reviews\ Jan 26, 2003 at 7:00 pm

SimCity 4 - PC - Review

About 15 years ago a little-known game designer named Will Wright unleashed a compelling town-to-metropolis building simulator that took the PC gaming world by storm.  It quickly became a best-selling title and was to be the foundation of a long and prosperous series.  That game was known as SimCity. 


Thanks to the immense popularity of SimCity sequels were created.  When SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000 hit the scene they added extra layers of depth to the already-believable formula of the original.  There is no doubt that the SimCity franchise has enjoyed mass success and acceptance so it is only fitting that a fourth installment should find its way to PCs across the globe.  SimCity 4 takes all the cohesive intricacies and intriguing nuances of its predecessors and further refines the series with a slew of visual and gameplay enhancements.  Fans of the series should be pleased.  Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with newly-released PC titles, SimCity 4 suffers from a few technical hiccups in terms of running efficiently on relatively old graphics cards and stability issues are present.


You’ll immediately notice right from the onset of the experience that SimCity 4 has evolved into a much larger scale of possibilities thanks to the fact that you are no longer restricted to simply building up individual, self-contained cities.  Instead, you’ll be presented with a view of SimNation, which is a huge piece of land that is divided up into many smaller areas.  You choose the area you wish to create your city in, give it a name, and your duties as Mayor begin.  Once you’ve exhausted yourself on the city you can create a neighboring municipality that is capable of sharing resources in exchange for cash.  This essentially enables you to create a living, breathing nation of sims, and extends the replay value considerably.


Actually creating these cities is a snap.  Anyone who is familiar with the previous games will have no problem diving right into the thick of things and developing a competent mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial zones.  You need only select the zone of choice and then click-and-drag the mouse over the area of land that you wish to place it.  Continuing the tradition that was set in SimCity 3000, SimCity 4 includes different levels of density for each zone ranging from light-density to high-density.  The higher density zones obviously cost more than the lower density zones but they allow for better production and residential efficiency.  As time progresses you can do some de-zoning to replace the low-density zones with more potentially profitable zones, so don’t think that you need to stick with high-density right from the start.  Of course, you’ll need the bare necessities too, like a power plant and underground irrigation systems.  The same methods of creation from the past SimCity titles are wholly applicable here.  However, there are a few streamlined additions like the auto-road feature that inserts streets into large zones automatically. 


As you create and maintain your city you’ll find it fit to add facilities like hospitals, police stations, parks, and baseball stadiums in order to raise the land value and garner more residents, which results in higher monthly income.  While you are doing this, a news-ticker will inform you of various concerns and other useful tidbits that will help you to better construct your city.  At first you might have a little difficulty equalizing all the various tax and income settings to result in a profitable outcome, but once the town has had time to settle in, and assuming your doing things logically, you’ll notice that the amount you pull in each month will raise to desirable levels.  Sometimes you need to factor in the swing of the economy and the time it takes for your actions to actually make a difference before you can realize what you need to do next.  But rest assured, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to succeed in SimCity 4.


While the intuitive nature of SimCity’s interface is fully intact with the fourth installment you’ll also notice that it has taken shape as a sort of hybrid between SimCity 3000 and The Sims.  It is rare that you will be at a loss as to what button does what, but just in case the developers saw fit to include a pop-up informational window whenever you let your cursor linger over a button for more than a second. 


One of the biggest reasons I was looking forward to SimCity 4 was the included ability to integrate your existing sims from The Sims into the game.  As it turns out this function feels like merely an afterthought that the developers threw in as an eyebrow-raising bullet-point feature.  Yes, you are able to import your sims, and yes you can observe their daily routine as they work their way up from the inner-city slums into a high-level corporate position, but then you have to ask yourself why you would want to do that to begin with.  When you are managing a city of thousands of people there is very little reason to waste your time observing the ho-hum reality of only one or two sims.


