Publishers: EA Games
Connectivity has been the big buzzword for the past year or two, and it's only going to become more and more prevalent. Since Criterion added a hosted of finely integrated social features into their Burnout series with Autolog, EA (and a number of others too) have been attempting to cram their titles with as much competitive user feedback as possible.
And now it's come to SimCity.
Maxis' focus with this revival has been firmly centred on the expanded field of play - a SimCity community that looks to unfurl a field of play on a truly global stage. The showcase back in spring promised a more connected experience. E3 gave us a full look at the Regions concept that would see players from all over the world building cities in neighbouring environments, and influencing the conditions of those around them with their actions. Finally, at Gamescom, Maxis lifted the lid on a host of fine details, persistent social features, and an impressive foundation for a fully-fledged virtual economy.
Let's start with the rather familiar wall of notifications and challenges. In this particular game, the feature is titled CityLog, with the player notified any time a friend completes a challenge or finishes up on a large building project or amasses a certain amount of money. In short, every little bit of progress your friends make in the game is tracked and fed back to you so you can make sure you're always just a little bit ahead.
Of course, the Maxis team will also be feeding in their own challenges too. Some will be collaborative in nature, encouraging players to work together; others may well be competitive. What is certain is that these challenges will range from the individual to the global - from a matter of generating a certain amount of resources to creating a certain number of jobs across an entire region or lowering global pollution. The best bit, of course, being that you can choose to participate on whatever scale that you choose.
One of the most interesting features, though, has to be the inclusion of a complete virtual economy. Coal, oil, fuel, food, all of these things will fluctuate according to market forces. Overproduction in one thing will leads to a drop in price as demand goes down. If you're all mass producing oil, it's not going to stay at a terribly high price for very long. Working together to create a productive region will require more than trying not to dump your waste in a neighbour's backyard after all.
If you're still yet to be convinced by the addition of multiplayer to the SimCity series, I would hasten to suggest that it's not an addition at all but rather an evolution. Cities do not exist in a vacuum, and these elements simply serve to carry Maxis' series forward in the pursuit of "true" simulation. The ambition of this game should not be underestimated. The earlier games in the series sought only to provide some insight (and plenty of joy besides) into the way our towns and cities worked. This game looks at how those urban hubs come together as regions, as countries, as a world.
Of course, as we've seen in the past, poring over endless streams of graphs and charts can be time consuming and tedious, and this is where GlassBox comes in. There'll still be that level of detail to dive into if you so wish, but Maxis have made it easier to identify issues that your Sims have with your mayorship at a glance. Having finally gotten hands-on with the game in an all-too-brief session in Cologne a few days ago, I can safely say that it's an utter joy to play.
The key to this is the engine. The aesthetics are pleasant, the stylised visuals endearing, but it's the level of detail and feedback that is never more than a click away which truly impresses. The subterranean features have been simplified to a certain extent, with pipelines following the roads. However, as soon as you select from logistics or power or waste or water, the overlay on the map changes. Bubbles of water illustrate a smooth and satisfying water flow, but a sluggish stream of effluence might indicate that refuse is not being dealt with fast enough. In games of old, you might have to build an identical waste disposal station, but now you can upgrade your existing buildings with small additions. An extra landfill site, a new truck - these are the things that will help your city to be a bustling metropolis of unique buildings rather than rigid repetitions.
Everything is available incredibly quickly. Placing roads is just a matter of holding the left mouse button and painting it onto the map. The same goes for residential, industrial, and commercial zones. Little pop up graphs instantly reveal demand for shops or better power or a police presence in the city. You can see the general happiness of your Sims in little emoticons that hang over their heads, but you can also click on individual people too. Everyone has their own daily routine, everyone has a story to tell and information to relay. Seeing the population of your city rise, and being able to interact with individual citizens is frankly brilliant.
If you want to see the influence of your fire station, all you have to do is click on it. The same goes for the police, hospitals, power stations, water towers, sewage works, everything. The game adapts itself to deliver the important information for whatever you're inspecting at any given moment. The depth in terms of data is still there, it's just been presented in a way that's incredibly user friendly.
It's because of this that the challenges will probably prove so engaging. Although it is a game that can be enjoyed in the long term we have no doubt, we were given a population challenge for our fifteen minute playtest. Setting roads and amassing residents proved easy at first. But then there were water considerations; then waste; then fire; then health and safety. Following the tutorial wasn't going to get me ahead, but the swift feedback ensured that I was always attentive to my Sims needs and able to go off copy. As it was, one person to my left had thought the same half a minute beforehand, so I came in second.
There are concerns, of course, that sadly we didn't quite have time to have answered. What, for example, is being done to battle against the inevitable trolls who'll look to build a city just to screw over their neighbours? Just how much control do you have over the people you'll allow into your region should you go public? Maxis have announced there'll be both high and base caps on commodities to make sure nothing becomes too expensive, but just how will every region tie into the global whole? We'll look to follow these up over the next few days.
Even with those queries, it's easy to see why Maxis have stepped things uop with this reboot. The idea of a virtual connected civic community is ambitious and attractive. And now Mac users will be able to get involved as well when the game drops in February, but they'll definitely need an Origin account along with the rest of us.