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SimCity rebuilds the sandbox game

Nate Ralph | March 14, 2013
SimCity is a visually striking homage to a classic series that takes city building in bold new directions, but troubling business decisions and technical snafus spell trouble.

Building a city is hard work. Armchair urban planners have known this for nigh on three decades, ever since 1989's SimCity introduced us to a game world of zoning regulations and budget balancing. ­­

It's been a long time, but SimCity has been reborn. Powering the experience is developer Maxis' GlassBox engine, which attempts to dynamically simulate conditions in a city. You can track individual citizens as they shuffle about your city, filling residential areas as they move in and causing traffic jams as they attempt to commute to work. While much of the gameplay has been simplified (no more laying down power lines and water pipes), new complexity has been introduced through a focus on multiplayer cooperation and specialized cities.

The end result is a visually striking homage to a classic series that takes city building in bold new directions, but troubling business decisions and technical snafus ultimately hamper the game's ability to eclipse its predecessors. Is the new SimCity worth your hard-earned simoleons? Let's find out.

Moving on up

Cities in the new SimCity are decidedly smaller than previous entries in the series; the sprawling metropolises of yore have necessarily given way to a focus on careful planning and design, largely because of the GlassBox engine's hefty computational requirements. The new SimCity keeps the familiar Residential, Commercial, and Industrial zone trinity, but the classic approach of plopping down low-, medium- and high-density zones to balance your city's development has given way to a more organic approach: buildings start small, and only grow when they have enough money, happy residents, and space. Roads are the lynchpin to a thriving city: power and water flows along your roadways, which are themselves available in low, medium, and high capacities, ultimately determining how large your zones can be.

The game's simple, fluid tools belie an astonishing level of depth: you can lay down roads in traditional (boring) grids, or give the new curved roads a try and paint asphalt down at your leisure. These tools are crucial if you want to make the most out of your space, as building too tightly will result in zones that don't have enough room to grow. As you lay down roads, helpful guidelines give visual cues as to how much space a particular zone will need to fully expand.

Green is good

SimCity has always been a data-driven experience, but the bevy of graphs have largely been replaced with colorful bars that give you a quick idea of where problems lie.

I've always been a rather reactive city-planner, and that causes me problems in this game. Citizens want more places to shop? Toss down a few commercial zones. Low-income citizens need a place to work? Pile a few more factories into my pollution-riddled industrial quarter, home to hastily erected garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants. The resulting urban sprawl works about as well as Los Angeles does: skyscrapers grow and the wealth pours in, but traffic is a mess and I always find myself scrambling to address the congestion my lack of foresight has created.


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