It’s been a long time since there was a true sequel to the SimCity franchise, with the most recent version being 2003’s SimCity 4. I don’t count 2007’s SimCity Societies, since that was more about the Sims themselves than about city building. For the latest game in the series, known simply as SimCity (EA, you’re only making things more confusing for us all), Maxis has built an entirely new and incredibly impressive simulation engine called Glassbox to power the game. It made for one of the most impressive demonstrations I saw at E3, so read on to find out why.
The first thing you’re likely to notice is just how damned good SimCity looks. Maxis has built its style based on tilt shift photography in order to simulate a miniature scene. The game looks like a living diorama, and this stylistic choice was a wise one. There are more than enough games that can make cities look as realistic as possible, but SimCity doesn’t bother with all that and is better for it. Even more impressive is that Maxis is not even done working on the game’s graphics yet, so by the time it launches, it’s likely to look even better.
One of the major changes in this new SimCity is the way you actually build and zone your city. You can now draw roads in any way you want – no longer are you restricted to a grid. This, in turn, allows you to create zones that are not on grids. We were told one of the designers even made a city to look like an electric guitar as an example of the game’s new found flexibility.
The first part of the demo focused on a newly built town zoned mostly for residential buildings. As houses went up, you could see little moving vans pulling up in front of them to drop off the neighborhood’s new residents. The problem, however, was that as the town expanded, its power needs grew, and large sections of the town were left in the dark. Turning on a power filter created an overlay on the city streets, showing which areas had power and which did not. Rather than choosing to build a new power plant which would increase pollution and make residents less happy, the player opted for something entirely different and brand new to the series.
Nearby, a more developed and industrial themed city could be found. The industrial city offered to extend its power lines to the residential town, allowing it to extend the town’s power grid without costly or polluting power plants. The trade off, however, was that the residential town would connect a road to the industrial city so that the town’s residents could come work in the factories. It’s just one of the many ways SimCity is going to allow players and their cities to interact with one another.
Yet another city in the region chose to make tourism its focus, building theme parks, sports stadiums, and the like. All three cities shared a particular problem, though – they all needed an airport. The residential city needed it so that more people could move there, the industrial city needed it to be able to ship off raw materials more efficiently, and the tourism city needed it to funnel more tourists into its economy. Over a period of time (many hours, apparently) the airport began to take shape thanks to the combined efforts of the three players.
Some ways in which the cities can interact with one another are a little less benign. In the industrial city, for example, law enforcement was decidedly lacking. You could see graffiti popping up on buildings, and dangerous street gangs roaming the streets. But because the residential town had connected a highway to the industrial city, the gangs soon started to show up in town. They even robbed a local bank while the police were too busy at the doughnut shop next to the station to respond in time to stop them.
It seems like Maxis is doing some truly interesting things with this latest SimCity. From the impressive simulation engine to the engaging, asynchronous multiplayer, it ought to be a true step forward for the franchise when it launches in February 2013.