So you say you're tired of blasting aliens and sick of cleaving monstrosities? You're bored with all that intergalactic space travel and quantum-powered multidimensional leaping? Well, maybe it's time to take a virtual hammer in hand, pop on your favorite burgomaster's hat and put some thought into building up a shining little town all your own. Maybe it's time for SimCity.
But wouldn't that be trading in something new for something old? Haven't we heard that name before? Sure. This game isn't the first of its kind. But it is something of a reboot to the series, and that means it's time for a new review.
My City, My Rules … Your Water
In case you've never attempted building your own simulated metropolis before, let me help you get the lay of the gaming land. SimCity starts you off from scratch with a couple thousand acres of unimproved homestead and a few virtual bucks stashed away in your bank account. Then it challenges you to find … balance. That's right, making this game work isn't as simple as building a skyscraper at the end of a dirt path, stepping back and saying, "Ain't that a beaut?" No, this is all about build-as-you-go savvy and forward-thinking strategies.
You start with a single road off the highway, maybe add a few branching streets, and then decide where you want your first small houses to go up. Of course, a city isn't just a residential zone. Those tiny Sim folks moving in need a place to work. You know, a factory or two that you can set aside in an industrial zone. And then, how about a few stores where residents can buy their groceries and goodies?
What about electricity? Maybe you want to go green and power up your little Me-ville with a sweet wind farm on that elevated knoll north of town. Oh, and then there's the sewage-treatment plant. That's a must. Water. Yeah, can't forget that. And the door-to-door garbage disposal service too.
The key is to build slowly and keep each new development, each new cost in balance with the taxes you require from your citizenry. Raise taxes and fees too steeply and your residents will find lodging in the next town over. Not enough, and city coffers run dry while picketers storm the courthouse … if you have a courthouse, that is.
No Time to Put Your Feet Up, Mr. Mayor
After those basics are out of the way, then the complexity of your resource-juggling challenges grows. Want a better and happier workforce? Build schools and libraries. Need a richer group of investors to come-a-courtin'? Want a higher class of neighborhood? How about upgrading public services and building some great parks for families?
And what about exploiting that coal deposit somebody found in those hills to the west? If you build a mining facility out there, you could create more jobs and supply an important resource that other cities will bargain dearly for. Sure, you need to be careful of the pollution factor, but if you supply neighbors with coal or, say, some help from your police force, they'll be happy to supply you with, perchance, a segment of their burg to dump your trash, or make sure your water needs are covered.
That city-to-city interaction is the next level of play and one of this game's new elements. And to make it happen, SimCity has been released as an online-only game. You can set up a practice sandlot environment where you can play all alone for a little while if you want, but this game is designed for groups of gamers, each performing his or her own build-and-govern duties in cities not so far away from one another. Which makes this version of sim-builder a shared social and mechanical experience.
Because your land space is limited, it's impossible to create a totally self-sustaining Gotham on your own. So it makes sense to establish certain understandings with your neighbor mayors. You might decide you're going to focus your city on exporting needed resources while a friend might be more inclined to offer sports coliseums or beach-front resorts—all things aimed at keeping everyone's population happy as clams.
Bringing Sanity to City Hall
And keeping you happy as a clam is the game's goal, too. Life's liabilities sometimes creep in, of course. In the words of the ESRB, "Small figures can be seen robbing banks and engaging in shootouts with police. Players are also able to deploy natural and fantastical disasters on the city (e.g., tornadoes, flaming meteors, fires, giant monsters, destructive robots)."
But sometimes even the bad things can teach good lessons. Build a casino, for instance, and crime will increase in your homey hamlet. Not your goal, of course. And that's exactly the point.
Online interactions open the door, as always, to unpredictability via instant messages, etc. And the game's online stability hasn't always been the best either. Signing up with Electronic Arts' Origin service was initially a major headache, and city interaction screens, along with some of the other building processes have been glitchy.
Some of that is smoothing out as I write this … sort of like your city situation will smooth out as you doggedly plan and plot your next moves. That's great, because this is a complex and compelling bit of fun that gives young and old gamers alike the chance to build and strategize, wheel and deal, and even learn a thing or two about municipal government … instead of alien altercations.