SimCity releases on March 5, which means that the game is in the final stages of development at the Maxis offices in Emeryville, California. In fact, it's so close to release that we got to sit down and play it for five hours straight. This extended hands-on time gave us a better sense of SimCity than ever before, and these are some of the biggest take-away points about the game and what it offers.
It's Not About One City
The original SimCity had one primary goal: Increase your population. A lot has changed over the years, and the number of people in your town isn't the only (or the most important) objective. Now, you're aiming for a more collaborative success, even if you're playing single-player. Because all of the cities in a region can share services, it's wise to divide your efforts. Dividing unsavory services like sewage management and garbage disposal can dampen the negative effects on a single city, while maximizing the positive effects for multiple cities. If you aren't playing with other people, you can build multiple cities by yourself in a single region to share the burden.
Have It All If You're Small
Even though SimCity has an emphasis on cooperative efforts, you can still create a single, self-sufficient town that covers all of its own bases. "You can certainly have a small town that does it all. That has its own power generation, its own police force," says creative director Ocean Quigley. "But that starts to break down when your city is large. When your city needs a lot of water. When your city is generating a lot of garbage. When you have a lot of injured people who need hospitals. If you're making small-town America, you can fit all that stuff into a single city. But as your city becomes more and more dense and has a higher population, you'll find that it makes much more sense to put things in adjacent boxes, and let them be handled outside the city."
In the standard mode, SimCity offers a variety of challenges for your and your region-mates. On the other hand, those wouldn't be fair if some players were allowed to cheat and others weren't. To solve this, Maxis has included a Sandbox mode. “Sandbox mode is where you’re saying ‘I’m not interested in leaderboards. I just want to have access to a whole bunch of cheats. I want to play with the simulation as a toy,’” says Quigley. “So, we give you a bunch of money cheats, and a whole bunch of other cheats for you to do stuff with. Everything is unlocked.” This means that even with the emphasis on connected play and working together, players who just want to explore the simulation without restrictions are free to play however they please.
One of the coolest features of SimCity is buried a bit in the options menus, but you can select the visual style of your city from a pull-down menu. This doesn't change any of the actual buildings, but it does alter the color. Some filters give your city a hipster-style Instagram vibe, while others just accentuate cool or warm colors. My personal favorite was a black-and-red filter that gives everything a Sin City look. Even better, some filters are geared toward colorblind players. They may not look great to those with normal vision, but they are engineered to accentuate the differences between colors that otherwise would not seem distinct to those with colorblindness.
Multiple specializations are available for mayors who want to take their cities down certain lucrative paths. Maybe you want to focus on drawing in tourists. Maybe you want your city to become a mining juggernaut. Whatever you choose, you will find that SimCity guides you toward your goal without putting pressure on you. "We want to provide just enough structure so that if you’re not entirely self-directed – if you’re not doing SimCity as creative play but you’re doing it as a gamer and want a game experience – that you have a clear goal that you can move to. And you get feedback as to how well you’re doing and what the stages you need to do are," Quigley says. "We’ve had to put in a bunch of stuff like that, because otherwise, it is more toy than game. And it has to have aspects of both."'
The Online Thing
Every time we post anything on this site about SimCity, we see comments from outraged fans regarding the game’s controversial always-online feature. People don’t like sacrificing control over products they purchase – especially in a series that has such a long single-player tradition. "There are a lot of people who want us to be making a 1990s-era game. A lot people who want us to make SimCity4++. It's not the '90s anymore. The world has moved on," says Quigley. "We're building a new game in this new environment. The Internet is a thing now." From my time with SimCity, this goal of constant connectedness serves the game well. Yes, you need to be online to play, even in single-player. Yes, it doubles as a form of copy protection, but it doesn't impact the quality of the game mechanics. As someone who was skeptical of the decision early on, my time with the game has convinced me that it has benefits. It contributes to the sense of collaboration and cooperation, which (like it or not) are critical components of this game. Yes, it is still annoying that you can't play offline single-player. Part of me misses the idea of creating one massive city that does it all, but another part is looking forward to the possibilities with this new incarnation of SimCity.
That's it for my initial impressions, but we'll have a full review closer to SimCity's release. The exclusive screens below were taken during my time with the game at Maxis, and include shots that highlight the black-and-red filter, the building upgrade process, and a pipe spitting sewage into the open air. When you're doing looking at those screens, check out Ocean Quigley’s blog for more (and read his answers to many questions in the comments).