SimCity Closed Beta Impressions

SimCity and I go way back… to 1989, to be specific. That was the year I played the original SimCity on my older brother’s Amiga. I was young, and so was the hobby of gaming, but even then I knew SimCity was something special. It introduced me to the simulation genre, and captured my imagination like no game before it. My parents liked that it was educational. I liked that I could build the groundwork for a city and then watch it grow. Here we are 24 years later, and I was fortunate enough to be given access to the Closed Beta of the new SimCity. I’m happy to report that while much has changed, the heart of the game remains the same. Build the groundwork. Watch how the city grows.

All it takes is a road and a Little RCI

SimCity Closed Beta Impressions: Gamer Horizon RCI
Here you can see residential (green), commercial (blue) and industrial (yellow) zones placed alongside a series of roads that, through an astonishing coincidence, spell out Gamer Horizon.

In SimCity (SimCity 2013, SimCity 5), like in every SimCity game before it, the player is the mayor of an empty plot of land and is tasked with building a city from the ground up. It all starts with the off-ramp of a highway connected to the rest of the world. At the start of a game, this is how new citizens may come to the city and is the first noticeable change compared to earlier games where people and buildings popped up out of nowhere with no realistic means for their arrival. But before people can move into the city, the player must build some roads (which can be curved instead of grid-like for the first time in the series) from the highway and designate the property alongside those roads as residential (home), commercial (shop) or industrial (factory) zones. Unlike in earlier games, the zones cannot be painted into custom sized blocks, but will instead adhere to a road with any available nearby space being utilized as necessary for growth. That’s enough to get people moving in. Of course, they’ll move out just as quickly if there is no power or water, or if any other needs are not met in a reasonable amount of time.

Layers of Depth in SimCity

The complexity of SimCity is derived from a meticulous and multifaceted balancing act. At its most basic level, it comes down to money. In the beta, the player starts with 50,000 simoleons in the treasury, which is more than enough to get started. Roads are inexpensive, and it’s free to designate zones, but nearly everything else in the game has a significant initial cost as well as ongoing maintenance expenses. The player must always attempt to keep a positive cash flow, because if expenses ever exceed income, the player will have to cut back on services (which can lead to all kinds of other problems) or take out a bond and figure out a way to get back into the black while interest is added to the expense report.

Beyond the economical balancing, there are many other things to consider. Are there enough industrial and commercials zones to provide jobs to all of the residents? Does the power plant generate enough juice for all the buildings? Are the police and fire departments adequate? Is the trash piling up due to a lack of garbage trucks or dumpsites? And why is that house on fire? Were those gunshots ringing out into the night?

SimCity Closed Beta Impressions: Up Close and Personal
Zooming in makes it all worthwhile!

Fortunately, the answers to all of those questions are easy to discover in SimCity thanks to an amazing array of data maps available to the player. For example, the power map shows which buildings are powered or unpowered and is updated in real time. If part of the city is without power, it is fun to plop down a new power plant and then watch as all of the unpowered buildings gain power one at a time (with delightful accompanying sound effects). There is a map for population, for citizen happiness, for building growth potential, for crimes and fire hazards, for health and education, and literally dozens of others. And they are all much more helpful and informative than the maps in the classic SimCity games.

With the source of the problem located, solving the problem is also easier and more intuitive than ever. Too much crime for your police department’s two patrol cars? Add a parking lot for additional police cars and watch them take care of business. Too many students in your grade school? Add a second floor of classrooms to the building add hire a few more teachers. Want to attract all kinds of people to your casino? Add some nickel slots and cheap hotel rooms. In SimCity, nearly every service building can be upgraded and expanded upon to better suit the city’s needs.

As the city grows, so do the challenges facing the player and the numbers listed on the expense report. Unlike in earlier SimCity games where simoleons were added (or deducted) from the treasury every in-game month, in this SimCity, that occurs every hour. Each hour takes roughly a minute of real time (give or take a few seconds depending on which of three game speeds is toggled), and a single day represents an entire month.

Stop And Smell The Flowers

SimCity Closed Beta Impressions: Fire Disaster
Oh, Nathanae Bass, you thought you were in a peaceful game without any violence, didn’t you? So tragic.

The day/night cycle adds a great deal of character to SimCity. It’s always a pleasure to see the lights come on at night or to zoom in close to watch the sun rise over your city. It also adds a practical effect, as traffic patterns change according to the time of day. Watching the morning and evening commutes is a good source of information for determining road layouts and mass transit planning, and it’s also fun to see the little cars going from A to B.

And speaking of little cars, clicking on one of them, or on a random pedestrian, reveals where that person lives, where they are going to or coming from, and what they are thinking about. They might be happy that they have money in their pocket while they’re on their way to Michelangelo’s Pizza for a slice, or frustrated that they can’t find a job and might have to move out of the city. These details are great for figuring out ways to improve the city.

Oddly, pedestrians in SimCity are incapable of walking across fields to get where they’re going. They will insist upon walking on roads, even if those roads happen to form a very inefficient zigzag pattern that would turn a 10 minute walk into an hour. This is a side effect to the game’s use of roads as a means of transportation for not only vehicles, but also every other movable resource in the game. Power lines and pipes from older SimCity games have been entirely removed, with roads handling the movement of sewage, water and power. The game also uses roads in other ways behind the scenes, such as sending a request for a fire truck from a burning building to the first fire department the request finds, or moving a fire itself from building to building.

The good part about this is that all of the resources in SimCity are very visible to the player. You can see the water flowing from the water tower to buildings throughout the city, or the coal being moved from a mine to a power plant. It used to all be hidden behind a curtain, but now every detail is right in front of the player’s nose.

With so much information available to the player, it’s easy to get lost in the details. But stopping to appreciate the basics is what it’s all about. SimCity is a beautiful game, and it looks great from a wide view of the whole city to a close zoom of a single building, and the people going about their business in and around it. And just like in 1989, watching the residential buildings grow from trailer homes and tiny single family houses to large apartments and beyond is amazing fun.

SimCity Closed Beta Impressions: Traffic and Pedestrians
Wait a second… these roads aren’t efficient at all! It’s almost like they were designed for some kind of shameless plug rather than helping me get to work!

And Now We Wait

SimCity sounds great too. The sound effects are crisp and precise, always filling in the blanks for what the player cannot see, such as the heavy metal music playing inside a bar, or the cash register noises coming out of a business. The music works well too, and will sound a bit familiar to anyone that has played The Sims. It changes according to whether you are viewing the city normally or through a data map.
There are still some bugs to be worked out. I came across one where the game allowed me to build a road over a part of land that was designated to a power plant. The road itself was never constructed, but the game still continued as though it had been, with traffic and pedestrians moving along the unfinished road. But overall, SimCity is stable. I suffered no crashes and enjoyed high frames per second while I played. I do wish they would add a v-sync option to the graphics settings menu, as I had to force it on through my display adapter’s control panel, but really, I have little to complain about.

Playing the SimCity Closed Beta was an absolute pleasure, and I have to admit, it was habit forming. The servers are about to go offline in a couple of hours, and I think I’m going to squeeze in one or two more games before that happens. After that, I will be stuck counting the days until March 5th, 2013, when SimCity is finally released. This one is worth looking forward to.

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