SimCity: Maxis’ latest city builder feels more alive – and more social

Where 2003’s SimCity 4 at times felt more like a job than a game, SimCity aims to cut back the red tape and deliver a purer hit of fun. That isn’t to say it’s shallow, though; a masterful series of checks and balances sit beneath the charming tilt-shift visuals to prevent the town planning sim from collapsing under its own heft.

As is customary, your city starts out as a slab of land, but that now sits in a region. You may pick an atoll fit for two cities or a great plain capable of supporting up to 16, but you can think of all the regions as online lobbies. Set yours to private and you can play solo; make it public and other players might become your neighbours.

That’s neighbours, not competitors. City areas never yield a full set of resources – which include oil, coal, water and ore – but you can trade your surplus goods with neighbours for extra money, or vice versa. All you need to do is establish a truck depot, ship yard or airport. Moreover, your citizens can commute to work in nearby towns; other cities therefore help rather than hinder you, which is something the series has been building towards since SimCity 3000.

The core game trades on the same balancing act introduced back in 1989. Zoning land as industrial, commercial and residential districts creates interoperating sectors: a workforce, jobs and an economy. You’ll need to respond to market demand and specific needs as your metropolis matures, with health, crime, education, infrastructure and recreation your responsibility. Thankfully, the task is made manageable by clear execution. Icons for basic living needs, such as water, power, waste disposal and sewage, populate a menu tray, the main display only relaying critical information. Lay waste pipes too close to suburbs, for instance, and happiness will plummet, signified by the appearance of a sea of hovering red faces above houses.

Elsewhere, the interface uses familiar forms to be intuitive. A power station’s output is denoted by a simple megawatt dial. Every amenity has an on/off switch to allow you to halt production when you need to save money. Erect a waste processing plant and you’ll see brown circles start to make their way to it under the roads, accompanied by a strangely satisfying gloopy sound effect.

SimCity’s new engine, GlassBox, also makes cities look more alive. Each citizen has a name, occupation and mood, and you can track each one. You can check in on their commute, on the day they drive a moving van to their new digs, and on the day that home burns down. This granularity goes right down, Maxis claims, to the boxes on factory conveyor belts. What you see is what you get, the visuals an expression of raw statistics.

The nearest thing to an endgame in SimCity is the Great Work. Once you’ve fulfilled a landmark objective, such as earning a million in Simoleon currency, you can establish a lasting legacy for your region with help from your neighbours. An ‘arcology’ wonder will boost education for all, for instance, while constructing an international airport sends trade skyrocketing.

By this point in the game – bar disasters – you’ll have outgrown your city, and it’s here our main concern lies: play areas are small. The largest grid is equivalent to a mid-sized one from SimCity 4. Airports and train lines are particularly tight squeezes, and having to demolish an entire section because of poor prior placement is almost inevitable. It may be all part of the challenge, but it’s also a prod towards multi-city play. Can’t accommodate enough police? Borrow some.

More broadly, you can peruse the global markets, using online leaderboards to track supply and demand. Together with a more inviting aesthetic, being part of a persistent global community seems to be SimCity’s most important innovation.