this planet. At least as a freelancer I get to do it while trying to catch glimpses of a nipple in lunchtime Neighbours.
Does this mean it's any good? Of course it does. How often do you find yourself daydreaming about Robot Wars: Extreme Destruction? It's a testament to the basic concept of the original game that it can still have this affect on you after all these years. Will Wright is a modern day genius I tell you. Why doesn't it have a Classic rating or a score in the 90s then? Simply because once you've cut through the gloss, it not that different to SimCity 3000 (or SimCity 2000, or SimCity, er, 1).
Sim As It Ever Was
Nonetheless, it does grip you. I'll defy anyone to actually fill an entire region with well adjusted, effective cities rather than go down the typical SimCity route of starting positively, building well, running out of cash, dropping a volcano or Mecha-Godzilla thing on your Sims arses then cackling like a hyena as you watch them bum (send us a screenshot if you manage it and we'll buy you an ice cream as a reward or something), and given all of that I can only predict that online games are going to be a whole new kind of hell (no servers were up at the time of review). But it does take a tight grip and keep you coming back for more punishment, time and time again. The old ain't broke, don't fix it' adage is still holding up after all these years, but eventually Maxis will need to look much deeper at the whole concept for this series to evolve any further. The regional concept is a step in the right direction, but it needs much, much more. In the meantime, think of this as SimCity 3000 v2.0 rather than an entirely new game. Which is probably enough to justify it for most people anyway.
Death To The West
Maxis intends to have downloadable regions for most American states on their website after launch. Fine if you want to play in Chesapeake Bay or San Diego, not so wonderful if you were looking to create a brand new Kabul, Baghdad or Cardiff (to name but three modern-day hell-holes). It highlights one of the fundamental flaws in the whole SimCity concept - namely this bias towards a western industrialised metropolis as being the pinnacle of city development. Pie expanded regional options do allow for some variation in thought, but ultimately all cities eventually have to teeter towards a New York theme to be deemed successful'. Let's globalise our thinking a little for the next version please.
Sounds Of The City
What Sort Of Music Does A Mayor-Cum-God Listen To?
According to Maxis it's a combination of the soundtracks to American Beauty and Heat (the Michael Mann cops and robbers flick as opposed to the celebrity-fawning magazine), the collected works of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, with the sudden juxtaposition of someone screaming into a microphone while new wave German techno-industrialists hit electric guitars with hammers in the background. The combined effect is like closing your eyes and imagining you're watching a word-free documentary about gliding on the Discovery Aspirational Impossibilities channel only to have your kid brother walk in and turn over to Kerraanng! TV just as it gets to a good bit about thermal updraughts. Personally I love it, but knowing you lot, you'll probably be filling the Music folder with your own favourite MP3s the moment it's installed.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode