Despite being thrown into a small partitioned room in the midst of Electronic Arts’ spring showcase, complete with too many people with too little time on their hands, the anticipation among our group as to what’s about to be shown is palpable. Bums hit seats, mouths are zipped shut and hands are ready with paper pen. MacBooks and iPads for the tech-fashionista.
Tense. Suspense. The screens lights up. We see trees, roads and rows of houses. Exciting.
Oh, but it is. What a tree! What a road! What a row of houses! SimCity is coming back, and oh boy does it look good – visually and mechanically. I’m not just saying that because the geek in me has been eagerly wishing for a new SimCity since the last game launched in 2003, I’m saying that because it really is looking impressive… and because I’m a geek that has been eagerly wishing for a new SimCity since the last game in 2003.
There’s so much new here; multiplayer, curved roads, areas of influence, NPCs, a fresh engine, vastly expanded traffic systems, graphics that make you want to zoom in you far that you see the hair on a builder’s exposed butt crack.
Multiplayer allows you to connect with those on your map (invited friends or random players) in a bid to improve both your metropolis, and make a little extra cash-money on the side. Excess power or water, for example, can be bought by a neighbouring city, preventing them from having to build another polluting factory and proving you the funds to upgrade your own fog machine to something less harmful to the lungs.
If no one in your private region is interested in what you’re offering then you can take to the world market to sell your goods. The juicy detail on exactly how this will work has yet to be revealed, but my hope is that it will operate like a stock market with prices constantly fluctuating based on supply and demand. That would allow savvy players to work the markets and put their efforts into making money by providing rare, but desirable, items.
Where there’s the good there’s the bad, though. Resources aside, neighbouring cities can also supply you with unwanted trouble in the form of pollution and NPCs. NPCs in the world of SimCity are individual Sims that can have a potentially high impact on your lovey-dovey community and its infrastructure.
In one example we were shown, a Sim driving a black van painted with a bright flame livery decided to take a day trip to our peaceful community. Sure, the flaming van (complete with hard rock music, if you zoomed into it enough) was slightly off putting and out of character in the peaceful suburban residential zone we spotted it cruising within, but we’re not here to judge the tastes of each individual. Let it be, some guys said once. I think.
Well, we did let it be, and the asshole stopped off at a small apartment building just to torch the place down. Meet, the arsonist NPC. We were told that this type of “negative” NPC usually appears in your city as a result of a neighbouring city’s high crime rate, combined with a lack of a suitable police force in your own. Various “positive” NPCs will also be making an appearance, but the nature of them and their impact is being keep in the ‘not for press’ box until another day.
Of course, if you’ve got a fire station, a fire in a single building is not too much of a problem. At least it wasn’t in previous SimCity titles. Now, however, you’ve got to take into account the area of influence factor. Click on your fire station and an overlay will appear on your city’s roads showing lines of red, yellow or green. Red means that section of the city is out of the station’s range, yellow means a slow response time and green indicates fully covered.
Rather than a simple, static radius around the building in question, the influence is determined by the quality of related roads and the traffic on them. The easiest way to turn those red lines to green is to widen roads, build new ones or improve your public transport systems to relive traffic on arterial routes. None of that comes cheap, so you’ll need to figure out which is the best risk-reward compromise.
The same area of influence overlay applies to police stations, water pipes and electricity. Failing to provide your Sims with what they need to live a fruitful, happy and peaceful life could result in protests, a reduction in your city’s population and increased crime rates.
Much of this information can be garnered without the help of overlays, however. The quickest and easiest way to see which part of your city is without power is to switch to night time view and look out for areas which are without street lights or the yellow glow of in-house light bulbs. Similarly, areas of traffic congestion are easily noticeable by… traffic.
The cause of traffic congestion may not be so obvious. Yes, you may have built a road system that resembles the favelas of Rio, but the actual problem may be temporary – construction trucks parked on the road outside a new development, moving vans bringing a families to the neighbourhood, the fire service putting out a fire.
These ‘organic’ moments should help give specific areas of your city their own personality. “Oh, the west side, you don’t want to go there in summer. The quality of life is low, the heat makes the locals irritable, they start burning the place down and the roads get clogged up,” a Sim might say. A Londoner might say something similar.
A sense of personality, that’s what really struck me about SimCity. Despite our demo being short, and this game being very big, everything about it felt personal and real. Hopefully, once we spend more time in the world of the Simolean, that connection will only become stronger and more involved.
When SimCity is released next year they’ll have been a ten-year gap between releases. The real world has moved on a lot in that time, the virtual one is promising the same.