Hands-on: SimCity review

SimCity 2000 is one of the best games of all time. You might disagree, but if you do, then, well, you're wrong. The sim-plicity of the concept didn't stop it from being an amazing game. The hours you could happily sit in front of it were staggering. Back in the day we had more spare time, but times change - we now have jobs and there are little human beings who rely on us to change their nappies and stop them from hurting themselves.

So with time being so precious, SimCity needs to be really, really good. It's competing with TV shows, movies and our social lives for a sliver of attention. So is it good enough? We went to see EA in its UK  headquarters and spent six hours - including an hour of multiplayer action - on a pre-release version of the game to find out.

It's a reboot

Like so many movies these days, Maxis describes SimCity as a reboot. Forget about 2000, 3000 and Sim City 4, those never existed. SimCity is a game for those who remember the originals, as well as those who have never even heard of it. It's been designed from scratch to make a truly modern gaming experience.

Happily, there are still lots of people at Maxis who were around in the early days. This means that there's loads that SimCity players of old will recognise and love. And the basic premise here hasn't changed: Make a kick-arse city and glance at your watch at 3am in surprise at how time flies.

Utterly beautiful

When we saw the early screens for SimCity, we knew it was going to be something special. In fact, those early grabs look a little drab now, after we played the game proper. Now the world has come alive with colour and there is so much to see.

Like us, with previous SimCity games, you probably spent a lot of time thinking about how it would be nice to get down to street level and see what was happening in more detail. Well, you can do that now. You can follow Sims, you can follow fire engines you can even check how straight your roads are. It's basically the game we all wanted when SimCity 2000 came out.

You can either take an aerial view or go close up and watch your Sims do their thing. Either way, the game feels fast and responsive. This is partially because of the restricted city sizes, which are needed to keep both server load and PC load down to as little as possible.

The building designs are really great too - there's a glorious amount of detail in everything and the world comes alive with shops and houses that seem wildly varied with minimal repetition. One word of advice though: don't inspect the sewage outflow pumping station too carefully, one could argue Maxis has included a little too much detail here.

Administration is reduced

In the older SimCity games, there was a lot of administration needed to keep things ticking over. Often you'd need to tweak all manner of taxes to keep the money coming in and the people happening. There is still an element of this, but from what we saw it's reduced to a much more pleasing level. Of course, you still need to balance the books, but it seemed harder to get into real trouble. There are those damn bond things though, so it must be possible to find yourself in a jam at some point.

When building roads, we're also pleased to see lots more layout options. You can have graceful curves now too. This means things can be neater, but this also allows you to layout bits of your city differently. Sims, for example, might prefer to live on an arched street, but industrial and commercial areas might be better in the old grid format.

Thank god that the need to lay electricity cables and water pipes has now gone too. Utilities - internet access isn't mentioned, but we assume Sims are online - are all provided by the road system. For this reason, roads need to be anywhere your Sims are. Much like a real city. This isn't a massive departure, but it does make things simpler, cleaner, and less tedious.

Monsters

Yes, there are still monsters and natural disasters. These seem, from our gameplay time, to be limited to user choice. When asked about how to get rid of pollution, we were told "Tornado". So if you're having air problems it might be one to try. Just hope your Sims did a good job of building their city.

Speciality

The other interesting gameplay concept is the ability to make specialist cities. These can be configured for gambling, mining or other natural resource processing, or go for a university town. With the various city options you can perhaps set it up so you have a largely residential city, a heavy industrial city and a place for Sims to learn.

We really enjoyed this idea, and it's quite time consuming to get a good specialist city, but once you do there's the reward of money and in certain circumstances an improvement on the technology available to your Sims.

Multiplayer

When Maxis announced that there would be a multiplayer component in SimCity, some of the purists were, to say the least, concerned. After all, the last SimCity game came out ten years ago, and while the internet was in full swing by then, online gaming was very different, and running servers powerful enough to manage hundreds of thousands of players building intricate cityscapes was an impossibility.

But when you think about it, it makes real sense to go online. The multiplayer mode in SimCity adds a lot of interesting functionality, including the obvious addition of being able to play with friends. Here you all join the same region and either play co-operatively, or instead try to get the better of your chums. Region maps go from three cities all the way up to 16, so there's plenty of scope for playing together.

Added to that are missions. The idea being that you can either work together, or against each other to reach a goal. This is a nice idea, because it means the game has a whole new dimension. You can, of course, play against strangers too, but it is worth bearing in mind that you can end up dealing with problems from "selfish" players. For example, we had a smog problem caused by a fossil-fuel-burning neighbour. Having said that, we also had similar problems in the single-player game too.

The level we played required that we encourage the ultra-rich to come to our city. This was harder than it sounded, and we couldn't do it in the hour provided. We asked Maxis about getting richer people to come to the city, and they told us that you'd need to court them, and once they moved in, keeping them would be more of a challenge than the poor, or medium-wealth Sims.

It feels to us like a lot of thought has gone into these multiplayer "missions". This could, in theory, be a massive expansion to the game. Maxis could easily launch DLC that adds in new things to do, and expands the scope of the game well beyond what it will be at launch.

But however you look at it, no one needs fear multiplayer. It's not going to ruin your single player game, it's great fun to play with friends and it's got scope for a whole new kind of SimCity in the future.

Initial Verdict

The mark of any good game is how much you miss it when you aren't playing it anymore. Just writing about it makes us want to get back behind the mouse and start playing again. As we finished our day with EA and Maxis, we really had to force ourselves to stop playing, and on the way home we were contemplating how we could have achieved our multiplayer game goal.

When it comes to the concerns people had about adding in a multiplayer element, there's really no need to be worried. Maxis has ensured that there's a sandbox mode to make sure single players can have a private experience. Multiplayer is also a lot of fun and, in our view, adds a modern and interesting dimension to the game.

SimCity looks set to eat up every second of spare time in our lives when the final version is released in March. But we don't care. It's just like the good old days, only better.