Publisher: EA Games
"At Maxis," General Manager Bret Berry proclaims, during his opening presentation for the new SimCity, "simulation is our superpower, and the development loves to stretch their muscles to improve and enhance that superpower. GlassBox lets us do that."
It's been a long wait for a new SimCity title, with the last numbered instalment in the series - SimCity 4 - releasing nearly a decade previously in 2003. The boom times of the early-Noughties are long-gone now, and we've stumbled into a period of fiscal and environmental responsibility, when individuals and nations alike are being weighed, measured, and often found wanting in such trying times. Government figures, Hollywood celebrities, and charity billboards call for us to recognise the extent to which our actions shape and affect the world - both natural an man-made - around us.
Under such circumstances, there has perhaps never been a better time for SimCity to return, armed as it is with all of the technological bells and whistles that finally allow Maxis to realise the dream they always had: to let players witness in real-time the effects of their decisions.
It's the development of the GlassBox engine that has made this possible. A small town lies in front of us, and curious features begin to stand out immediately. To put it simply, this town is alive. Little pedestrian sims scurry about the place, delivering data; cars race to and fro along busy streets, with traffic patterns unfolding in real time. Every little avatar of data provides a visual representation of a simple algorithm, and Berry draws our attention to the town hall, where a bunch of little Sims are brandishing placards and banners, and creating something of a ruckus.
Something is clearly wrong.
A couple of clicks on the simplified and streamlined UI (still a work in progress we are told) provides an overlay that shows the town's power distribution in colour-coded lines. The problem is clear, with red lines snaking throughout the urban environment, denoting that the majority of the buildings thus far aren't receiving any power. A quick fast-forward to night-time displays this information in even simpler terms: there are precious few lights on at all.
"The 3D graphics provide a visual representation of what's happening behind the scenes in the game," says Maxis' Bret Berry. "For the first time, art serves simulation."
A coal power station is duly erected outside of town, and though little yellow pulses begin issuing forth along the overlay as red lines turn yellow, it's still not quite enough. However, instead of building new units, structures in this latest SimCity can be customised and upgraded. A small chimney double-stack, and three additional towers are built, causing the yellow pulses of energy to swell in size, and broadening the field of effect.
This simple graphical feedback, one small part of the myriad options available to the budding architect, is what underpins the new engine that Maxis have developed for the game. "We still wanted to offer that level of detailed control and player choice," Berry tells me later. "But GlassBox just allows us to explore that in a very unique way, and present the simulation engine, which was previously hidden, in a very colourful, very visual way, and that's something we've always wanted to do. Of course, having that visual representation now makes it easier to recognise and deal with the effects of all of your choices."
This is further exhibited when an Arsonist rolls into town, the flames on his black van, and heavy rock music blaring from the speakers, signifying a somewhat unsavoury character. Sure enough, he dives into a nearby tower block, cueing sounds of gasoline being poured, a match being struck, and billowing plumes of smoke. After he jumps in his car and rides swiftly out of the picture, there's an explosion and the building catches fire.
A fire station is needed and, again, a few clicks brings up the necessary building, with green, yellow, and red lines displaying the station's sphere of influence as the cursor flutters about, looking for a prime location. Once deployed, the station is upgraded with an extra garage, a warning bell, and a sign...all of which serve to expand the service out to far-flung neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, Sims are pouring out of the burning building, some of them aflame, with the poor fiery victims charred to ash and dust if not given assistance. Thankfully, though, the roads are clear, the two lanes allowing the fire-engine to reach its destination quickly, and the building is doused with water and saved. Disaster averted.
The visual feedback is one thing, but when combined with a UI and deployment system that appears so effortless, the smiles truly begin to appear. Flexibility seems to be the order of the day in all things, allowing the player to create and adapt as they see fit. The basic premise of roadbuilding has been completely overhauled, for example, with players now able to simply draw roads as they might draw a freehand line in Paint. The need for American blocks has disappeared, with sweeping, bendy lanes and avenues available with a drag of the mouse.
Highlighting areas for residential use no longer involves painstakingly creating odd looking rectangles of housing, bereft of roads, as the tool sticks to the streets and curves as the road does, all accompanied by the light wooden sounds of picket fences being erected. As building sites pop up, workers begin to appear, bustling about the place, and it's not long before an outlying street is lined with fresh new abodes. Moving vans begin to appear, stopping outside the new housing, and a little Sim makes several trips back and forth between house and vehicle to simulate moving in, even as the road behind the van begins to fill up with impatient traffic.
It looks like Maxis have learnt much from The Sims, the joys of construction writ large in the DNA of this game, and it certainly seems to be that a concerted effort has been made to eliminate as much of the barrier between player thought and realisation as possible. But beyond construction, and on towards maintenance, that is where Maxis hope this latest instalment will truly shine: in dealing with the consequences of your own actions and, for the first time, the actions of those around you.
The regions of SimCity 4 return, but now, although you can still govern the lot if you wish, you can also now invite your friends to come and build and play too. Players can create specialist cities, dealing in specific commodities or industries. Deals can be struck and bargains made between neighbouring cities to help facilitate growth, with civic benefits for all concerned. But careless companions can make for poor neighbours, with pollution, crime, and disease able to spread across regions should an urban environment fall into disrepair.
You can't affect your neighbours through direct action," explains Berry. "You can't, say, pick up an Arsonist, point him at a neighbouring city, and send him on his way. But the region will react to the things that you do, and there will be knock-on effects to your neighbours, depending on the way you play."
Some will moan and gripe about the mandatory Origin requirement, and the necessity for an internet connection on startup, but at least a dropped broadband line won't nerf the entire experience. Truth be told, the timing has never been better for a return to form for the series, and the new multiplayer elements look highly intriguing indeed. It's an ambitious game that Maxis are playing this time around, and they're aiming higher than ever before. But equally, this is something of a dream opportunity for the team, with the technology finally in place to realise ideas that have been in the pipeline for sometime.
"It's like stars have aligned," says Berry with a smile. "To be able to play in this massive, interconnected world, to have your choices now not only affect you, but potentially the cities of those around, to explore new player dynamics and relationships within that context, and it opens up so many new possibilities for gameplay that we were just never able to have before."
Roll on 2013.