The social and mobile space has seen a profusion of building sim titles of late, making the pace of construction in Dubai seem almost lackadaisical by comparison. Farms, cities, diners, towers, airlines, even game studios: if you can name it, there’s probably a sim themed around managing it. The genre is perfect for dipping in and out of at regular intervals to tinker with and observe the pocket-sized world you’ve set in motion.
We get the sense Maxis has looked on wistfully from the sidelines as this flowering has occurred, eager to get back into the city-planning game and apply some of the emerging social gaming trends to the sort of robust simulations it helped to construct in the first place. The online facets of SimCity surfacing in recent announcements would seem to bear this impression out.
A new feature called SimCity World will serve as the social hub for your game, hosting your friends list and showing which friends are online at any given time. CityLog, meanwhile, will function in a similar fashion to Facebook’s news feed, showing what your friends have been up to lately.
Competition has been a driving force behind the growth of civilisation for ages, and SimCity will be no different. Global and friend-focused leaderboards will show you how you stack up against other community members in categories such as population, city cleanliness, crime level, and so on. Maxis will also serve up dynamic challenges on a regular basis, which may be cooperative or competitive in nature. Perhaps players will need to work together to create 10 million new jobs, or regions will be asked to compete to see which can boost its population by one million residents in the shortest time.
Another new feature involves city specialisation. Don’t feel like building a generic metropolis? Now you can specialise to become a coal city, a tourist city, or any number of other options. And the choices you make in your city will ripple out and affect the world around you. If your coal city is dumping huge amounts of pollution into the air, then that might adversely impact on neighbouring cities, depending on the wind pattern. The economic life of your city will be much more dynamic, too, since a global market will influence the prices of goods.
During a brief hands-on, we’re able to get a sense of how it feels to set a new SimCity metropolis in motion. We click and drag a road to connect our city to a nearby highway so that residents can move in. We turn on a power station and watch as tiny globules of energy begin to flow along our grid lines to the surrounding houses and business. We demolish derelict buildings, and grin as the animation shows them crumbling to the ground. Every piece of feedback – scaling up from the sound design and animations to the overall behaviour of the city – offers players a steady dopamine drip, and a palpable sensation of progress.
You can still toggle the speed of the simulation between three levels – Turtle, Gazelle and Cheetah – depending on your taste. But now clicking on a random car motoring down the road causes a little speech bubble to pop up: “Couldn’t find food for baby. Driving home.” These little glimpses of the human experience playing out makes the reality unfolding feel less plasticine and contrived than previous SimCity entries. Or rather, it didn’t feel contrived until a scripted meteor strike brings our city and demo to an untimely end. At least we don’t have to worry about that crime problem any more.