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'SimCity' preview: Hands-on with EA's fascinating city-building sandbox

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SimCity screenshot

© EA


The rebirth of SimCity - which sees the city-building simulation return after a ten-year absence - is a beautiful one.

Gone is the isometric viewpoint and gridded layout systems of old SimCity games. Now you can swoop down to street level and follow one of many possible thousands of Sims living in your hand-crafted city as they go about their day-to-day business, and then back out to a regional view of three urban areas at once.

The city, from the Sims to the flow of traffic and smoke billowing from factories has a cute, model-like look, one that often also looks absolutely gorgeous. When your creation is in full flow, it's almost hypnotic to watch the bustling metropolis at work.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



GlassBox: More visual way to plan and build cities

As the all-new GlassBox engine peddles the simulation, it also allows you to view live data in a dynamic, visual way. Data maps strip away the toy-like aesthetic for clean-cut graphics and charts dotted around the landscape.

Not only does it provide at-a-glance feedback - for things like population distribution, wealth and ground pollution - but placing simple things like school bus stops gives you instant feedback of which residents they'll reach.

Each visualisation feels unique towards the data you're investigating; one of our favourites (and perhaps the most disgusting) is sewage, where you're watching brown blobs flow from residential districts to treatment plans with the pulsating rhythm of a toilet flush.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



Specialisations and multiple cities

Two new additions change SimCity's mid-to-end game: specialisations and multiple cities. Whether you're in solo play or multiplayer, your city will exist alongside two others nearby, which all have an impact on one another in a number of ways.

At its most simple, resources can be shared between cities. You can trade raw material such as coal and oil, or purchase excess electricity and water from a neighbour. You can also donate cash if they're stretched for funds, a tactic which is ideal in solo play to give second and third cities a headstart.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



The flow of Sims, though, is the most fascinating. Sims from the lower to the upper classes can commute between cities, something that's not only trackable in the datamaps, but in the simulation itself; you could follow an individual from their home in your city as they catch a bus, then a train all the way to a university that's at the other side of the region.

Specialisations aim to differentiate cities. After your city establishes the basic services, you can decide to go into an area that makes your city stand out. You can build stadiums and monuments to draw tourists, or concentrate on being an industrious, oil-drilling town, drawing workers and cash from other cities.

There are plenty of benefits for trade with multiple cities, but also some drawbacks to be wary of, such as air pollution and crime that can travel across the region.

Finally, all three cities can work together on a Great Work, such as an international airport or an Arcology, which require specific specialisation and funds to achieve.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



Multiplayer: SImCity's online benefits

SimCity has to be played online at all times - even in solo mode - and while it remains a controversial move for some, there are a number of benefits that make your creations feel part of a wider, worldwide community.

As mentioned above, regions can be played with other users, allowing you to start cities, grow them together and specialise to reap unique benefits. It can also make trade negotiations and dealing with pollution a more diplomatic challenge.

City progress is stored in the cloud. When you're offline, your city won't grow but will continue trading with other cities at a static rate.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



Even if you're playing solo, there are still online benefits. One is the Global Trading system, where prices for coal, oil and other resources fluctuate in real time based on supply and demand, allowing you to 'sell' to the global community.

There's also leaderboards that rank your friends - whether in Origin or in your current region - in all sorts of areas, opening up asynchronous competition.

Finally, Maxis plans to roll out new challenges to give players new aims over time. An example is players working together as a region to bleed as much tax from the wealthiest as possible, and reward the top 10% of users with an exclusive achievement.

The potential of these benefits do seem to justify a persistent online connection.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



So what did we think?

SimCity is thankfully more accessible and more forgiving than previous games. The opening tutorial obviously provides a great insight on how to play and where things are, but it's the datamaps and the way in which it constantly communicates problems that really ease you in, and helps keep frustration and confusion to a minimum.

That said, there is still a learning curve. Our first city was a mess; about a quarter of residences were on fire at one point because we forgot to order enough fire engines. The wait for the next bus was an average of 155 minutes. We also had to bulldoze too many abandoned houses for all kinds of reasons, the most depressing of which was 'Too many deaths'.

However, by the third or fourth attempt, we could smoothly go from a blank slate to a stable, mid-tier city with few problems. Our city layouts were sound, if a little boring (something that will no doubt improve with more practice) and any complaints from residents we could tackle comfortably. It was a good state to be in.

SimCity 2013 screenshot

© EA



But from there, we hit a bit of a wall. Many specialisations were too far from our grasp, requiring a gradual grind and waiting to upgrade our city hall to unlock new facilities to progress further. At a guess, this is where having multiple cities in a region really helps.

The impacts of multiplayer weren't also as obvious as we initially thought. Playing in a closed environment with other journalists, everyone started their cities at the same time, so we were too poor to help each other with resources initially, and since we all matured at the same time, we were then so rich that requesting help wasn't really needed.

Again, specialising cities in different ways to supply unique resources could change that. The closed environment also meant we didn't see benefits of the global trading system, either.

And while the interface and building tools were great to use, one specific complaint came when upgrading roads. It's an essential part in city growth, since they dictate the density of surrounding residences and buildings. But upgrading them was a real chore, having you select each individual segment rather than a quick and easy 'upgrade all' solution.


All that said, we were completely glued to SimCity. Construction in this sandbox is a fascinating and instantly gratifying process, and one that demands experimentation.

But even after six hours in its company, the extent of the end game and longterm play is still hard to tell. How much effort does it take to unlock a Great Work between friends? Will multiplayer in the wild have more impact on individual cities?

And more importantly, how will challenges - which have the potential to add new content for months after release - push the game in interesting directions? All that will have to wait until March.

SimCity is available on PC on March 8 in Europe and March 5 in North America. It will be released on Mac at a later date.

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