Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Well, their lazy Roman asses obviously didn’t have Sim City 4. Oh wait. Come to think of it, we’re the lazy ones, sitting on our butts in front of our computers. The Romans were the ones who worked really hard building all those aqueducts. Anyway, just think if they did have this game…
Ol’ Julius would have been able to watch his city grow from on high, like Jupiter himself. The Senate would have been on hand at the click of a button, ready to dispense helpful information [Yeah, helpful. Just like our Senate. ~Ed]. With a few more mouse clicks, Brutus’ home could have been obliterated, leaving Caesar plenty of time to go build casinos.
Casinos, missile silos, toxic waste dumps… yes, Sim City, the long running city creation and simulation series, is back. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, there’s a host of updates: new region management, an easy to use interface and a huge amount of new detail. There are also some problems, such as some bugs and an unfinished multiplayer game. Finally, there are the additions of a God mode and MySims mode that are more cursory than revolutionary. But at the heart of it all, I’m still building myself a city.
When you play a game, intangible feelings can well up deep inside you. When you play The Sims, you empathize with your Sims and relate to them in human terms. When you play Black and White, you feel that you have great God-like power at your fingertips. Sim City 4 still elicits the same feelings that it always has: you feel like a sort of mayor-god hybrid. Rudy Giuliani meets Jesus.
Now this feeling isn’t a bad thing. After all, it’s the proven formula that has worked on the other Sim City games. But Sim City 4 ups the ante, and actually makes three promises: “Play God. Play Mayor. Play with your Sims.”
As for the promise of playing god, the “God-mode” is really just a precursor to the actual game and an easy way to let off steam when you feel like rendering destruction, Old Testament style. As for the promise of playing with your Sims, you can import them into the game, but they are non-interactive and essentially just give you paraphrased information that you already get from your advisors. God mode and MySims mode add touches to the mayoral experience, but don’t change it from what it has always been at its core: city building.
Building a city begins with your SimNation. The SimNation is a huge plot of land set in a grid with multiple regions. You select one region to build one city. Multiple cities within the SimNation can exchange resources. The game even comes with some empty regions with terrain that resembles the shape of such notables as San Francisco, New York and Berlin, but there are no scenarios to play against this time around.
When you first stake out your region, you can switch into God mode to shape the terrain to meet your whim. “Terraforming” your plot of land has an artistic quality to it, as you brush in mountains and carve out some valleys. Once you are finally ready to start your city, fireworks hit the night sky and you take off.
Sim City 4 is a more difficult game than before and has no variable difficulty levels. You just have to start smaller, adjusting to the different needs of the city. As your city grows, the economic infrastructures feel like they are constantly changing. Your approach to city management will have to keep changing, too, if you want a booming metropolis.
As you highlight plots of land to set the down various zones, selecting between commercial, industrial, and residential, the inner streets within the zones will automatically be generated. While this expedites the city planning process, the inner streets don’t always connect perfectly when multiple zones are set next to one another. The anal-retentive mayor will have to settle for slowly zoning their land, bit by bit.
Your citizens will cry out for schools, hospitals and police enforcement. There are a bevy of different meters to keep your eyes busy, from mayoral approval ratings to demand for new city resources. There are six principle meters as well: Environment, Education, Health, Land Value, Safety and Traffic.
Charts of every imaginable sort can be easily referenced, while numerous demographic images can be superimposed over your city to judge your city’s strengths and risks. And then there’s the bottom line - ensuring that your profits outweigh your costs, thus making sure your city stays out of the red. Fall too far behind in your finances and you’ll find yourself forced to build toxic waste dumps for profit.
The new feature I found the most interesting is the ability to tax different income brackets. You can tax from the rich and offer low rates to the poor, thus making your city more inviting to low-income families. Of course, you can just as easily play the tyrant and try to keep the pleebs out, offering tax cuts to the privileged.
The MySims feature, like I said, isn’t as game changing as it sounds. You can utilize your save file from The Sims or use some of the Sim characters included, but the only thing that really matters is what kind of neighborhood you place your Sim in. One realistic touch is that the lifespan of your city will be far greater than any one Sim. Your Sims will eventually die, to be replaced by their heirs, equally willing to give you the skinny on what’s up with your city.
Sim City 4 is entirely 3D, from the terrain and buildings to the humans (who look like sprites but are actually little rendered people). There’s a stunning amount of detail here. Little tiny people walk about on their daily business, while factories churn away. When areas of your city are in states of degradation, they will noticeably erode. Cars busy their way along their commutes, stopping at the toll booths. I did notice a car once ram its way through a crowd crossing the street, like they weren’t even there. Still, despite small glitches like vehicular manslaughter, the detail is praiseworthy.
However, I wish there was a smooth zoom instead of four zoom levels. As you switch from level to level, the game noticeably skips a few beats while it draws the different images, disrupting the flow of the game.
And speaking of glitches, I ran into a bug while saving files. If I quit the game and selected the "Yes, Iwant to save my city" option, I was never able to open those files again, leaving my poor cities of St. Liu-y and Freakmont to languish in the ghetto of file corruption. My solution was to always save first then exit, ignoring the game’s attempt to be helpful. San Franfrisky was thus saved from the evil woes that now await a patch.
I don’t know if these problems are an isolated incident, but I do know that there have also been reports of spontaneous crashes to the desktop as well as disappearing buildings and the game chugging when cities get too big. This is both worrisome and just plain sloppy.
On top of that, a multiplayer game called SimCityscape was promised, but when you select that option, you merely get the Sim City webpage promising this option in the future. C’mon guys – is this game really finished?
Sim City 4 attempts to stretch the design to both the macro and the micro, with the upward scaling of a God mode, the region play, the personalized MySims mode and the great intricacy of detail. In the end, the stretching averages out and we have a game that sticks to its familiar, comfortable suburban streets. SimCity 4, while not quite finished, is just as addictive as it ever was. Once you start playing, it wont be long before you'll want the words "Mayor's Office" painted on your door.