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And Now The Game: A SimCity Preview

The fall of Societies

After all that back and forth about the DRM, let's see what this new SimCity really is. There's no number because it's not a sequel as such, or so the word goes. I can't help but see it as a statement of intent - the series first turned fallow and then was perverted, but now it's back, back, back on track. Pure and faithful. In the same way Dexys Midnight Runners are, in their new incarnation, simply 'Dexys' there's a consciousness that a long history can be as much an albatross as a boon.

And so what might have been Sim City 6 is simply 'SimCity', and it is indeed a city management game. A proper one, with zoning and utilities and emergencies and traffic jams and crime and all that metropolitan jazz. My sense was that it's more accessible than Sim City 4 was, but not in the way that Sim City Societies or - heaven forfend - a Cityville-type is. Yes, the 'a' word. Wait, calm down. While I can only speak from a quick, eyes-on impression of a very early build, the trick seemed be in the presentation of information, not sacrifice of the information itself. A surprisingly lavish and high-detail 3D world was backed up by a slick-looking interface, heavily customisable to show what you do and don't personally want to see at any one time.

While there was plenty of superficial attractiveness for my id to coo at, oddly what most caught my attention was the concept of every being and every system in the game being an 'agent.' So electricity and water aren't simply coloured lines that do or don't connect to this or that area, but, should you hit the appropriate toggle, pulsing streams of power or liquid surging/trickling around your town. The size and frequency of the pulses denotes how efficient your infrastructure is: a visible sign as to where improvements are needed. It sounds tedious, but as well as the at-a-glance strategic boon, it's a canny way of making your creation seem alive, not a frozen Lego-land. Alas, I have been given only concept art to try and prove this or any other aspect of the game with for now. Despite the fact I've seen a working build in action. And despite the fact you can already pre-order the game. Sigh. So, you'll need to trust my words as best you can. You're right, I wouldn't either.

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It extends to traffic as well, which also initially sounds more boring than a visit to the plywood factory with the lead singer of Keane, but has all manner of fascinating repercussions. When a new citizen moves into your city, they actually move in - removal van, arduous unloading of cardboard boxes, the lot. If your roads are narrow or busy, that big van parking up on the street might cause traffic to slow down or even gridlock in that area. Which isn't necessarily a problem - this is modern living, right? But what if there's a fire engine stuck in that traffic queue? And what if one of your buildings has just suffered an arson attack from one of the 'personality' NPCs who's recently pitched up in town looking to cause trouble?

Well, then that building is going to burn down. But before that, the fire will likely spread to another building. And another. And another. It's a panicked halfway house between the rather mathematical disasters of the earlier Sim Cities and the rolling chaos of The Sims. It's also the butterfly effect at play, that one happy Sim on the other side of town unwittingly being responsible for mass property damage because they're taking their sweet time hauling their futon up the stairs.

Sims too are agents, all going somewhere for some reason, rather than being purely decorative or mere statistics. If the Glassbox engine can muster what it did on the demo day for Johnny Average-PC, then I suspect I'll enjoy zooming in and watching my systems and creations at work and play, its inhabitants tottering along like cheerful clockwork soldiers.

The look overall is inspired by tilt-shift, a video technique that's become near-ubiquitous in TV advertising of late but you may know best from the rowing sequence in The Social Network. Via WITCHCRAFT reality is made to look like scale models, and that's what Sim City hopes to evoke. While the underlying systems are all about flow, precision and maths, the surface is consciously toylike. It suits it, at least in the small amount of the game I saw - it makes sense visually and metaphorically for a Sim City game.

The grand dollhouse mentality extends to construction too - place down powerlines and they're like elastic, stretching and eventually snapping as they're pulled too far away from the station they're connected to. Once you do manage to connect a zone to the power grid, a series of bulb noises and a flurry of sudden light denotes that it's gone to plan. The game as a whole seems similarly draped in incidental detail. It's tactile, packed with toybox sound effects and visual tics: an ant colony rather than a dusty model. Leave an area unpowered for too long, though, and as well as looking dark and miserable eventually it will turn to crime, which is denoted by the appearance of graffiti on its rooftops rather than purely as a statistic buried in the menus. At a glance, the idea is, you can tell more or less what's going on with your city and what the shortfalls are.

The other major new idea on show was quasi-freeform upgrades to important buildings. If you want to upgrade a power station, it's simply 'spend $x to reach level 2', but instead placing a new chimney by hand. Or two. Or three. Or four. And you drop 'em all over the place rather than onto fixed nodes, so you could make a brickwork flower or a confused, sprawling mess. Doesn't matter, because the important thing is the power station is improved, as you'll see by the pulsing electricity bubbles having expanded in size. However you design it, zoom in close to the plant and you'll see coal being hauled up its conveyor belt from a slowly dimishing pile. When that pile is depleted, more coal will need to be brought in via truck. But what if there's a traffic jam? Oh, right, I did that one already. Again - everything is an agent. That's the promise. Hopefully, that means cause and effect all over the shop.

As for the online and multiplayer aspect/controversy around the game, this wasn't documented too much during the demo and I confess it wasn't the first question from my lips either while watching the game or while interviewing one of the devs (which I'll publish later), so I ran out of time before I could ask it. What I can tell you is that they're at least trying to lend purpose to the onlineness - so your goods can be transported to friends' towns and vice-versa, or sold on the world market. That does sound a little Farmville admittedly, but from what else I saw of the game I'm reasonably confident this is more about interconnectedness, not grind.

This was, of course, just one tiny, hour-long slice of a game that won't be released until some time next year, so this sort of statement is reckless and more than capable of coming back to bite me on the bottom, but... This really did look like I want Sim City to look. Some of the self-expression aspects of the Sims fed back into the urban management of Sim City, without actually undermining the inherent strategy. Then there's that element of making the interface part of the game world to some extent, which I'm always a sucker for.

I am, however, worried about the potential for exploitation of the online aspect, not so much in terms of DRM (it's a rare day I leave the house now, alas) but in terms of, as with The Sims 3 and assorted social network games, it being an excuse to constantly flog DLC. That your city can't be complete until you spend just a bit more, and then more, and then more. That fear is tackled in my interview with one of the senior devs, which I'll put up in the not-too-distant. In the meantime, I'll you leave with news that the new curvy roads do exactly as hoped. Long may arcing tarmac reign.

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