GamesBeat

A ‘big data’ experience revives the glory of SimCity (review)

simcity big

[We played the game with early access review code and tested the interaction between cities in a group with other journalists. We did not play on launch servers. –Ed.]

[Update: I played the final retail game early Wednesday morning and had no problems logging in. Others have reported server problems, and EA has said it is working to resolve the issues.]

If you’ve been there from the beginning like me, or if you’re brand new to city-building games, you’re going to enjoy the new SimCity.

SimCity fans have had to wait a long time for a quality remake of their beloved franchise, which game designer Will Wright created in 1989. The series hasn’t had a real blockbuster version since 2003, and last year’s SimCity Social was a pretty stripped-down version of the city simulation experience.

But the new SimCity for the PC from Electronic Arts is something you can sink your teeth into for hours. A decade of improvements in computing power and networking technology have enabled EA’s Maxis division to take this city simulator into the age of Big Data, where you can delve into all of the reasons why your city is or isn’t thriving or your citizens, known as Sims, aren’t happy — on a house by house level. It simulates everything, down to every kilowatt of power used in the city. You can manage it as if it were your own “smart city.”

At the same time, it’s a game. It’s fun to play and isn’t just a tool for educators or architects. If your skills as a mayor are lacking, your citizens will let you know by marching in front of city hall. The game’s ambient sounds and music from Christopher Tilton give you constant company, even if you’re playing in a solitary experience.

simcity 4What you’ll like

A good tutorial

Fortunately, the developers included a good tutorial. In it, you’re appointed mayor of a sinking city. The previous mayor was run out, and you have to save the town. Protesters carry placards in front of city hall to tell you they’re not happy. You can deal with them, or blow them off.

The administrator of the city shows you what to do, like building a road to the outside world. She then shows you how to create zones for residential, commercial and industrial development. Like the original SimCity, it’s an easy game to play, even though there is a ton of complexity running under the simulation.

Your administrator tells you the crime in your city is high. You can build a police station and then see it go into action. You see some robbers go into a building and then a character, or Sim, screams. Police sirens wail and multiple police cars show up. They have a shootout with the robbers, and then arrest the survivors and take them to jail. The whole scene plays out in front of you. It’s a scripted sequence, but it gets the point across about why it’s important to build police stations.

The tutorial also shows you how to interact with the rest of the world in a multiplayer experience. You can learn how to purchase goods and services from another city. Everything is easy. You no longer have to string power lines, since the roads themselves connect both water and electricity to a zone. When you’re building roads, a grid appears to suggest to you just how far apart they should be.

The city advisors  also regularly generate missions for you to undertake such as expanding your police station. Those missions break up the monotony when nothing is happening, and they contribute to the overall ease of use.

simcity 8Immersive graphics

These graphics are amazing, with so much attention to detail. The 3D graphics for the game allow you to maneuver and view your city from any angle. When buildings appear, they magically rise from the ground in an animation that is fluid and fun. And the buildings aren’t just generic. Each building home, and store is different. They have unique names and you can drill down and find more information about them. You can insert beautifully rendered landmarks into your city. You can make streets that have curves.

The game has indicators like happy faces to tell you what your citizens are thinking. You can zoom in or zoom out with ease, and you can absorb what is happening in your city on a number of different layers, such as the view of the water situation or the power grid. When you zoom down to the level of the individual Sims, the graphics leave a little to be desired. But the very fact that you can do that is amazing.

Everything is connected

The whole world is simulated. You can click on a person and he or she will reveal their feelings. You can click on a building and see what the owner’s needs are. Then you can take action based on the feedback. There are so many layers of data that you can drill into in order to gather intelligence about your Sims and their businesses. The Maxis team did this by creating a brand new game engine, dubbed GlassBox, that enables an intricately connected world where one piece of the simulation can impact another and build a huge butterfly effect. GlassBox simulates everything from the ground up, so it knows whether any given Sim that you click upon is happy or sick.

Consider what happens when you try to bring power to your city. You can buy it from neighbors and become dependent on them. Or you can build your own oil-fired power plant. If you do that, it pays to look underground to see if there are any oil or coal deposits. If you find them, you can set up a mine or an oil well. When you collect the resources, you have to have them stored in warehouses in a trading center. Once you build up more than you need, you can export the resources to other regions. This chain of construction events flows from just one decision to bring power into your city.

I saw this happen when I noticed a few citizens complaining about the high taxes in my city. I had built them up to 14 percent so that I could generate a profit and still add a wide array of services in health, police, fire, garbage, and sewage. But while the Sims had tolerated the 14 percent tax rate in the past, they now turned on me, one by one. I had the game running at triple speed and didn’t notice that they started moving out of my city.