Preview: My one hour(s) with SimCity's addictive beta
I don't know about you, but much of my gaming weekend was consumed with one-hour increments of EA's SimCity. Easily one of my most anticipated games of the year, I admit a game can sometimes fall victim to lofty expectations -- thankfully, SimCity isn't one of them.
I first saw the game at E3 last year and immediately fell in love with it. As a fan of the series, I was eager to learn about the game's new multiplayer aspect. Though that's considered the "big" SimCity feature, I was limited strictly to single-player, despite the requirement to remain online during the portion of my gameplay. I'm also happy to report that EA's always-on DRM requirement did not fail me, as I was quickly able to log on and enjoy the game I had been waiting months for.
As I mentioned, the beta was limited strictly to one-hour increments of solo gameplay. Although I use the term "limited" loosely in this case, as the beta provided a shining example of the things that can, and soon will, be.
Upon booting up the game I was was greeting with an empty lot and a small road connecting to a highway. This was my sandbox and I was anxious to play god..err, mayor. All great things in life begin with a road, and your town in SimCity is no different.
After placing a road, of which there are many to choose from, you are then instructed by the city advisor to start zoning for construction. This was the first big change I noticed. Whereas past games allowed you to decide to place light/medium/dense zones, the type of buildings you place are now determined by a variety of factors. You still have the traditional residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, but you no longer decide the type that you want to place.
At first glance, it may appear that EA and Maxis have simplified the game. After all, you don't decide the quality of zones, you don't lay pipes for water, and you don't wire for electricity. Is this the same SimCity I grew up playing, or what!?
Don't worry, all of the depth we've grown to love in the past is still there, minus the annoyances of having to go underground and lay water pipes. Did anyone actually enjoy doing that? And when it's all said and done, you actually do decide the quality of zones, just in a way that's creatively crafted and presented to you. EA and Maxis have managed to create a more complex system -- but present it in a way that's easy to understand for newcomers.
With the help of an advisor, you are always given instructions on what to build next or, rather, upgrade next. SimCity no longer operates on a place and forget basis. Now you must evolve your town as it expands and blossoms into a city.
As I mentioned, it all starts with a road. At first, the residential zones placed resulted in nothing but low income trailer homes. However, I quickly realized that placing a few parks or a school nearby greatly increased the value and the trailers soon became respectable homes. I immediately placed parks everywhere, and watched my town become a nice medium-income city. Yes sir, values were rising; but, it's not that easy. It never is.
As in real-life, your city needs to support all types of income, from low to high. I never made it to high income high rises, but I did see as I upgraded my low income to medium incoming housing, the demand for low income rose. SimCity requires you to carefully manage and balance the types of zones you place; you can't just cater to the extremely rich (although Boca Raton sure seems to thrive). This requires you to carefully play a mini-game of sorts in balancing not only the types of zones, but the quality of zones in your city. Like I said, the complexity is still present, but in a way that teaches you rather than throwing it at you.
Outside of your typical construction zones, SimCity offers a wide variety of standalone construction types. You have your typical schools, colleges, parks, police stations, hospitals, etc. Keeping in line with the concept of evolution, each of these buildings are capable of expanding as your city grows. Remember the days where you'd have to place water pumps every few blocks to keep water flowing throughout your city? Now you simply upgrade what you have -- though I'm sure I'd eventually have to build a better-quality water management facility. Again, with just an hour you can only expand so much; however, from what I saw, there are tons of possibilities.
Sadly, being a beta, many of the later-game constructions were blocked off; however, I did get a nice look at what to expect as the game progresses. Unlike past games where all of the cities function the same towards the end, you can now pick a certain path for your city to specialize in. These paths range in anything from oil production to gambling to electronics manufacturing. It looks like you can only pick one specialization, which does assure your city will be unique, but also means you'll probably have to rely on your neighbors a good deal. I didn't get to experience how the multiplayer aspect plays, but I certainly now have a better idea for how it will play out. And I'm definitely excited.
SimCity is like an onion, except that it doesn't stink. On the outside, the game is presented in a way that's welcoming to newcomers. The menu is self-explanatory. However, once you start peeling back the layers, you begin to uncover a game ripe with depth and complexity. In just my hour playthrough I was balancing the budget, the types of homes, managing the water and power regulation, dealing with taxes, and constantly expanding the city. That's just in the span of 60 minutes; imagine what can be done over the course of a day...or a week...It's daunting, but exciting at the same time. The game definitely supports this type of complexity as it offers a easy-to-understand breakdown, presented in simple colors, of the different types of information you'll need to creating a thriving city.
When it's all said and done, sitting back and taking in the city is really the most rewarding part. Seeing the city you've created come to life, with each sim leading their own life (which you can actually follow and see what they are doing), is entertaining on its own. And with SimCity's new upgraded visuals, it's even more pleasing to watch.
I know the demo was only an hour, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't spend at least several on this highly addicting game. Even with the limitations of the beta, I still found several different avenues to explore - from the shape and curviness of the road to the type of construction I chose. Each time I started the beta, I found myself doing something slightly different, just to see how it would affect the city. This core experience -- exploration and discovery -- is what SimCity is known for, and it looks like EA and Maxis has recaptured the essence perfectly. If this is just a taste of what to expect, then I can't wait to see what's in store for the main course when SimCity releases in March.