Conrad Reyners takes an early look at the new SimCity and finds a revolution is on the cards.
At E3, I walked into the Maxis booth and was immediately confronted by the most officious booth manager I've ever experienced. "Sit down", she bellowed. "No photos!", she screeched. "If I see even one camera it will be confiscated and destroyed!", and then all in one breath; "all tall people MUST sit at the back!".
Being tall, standing, and with a camera in my hand, it was quite an introduction. But I needn't have been concerned about my bodily integrity. Taylor Thompson - a producer from Maxis - was about to give me a glimpse of a title that is rapidly becoming one of my most anticipated games from this year's conference.
SimCity laid the foundation for the god game / building genre, but in recent history it has been taken over by other titles which have steered the genre in different directions. But what Maxis had on offer looks incredibly promising, and if everything goes their way they may well be able to take back their crown.
The look and feel of this reboot of SimCity has been heavily inspired by tilt-shift photography. Buildings in the foreground are bathed in warm light, while the background snuggles in comforting soft focus. Zoom out, and the balance reverses. It's unique, it's new, and it gives SimCity a very modern feel. As a contrarian Wellingtonian it pains me to write this, but the tilt-shift inspiration makes SimCity's visual image even come off a little hipster.
There are two absolutely awesome things about SimCity. The first is that it now, finally, has multiplayer support. This, literally, is a game changer. More than one city can be built in the same world map, and they can be integrated together. Run out of power? Forget about it - your multiplayer partner has loads to spare and you can connect yourself up with ease. Citizens bored with the drudgery of their miserable existences? Connect your city to your neighbour's - who's just installed a brand spanking new sports stadium.
Other long-demanded improvements have been included. You can now build curved roads. To the casual gamer this might not sound all that revolutionary - but having curved roads completely changes the SimCity world. No longer will your cities look like chess boards; instead, they can now take on an organic, designed form. That's real control, and the freedom it brings is exciting. Tony told us that some developers had already built cities in the shapes of gargantuan guitars. A guitar made out of people, industry, and economy. For god game fans, that's something worth looking forward to.
But multiple instances of the classic SimCity building experience, however refined, wouldn't be all that grand on their own; further innovation is important. Thankfully, curvy roads aren't all Maxis had up to show off. Now, every multiplayer game has 'regional works' that players must collaborate together on to create. When completed, the regional work brings significant benefits to everyone. In the demo I saw, the regional work was an international airport, but others were mentioned, some of them very ambitious - Tony blurted out "space station launching pads" at one point.
From what I could make out from the demo, what makes this all work is the variety of ways that cities can be built, managed, and run by players. Want to go for that chedda' but don't care about the environment? Build yourself an industrial megaplex. Want to prioritise education, cleanliness, and crime prevention? Then middle class high rises are your answer. It's all up to the players in the title, and through multiplayer it means you are no longer prevented from enjoying the whole range of playable events simply because you've chosen to be Donald Trump over Captain Planet.
The second awesome improvement was the title's charm, and how that is manifest in its depth. The Sims franchise has never taken itself too seriously, and it's always been a little irreverent. We were told that each Sim Citizen living in your city has their own home, their own car, and their own job. Tony proclaimed that you could follow them around all day if you want to. I'm not sure that he's being fully frank on that one - but the concept is still there, and it does appear to make your cities look more vibrant and lived in. Dealing with social tensions is also important. If your cities are ridden with crime, your buildings (which are customisable by the way) will begin to be marked with graffiti (which is not very politically correct). In my eyes-on, four bank robbers rocked up the local bank, but were arrested after a shoot out. Its these little moments of quirky narrative that make me very excited to see much more of SimCity in action.
Maxis packed a lot into their 20 minute demo, and it looks like the finished product is well on its way. E3 is an interesting experience, running the gamut from big budget blockbusters to screeching booth managers - but at its heart are the games that make you beam in amazement or giggle with joy. SimCity was the first make me do both.
As first impressions go, that's very, very, encouraging. And if the stars align, SimCity should be in gamers' hands by February 2013.