PAX Prime 2012 Hands-On: SimCity (2013)

The one big disappointment for me at E3 2012 was not finding the time to sit down with the new SimCity from Maxis and EA in between my appointments and crazy schedule. The Sim City franchise, primarily earlier games such as Sim City, Sim City 2000, Sim Tower, and Sim Copter, helped stoke my early PC gaming flames, renewed and rekindled more recently by the latest iterations of Civilization and Portal. While certainly not accustomed to hardcore, real-time strategy games such as Starcraft or XCOM, the deliberate nature of the Sim City games—strategic planning, resource allocation, gradual development—helped craft the type of gamer I am today. My sadness at not having found time to see the new SimCity even led me to do something I swore I’d never do: play a Facebook game (Sim City Social, announced at EA’s press conference that week).

Upon arrival at the Washington State Convention Center, I was disappointed to learn that while Electronics Arts was present in a limited capacity on the show floor of the Penny Arcade Expo no representatives from Maxis were on hand to demonstrate the newest entry in the venerable franchise. But, lo and behold, I was not out of luck—tucked away in a far corner, at a booth I didn’t quite expect to find it at, were a prized few PCs running the game I’d been waiting two months to play. NVIDIA, purveyor of fine computer hardware, had several top-of-the-line GEForce GTX graphics cards running SimCity on extremely high-end PCs, presenting an experience that I will likely never have with that game (unless I happen upon someone with a couple grand lying around to build the gaming rig of my dreams… if you know anyone, my e-mail is brien@invisiblegamer.net).

Throwing on a pair of headphones—I’m still amazed I didn’t leave Seattle with the PAX Plague, as so many others have in the past—I set to work on this pre-alpha build of the game. Immediately I was struck by two things: the game’s complex yet intuitive mechanics, and it’s incredible technical beauty. The controls of the game are similar to most previous Sim City efforts: as Mayor of your town, you have the ability to build roads, zone your map for residential, commercial, and industrial areas, and provide utilities such as water and power for your citizens, each of these options and more controlled via a menu at the bottom of your screen. While the demo was limited to five minutes, and scripted to give you an idea of how everything worked together as a cohesive whole, it may have been one of the most satisfying demos I’ve played in recent memory. There was never a scenario presented where I could not find the right menu option, or select the correct area on the map. Initially I had difficulty controlling the camera, but found that with practice and a bit of patience that navigation was simple and effective. I especially appreciated one of the newest features of SimCity, not present in previous iterations, in the ability to curve your roads. This one small change made a world of difference in crafting the structure of my city to fit the terrain, as well as my own aesthetic sensibilities.

As for the beauty, that was evident from the get go. Besides the graphical fidelity, the small details were there. Your town is just barely considered that upon your taking control, and the condition of your citizens and their homes helped cement that you had a lot of work to do. Without schools, your Sims are less educated; thus have lower paying jobs and a low standard of living, evidenced by the ramshackle houses that litter the outskirts of your hamlet. Those same Sims are more prone to do dumb things, like light their houses on fire, conveniently teaching you of the need for firehouses and medical centers. Not all your Sims are happy with their lot in life, and you’ll find that if you aren’t making the right decisions, they’ll show up at City Hall demanding change—including change in leadership if you’re not careful. But this is the beauty of SimCity and its’ rich emergent gameplay: you never quite know what is around the corner… as I found when the demo came to an abrupt halt with the devastation of my town by imminent meteor impact.

While I would probably make a lousy city planner, the Sim Cities of my childhood helped me imagine a world constructed based on my imagination and fueled by my creativity. The charm of those games is recaptured in next year’s SimCity, and if this early preview is any indication I’ll be sinking many more hours into my PC than I have in the past, reveling in the return to form of a franchise I’d fallen away from but had never forgotten. Look for SimCity in February 2013 on EA’s Origin client, and at your local retailer.

[Full Disclosure: all images in this preview are from the official SimCity Facebook page, which can be found at http://www.facebook.com/SimCity.]