Summary: SimCity 4 is here! Will we see another wave of high school and college dropouts? Will your parents become the endearing, mindless redeye zombies all hardcore gamers are, as they discover the latest SimCity? Or has the absence of Will Wright on the design team caused that magic spark to disappear? Find out this week. Same Sim-Time, same Sim-Channel!
I remember that even as a kid I felt awe towards great designers. My original list included four – Will Wright for SimCity and SimAnt, Peter Molyneux for the Populous games, Chris Roberts for the Wing Commanders and of course Sid Meier. There have been of course additions like Warren Spector and Doug Church (who’s been on the credits of some of the best games ever.) As time has gone by, some designers left gaming for other fields (like Roberts), while others quit design and simply stamped their name on new games (Sid Meier.) Will Wright is one of the few who is profoundly aware of his place in the universe and what makes him happy – and that happens to be game design. So after my first few days of SimCity 4, it was with some relief that I noticed his name was nowhere on the credits.
SimCity spawned the original crack jokes about a game’s addictiveness. “Hey John Doe, your eyes are looking a little puffy and red, getting some of that SimCrack in?” It’s the simple gameplay that evolves with layers of hidden complexity that grabs gamers by the family jewels. The games are common sense, but not nitty-gritty. SimCities have rewarded the player for good city design, rather than punishing for a bad one. Make a bad city, and it will be squalid and unpopular, but it will still earn enough money to play.
SimCity 2000 is widely considered the peak of Sim-game design, since it added a little more depth without complicating the game or making it tedious. SC3000 was a slight step backward, forcing the player to take a very active hand in the city. At points, it became work, rather than a game.
Lately I’ve taken to avoiding previews of titles; I don’t want the game spoiled for me. So when SC4 reached the top of my “to-play” stack, it was with a clear and open mind that I approached it. From the get-go it’s clear that this is a different game which has tried to do very new things. For example, the cities a player deals with are no longer metropolises unto themselves. Rather, the player ends up building one smaller city after another, which then become a metropolis. In the same way that the San Francisco Bay Area is made up of Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, San Francisco itself and dozens of other smaller towns, so is the city in SimCity 4.
As in previous SimCities, the current city can be connected to neighboring ones, but of course now the player has control over those neighbors. At any time he can quit the city screen for the regional one and select the next city he wants to take over or build. The AI which runs the other cities doesn’t actually do much except engage in deals, so in effect it just maintains a sort of status-quo.
SIDEBAR: I played through FreeSpace 2 again. This is seriously one of the best games ever. Leave some feedback in the comments if you’d like to see an article about the best games we’ve played.
After selecting one of the zones on the region map, the player can choose to do some terraforming before building the city. As with previous games, before the city starts, sculpting the land is completely free. SC4’s beautiful, full-3D terrain engine is at its best here, as mesas are raised, valleys are sculpted and the forces of erosion create scenic ridges across the terrain. Now is also the time to “reconcile edges”, meaning that the game automatically fixes the edges of the current zone to match those of neighboring ones. Now while any discrepancies introduced by the player during terraforming don’t actually affect gameplay, resolving them does make the region view much nicer.
Once the city is started, the only use for god mode is to unleash disasters. Disasters are quite something. The meteor and volcano in particular are a sight to behold. Meteors will fall within roughly a one or two block radius of the target, so one can only hope that it takes out ‘My Sim’. Volcanoes, on the other hand, are much more accurate and deadly. They rise out of the ground in a most spectacular fashion, shooting and even spilling lava into the surrounding territory. The amount of lava may be disappointing, but the volcano does quite enough damage. Lightning is the laser-guided bomb of disasters, able to pick out individual homes with ease. The giant robot can actually be guided this time around, until he becomes tired and leaves. In the end though, disasters see little use. It’s no fun unleashing them when there’s really no way to rebuild since no city can possibly withstand the financial strain without massive cash reserves.
Say what? No rebuilding?
