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Wot I Think: Project Highrise

A new Sim Tower?

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Just one more floor…. Perhaps the Bhurj Khalifa and and Shanghai Tower were not, after all, overblown acts of inter-continental willy-waving, but instead the result of builders and architects who could not resist the temptation of another neatly-wired layer of offices. Building skyscrapers is compulsive work, or at least that’s how building sim Project Highrise [official site] pitches it. I know the words ‘Sim Tower’ are flickering hungrily across the hind brains of readers Of A Certain Age, but I should say off the bat that Highrise has the mentality of an idle or clicker game as much as it does a sim.

In fairness, you tend to be busy dragging powerlines or placing offices most of the time – it’s not a matter of leaving the game to play itself for a while then coming back to reap the rewards a few hours later. (In fact, Highrise even makes a point of freezing itself with a pop-up message at the end of every in-game day in order that it can’t be gamed this way). But this is not truly a game of strategy, despite appearances and despite the inclusion of water pipes. It’s about waiting for cash to accumulate in sufficient quantities that you can build One More Floor.

Higher and higher, touch the sky. Layer upon layer of offices and apartments, and all the facilities said offices and apartments need: power and water and phones and cable TV, launderettes and copy services and janitors and, as the tower becomes a monster, grocery shops and clothes shops and vast diners and art galleries and, well, a functioning city all under one roof. If you squint a bit, you can probably tell yourself it’s a Trump Tower, but don’t go in expecting Ballardian commentary about what happens when too much humanity is squeezed into one place and expected to make nice. Highrise is strictly about the hunger to build more.

I suppose it’s not enormously dissimilar to how a Sim City-like does it, in a way. Cash has always been the primary constraint to building in these games, but Project Highrise offers a particularly condensed take on it. Though there is a small amount of horizontal flex (which more or less boils down to ‘do you want to make your tower unhelpfully skinny or not?), really all you’re doing is building ever-upwards, not creating a bespoke grand design. This ties ‘progress’ to cash very directly, and very limited scope to adjust existent floors means that focus is almost entirely on what you can build next rather than improving what you’ve already got.

It’s a battle to stop playing. The very visible growth, as a stump becomes a tower becomes a skyscraper becomes an oddly placid Mega-City One superstructure, is pull enough, but on top of that you’ve got high-end room types to strive for. Luxury apartments whose inhabitants will only stay if certain services are provided for, almost floor-wide offices which require elaborate networks of diners and shops and basement support services before they’ll deign to move in, and around all this you’re forever ensuring that there are powerlines everywhere, easy access to elevators, that filth is cleaned regularly…

If this sounds complicated and frenetic, it’s really not. This is Highrise’s greatest accomplishment: to gently layer understanding of its various dependencies upon you, even as the building’s layers mount and mount. Dragging out its quintet of utilities to each floor quickly becomes second nature rather than the hellish network it might look from afar, and every single higher-end room becomes a crystal-clear goal rather than a mysterious headache. It all flows very naturally, and I had a moment where I sort of caught myself in the mirror – not long ago I’d been struggling to afford a modest six-floor office block, and now suddenly I had this humongous 40-floor ant’s nest of life.

That took me around eight hours to achieve, and truth be told I’m not now feeling much pull to go back. I’ve seen almost everything, built almost everything, and though the only way remains up, I’d be moving more and more into repetition, possibly with some finessing of earlier floors in order to maximise my rent-based profits. I mentioned “ant’s nest of life” a moment ago, but to be honest Project Highrise doesn’t have a great deal of character to it.

At first glance, yes: its neat and optimistic line art look, its pleasant plink-plink soundtrack, small details like the bottle of Scotch in an office that belongs to a detective agency or the way coffee shop workers enter the building two hours before anyone else… And then, well, that’s kind of it. Every room of the same type looks the same, every bigger, more luxurious version of a room just looks like a bigger version of the smaller one.

Which is understandable, given this building sim does not have an EA or a Paradox art budget slapped on it. One can only expect so much, and Highrise should be applauded for making a small-team sim otherwise so slick and stable and blessed with a neat UI, but it does mean that we’re robbed of the joy of nosing around our buildings to see who’s in there and how it all ticks. It’s not life, it’s just numbers with graphics on top. And once you see the Matrix, or rather realise that the the Matrix hasn’t got anywhere else to go, the illusion shatters. Not a dramatic oh-this-is-rubbish shattering, just a realisation that Highrise has already scratched all the itch it’s going to.

It’s got modding support and tools in there from the get-go, so if it gets a community hopefully we’ll quickly see a wider variety of room designs, maybe granting it either the wit or the existential horror that would give it the personality that, in its base form, it doesn’t quite have.

People are going to like it, because it achieves what it sets out to do and because it can yet be mined for greater efficiency of construction and weirder or more specialist designs, but right now I’m not expecting the break-out mega-success of a Factorio or Rimworld. It just doesn’t have the flex. Not yet, anyway, but the slick, compulsive, ever so slightly bland Project Highrise is certainly a strong foundation for the community to take it somewhere weirder and wilder.

Project Highrise is out on September 8 for Windows and Mac via Steam for £14.99/$19.99 /€19.99.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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