SimCity — Building your metropolis using common sense visual aids instead of stat sheets

SimCity is coming back, and very soon. Early next year, in February in fact. The GlassBox Engine-powered game isn’t looking to re-invent the virtual city-building wheel, but after finally getting to see the game in action last week at an EA Games preview event in New York City, I can tell you that it’s making said wheel a much prettier and easier to understand thing. You’ve probably heard about the curvy roads and maybe seen some of those GlassBox dev diaries. After getting a look at how it all comes together, I can say with confidence that Maxis seems to have nailed down a formula for a city-sim that will please everyone, from longtime fans to newcomers who have always been scared away by the complexity of it all.

Common sense thinking is the key here. In 2013’s SimCity, everything you see in your virtual metropolis has a function and all of those functions can be monitored simply by looking at what’s happening on the ground. If you look at a collection of residential zones that you planned out and notice lots of empty lots and graffiti, then you know that you’re looking at a high-crime area that’s going to need some kind of expanded police presence before it’s going to be embraced as livable.

Leave things alone for too long and more serious crimes will occur. At one point, a suspicious-looking van with flame decals running across it parks out in front of a tenement building. A shady character goes inside for a few moments then drives off as smoke starts to pour out of the building. It was an arsonist! Normally, a fire would be attended to immediately by the local fire department. That hadn’t been built yet in this particular demo city, so the demo’s driver dropped one down a few blocks away. Moments later, multiple fire engines came screaming out of the firehouse to take care of the fire.

The graffiti, the arsonist and his fire, the fire trucks… all of this points to the most dramatic change of all in this new SimCity: everything in your world matters. Every pedestrian, every motor vehicle, every crate on every factory’s conveyor belt, all of it has a specific place. Residents have jobs and daily schedules. Those factory conveyor belts, each of the boxes that scroll by as you zoom in represent real-world resources. If an entire section of town is suddenly left without power, you know it’s time to build an additional power plant. What was once relayed via advisors in charts, bar graphs, pie charts, and the like is now playing out in virtual real life before your very eyes.

The power outage example comes directly from my demo. The city’s hippie dippy mayor went at first for a wind-powered source for the city’s energy, but expanding borders quickly overwhelmed the “green” power solution. For enhanced power output, the demo’s driver chose to go with a coal plant, a facility which carries an added cost in the pollution it causes. Unlike previous SimCity game, you don’t just choose a location and drop your stock power plant there, however. Now players will be able to customize the look of different buildings, and by adding an assortment of modules — such as additional smokestacks — receive various benefits and drawbacks for building things in a certain way.

The plant itself also offers a visual indication of its power output in the form of its coal supply; if the big tank visible at a glance ever empties out, you’ve got too much demand for what you’re supplying and will need to expand your facilities. In the case of the demo city, wind power simply wasn’t enough. Even after the coal plant was built, however, it was just too far off from the powered down areas to do any good. In this case, a couple of high tension power lines did the trick, funneling the juice from the new facility over to the darkened, graffiti-covered streets of the city’s high-crime area.

In addition to the more common sense-oriented approach to imparting information, SimCity also offers a great deal more flexibility on the creation side. Yes, there’s the building customization, but that’s much more of a later-game concern. Even just the basic act of planning out your city has been completely rethought. In the original game and several of its sequels, players dropped same-sized “blocks” of residential, commercial, and industrial space into the world. This later evolved into a mechanic in which players used the cursor to carve out square- and rectangle-shaped “zones” in those three categories. The result in both of these cases was relatively unrealistic cities from a visual perspective; they worked admirably as a function of the gameplay, but they did not offer an organic sense of a growing urban center.

The next SimCity carries over the same basic idea of zoning — hell, that’s how real-world cities function as well — but it takes a much more workable approach to offering a more organic sense of growth. Players essentially get to “paint” the land however they’ like to zone it. It works the same with the game’s new curvy roads. You literally just use your mouse cursor to draw out what you want, whether it’s a twisty rural street or a sprawling residential zone that lines said street. It’s a subtle change, and such a marvelously simple conceit that you have to wonder how it took this long for this approach to zoning to be adopted.

By all appearances, Maxis looks to be nailing it. SimCity was very much in need of some fresh ideas. The last crack at the series was 2007’s SimCity Societies, which put the franchise into a different developer’s hands and went in a decidedly different direction. Maxis is back on the case now, and it shows. It was apparent even in the hands-off demo that the core values that have always powered SimCity are still there; they’ve simply been re-assessed and re-tooled, to offer a better reflection of modern-day urban living while also offering a less frightening entry point for total newcomers.

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