SimCity 4 is a tedious exercise in financial restraint. While it’s easy to appreciate the designer’s intention of having players create workable cities, even the best intentions go wrong. Thanks in part to the new economy, SimCity 4 becomes either a bore or a chore. Everything built by the city inflicts a maintenance cost. Want parks? Pay for them. Hospitals? Pay for them. Now, pardon my Canadian sentiments, but I was rather under the impression that a hospital was a private enterprise in America. How one is built by the city, never mind manages to lose money is beyond me.
The micromanaged hell starts off as a slum, but the addition of carefully-placed public centers with strictly controlled budgets lets it grow beyond its humble origins. One “feature” of SimCity 4 is the ability to set the budget of each and every school, hospital, police/fire department and even power plant. But in a misguided attempt to force players to use the “feature”, or perhaps balance it out with respect to the budget, the design team has cut funding so drastically that if your centers aren’t running on the razor’s edge of efficiency, the city will be losing money. Oh joy.
SIDEBAR: So, I called the Bucs-Raiders game. Oh and hey, they finally showed a good episode of the Simpsons this season. Figures they’d wait until after the Super Bowl.
Some things about SimCity 4 leave the bitter taste of premature release in our mouths. Crime, for example, never really gets out of hand. The only time it started affecting a city’s population was in a ‘ghetto’ scenario where there weren’t enough jobs to go around. In an educated city, a police department is a waste, unless one wishes to stop the news ticker from complaining. Those 20 crimes per month in a city of 35,000 don’t sound right.
The advertised multiplayer doesn’t work – it hasn’t been implemented yet. My Sim mode is almost, but not quite completely useless. Sometimes it’s amusing try to drop a meteor on My Sim’s home or workplace, but usually the most use he receives is when the player wishes to figure out why a specific neighborhood is dying. Of course, My Sim only provides vague hints, not actual reasons why suddenly the best zones in Nu Jack City are becoming decrepit.
There are plenty of fancy new graphs and charts which seem like a great idea at first. The RCI (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) demand indicators work as always, though they now provide detailed information about what kind of RCI the sims want. The status map also indicates which areas are desirable for which RCI. High-tech industry is going to be more picky than manufacturing, which is more picky than Dirty industry which will move in anywhere. Where the problem comes in is that even if there are empty industrial zones in a highly desirable place for high-tech, they won’t move in. The chart is either wrong or the game isn’t following its own rules.
Some areas will have abnormally low health or education levels, even though they’re right by a properly funded facility. Abandoned buildings will loiter and the AI is extremely reluctant to demolish them itself in favor of new ones. If the player taxes dirty industry out of town, the buildings will simply become abandoned and never replaced. What is even worse is that they still pollute even when shut down! So in addition to dealing with power plants or water pumps that produce less for more money as they age, money-sucking parks and amenities, and ever-more-expensive garbage disposal, the player ends up having to spend thousands to bulldoze ruins. Where’s the private initiative in the city?
Oh that’s right, the private initiative is to lay down worthless roads as the player tries to zone. Residential auto-roads never match up to commercial and neither match with industrial. This leaves the player with the choice of either tediously making his own, small zones with his own roads, or deleting the auto-roads and re-zoning appropriately. Of course, at the risk of vicious traffic snarls, one can leave the quagmire of alternating T-intersections in place.
We haven’t even mentioned the performance problems the game has, the poor interface (where is the scroll speed adjustment?) or missing features that are seriously needed – like restoring zones in a region to their original shape. It’s pretty easy to screw up a city design; so we imagine people would like to restore the zone or even the entire region without having to manually copy over files.
SIDEBAR: Windows 98/ME/2K/XP
16MB video card
8X CD-ROM drive
1GB hard drive space
GF4 4200 OTES
Graphics. SimCity 4 is easily the nicest-looking Sim game ever. It comes at a price, but once everyone has the hardware to run it properly in three years, we’ll all be glad.
Design. One look at the previous two pages gives you an idea of the problems that take this grand sequel down a notch or two… or three or four. Ranging from too much micromanagement to a poor crime model, this doesn’t quite feel like a real SimCity game. For all the promised feedback touted by the developers, the game never seems to indicate why something bad is happening, only that it is.
Mighty Mouse is on his waaaay!
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