Six Hours with SimCity | Hands-On

Published on January 25th, 2013

The original city builder returns…

Maxis are the masters of user interface design. That may sound like a rather small nail for any developer to hang their hat on, but think about the importance of it for just a second – UI is the very basis of how a player interacts with a game on the most fundamental level and with a release as complex and varied as it would be easy for charts, menus and building options to soon spiral out of control, as the player is completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the metropolis they’ve carefully constructed.

Six Hours with SimCity | Hands On

When buildings like these line your streets, you know your road network is well laid out.

Designating different zones, managing crime rates, finely mapping out roads, deciding a specialisation, placing down sewage works, weighing up different energy supplies, and controlling tax rates for high, medium and low earners may sound like the kind of stress which would cause hypertension in even the most calculating of mayors, but when making these decisions in SimCity you don’t feel stressed, instead there’s a mixture of whimsy and wonderment as you almost effortlessly snap together curved roads, switch on data layers to see various coloured orbs zoom around your road work and watch pre-defined zones fill up as different sorts of buildings get erected.

The soft-focus visual style gives city management more of a toy box feel than previous SimCitys, but scratch just a little underneath this colorful Pixar-inspired veneer, and you’ll find a simulation which is just as hardcore as before – only with the fiddly bits like placing down sewage piping and electricity lines taken out. Now you simply place down power plants and sewage works where you wish and both electricity and crap blobs are auto-routed, via the road network, to their destinations.

This monumental time saver makes establishing cities much less of a challenge, and places greater importance on road layouts. Our first city, affectionately dubbed ‘Sleepytown’, made London’s urban maze seem well thought-out, with tarmac thoroughfares slicing off in all directions limiting the space of potential expansion in either industrial, commercial or residential zones. This was the quickest way to condemn my city as the ideal home for low earners, as SimCity 2012 doesn’t boast a density metre like its previous iterations, instead buildings automatically sprout into more expensive or bigger forms if the land around it is well valued and the road network near it supports high capacity traffic.

Six Hours with SimCity | Hands On

If you place down parks near housing centres you'll raise prices dramatically, as shown in this dedicated data layer.

Again this is a move towards accessibility, but the transition from single-storey bungalows to massive tower complexes isn’t an overnight transformation, and the attractiveness of any given space is effected by multiple factors like pollution, transport links etc. All this information is represented in the two dozen data layer options which players can envelope their city in by choosing the appropriate toggle, but whenever you click the appropriate build option that layer instantly springs up giving you a clear idea of what’s going on in the city. Civilians and advisors will also lodge their complaints via thought bubbles spread throughout the city, so if there’s a problem or an opportunity for expansion the GlassBox engine ensures that it isn’t missed.

Said advisors and civilians will also set you particular objectives while playing, which you can ignore or take on board at your leisure. It’s the mayoral way…

Six Hours with SimCity | Hands On

City population determines how much you can upgrade your City Hall which in turn affects what sorts of buildings you can erect.

Ease of use is a term that suits this incarnation of SimCity perfectly, as even placing roads is supported by the option to have guide lines, so you can make the most of the space available merely by keeping to the dotted lines. Obviously you can still place roads where-ever you want, but now there are rectangular, circular and curved options to play around with. It’s a similar system to the one employed in rival management sim Cities XL, but here it’s much easier and more satisfying to use.

The result of all this ergonomic gameplay design does mean that transforming your piece of randomised green-space – occasionally boasting railway lines, coastline, lots of natural resources or little – into an urban centre can happen rather quickly. The playable area for each city is smaller than in previous games, but this is where multi-city gameplay comes in.

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