In terms of managing taxes and budgets, things are pretty much business as usual with only a few minor exceptions.  Taxes, for example, can still be raised and lowered for each individual zone type, but to further the micromanagement aspect you can now modify taxes based on economic class as well.  Setting budgets is applicable to various facilities like the police, fire stations, schools, etc.  But I found that the amount of tweaking in regards to budgets was a tad bit irksome.  All the same, it is a very much needed skill to harness in order to make the most out of your city since a under funded fire station won’t be too anxious to put out debilitating fires and police might go on strike if they feel they are getting the short end of the stick.


In SimCity, like the real-world, there are only a few things that you can absolutely count on: death, taxes … and disasters.  Disasters will spring up when you least suspect them so you best be prepared lest you fall in debt thanks to an annoying act of God.  Most disasters are easily manageable, like random fires and riots, but setting down your city around an active volcano might prove disastrous.  For some reason, and I don’t know why, a staple of the SimCity franchise has always been the ability to purposely unleash terror on your community, and SimCity 4 is no exception.  You’ll be given free reign to an assortment of various elemental misgiving like massive meteors plummeting to the earth destroying large areas of land and population, or even giant robot mechs that storm the city with unquenchable bloodlust. 


While the actual construction and management aspects of the series has went through something of a substantial refinement process, the included modes of play are disappointingly limited in contrast to previous SimCity efforts.  For example, gone are the scenario-based modes that allowed you to jump into a pre-built city and complete objectives or prepare for disaster.  Also, while Maxis is promising a multiplayer aspect, it has yet to surface. 


Unless you are running an extraordinarily high-performance rig with SimCity 4 you can expect to experience a lot of sluggish gameplay once you really begin to build up your city.  The more additions you make the slower the camera will be able to move around.  This is most evident when viewing your city from a zoomed-out perspective, which you’ll often do since that is the only way to effectively manage the city as a whole.  There is quite a bit of detail to be seen when zoomed up to maximum, individual sims can be observed appreciating a monument or being caught up in a riot, etc.  The visuals have certainly been improved from SimCity 3000, but at the severe cost of performance, unfortunately.  The audio presentation isn’t nearly as improved, however.  Not that it needs to be.  You can expect musical accompaniment in the way of jazz and other interesting orchestrations.  The sound effects get increasingly more detailed and ambient as you zoom up on your city, making for an incredibly immersive experience at times.


SimCity 4 brings to the table a well-refined and stylized take on the series, living up to the SimCity legacy and then some.  Technical issues aside it is an easy-to-get-into and hard-to-put-down title that should appeal to a wide assortment of audiences.  While it may not be the revolutionary step that the series pretty much needs at this point, it is a fully capable strategy title that has its head in the right place. 



Gameplay: 8.7
By now most PC gamers know the basic gameplay mechanics of SimCity, and that knowledge will not be wasted on SimCity 4.  The foundation of the series is completely intact.  Those who have been living under a rock for the past 15 years will be glad to know that thanks to an intuitive interface they’ll be building burgeoning cities in no time.


Graphics: 8.2
Wow, the terra-forming effects are amazing, never before has such realism in this regard been achieved.  Too bad you are penalized with poor video performance by building up your city. 


Sound: 8.1
The music is trademark SimCity style with its easy-going lighthearted orchestrations that fit the gameplay perfectly.  The various ambient sound effects are also exceptional.


Difficulty: Medium
There is no ability to choose between different difficulty settings, and there doesn’t really need to be since progress is achieved fairly easily.  Once your town turns into a city, and your city into a metropolis though you’ll definitely be challenged to keep things running smoothly.


Concept: 8.3
SimCity 4 is built upon a highly creative and entertaining foundation that none have been able to successfully replicate.  Though the concept may be old it has yet to feel old.


Overall: 8.3
SimCity 4 isn’t the revolutionary step from SimCity 3000 that SimCity 2000 was to SimCity, but it is still immensely enjoyable and for what it does it does it great.  Just make sure your system is state of the art.


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