tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

A tale of two cities

I’m a big fan of the SimCity games…or at least I was, until the two-pronged attack of SimCity DS and SimCity Societies made me retreat to the safe haven of SimCity 4, sobbing like a schoolgirl. The handheld iteration of my beloved franchise was nothing short of a shoddy port to a platform that couldn’t handle the complexity that SimCity fans demanded, and Societies pretty much did away with everything that made SimCity what it was, while providing absolutely nothing to make up for it.

I suspect EA and Tilted Mill Studios are well aware of this, because last week they released a demo of the game, based on the most recent patch of the game, that supposedly adds a new strategic layer to the game. I decided to take it for a run, and for some context, I decided to compare it to another recent city simulator, City Life by Monte Cristo Software.

Just to get it out of the way, Societies has almost nothing in common with SimCity 4. The overarching world map is gone, along with the trade mechanics that came with it. Zoning has been axed – you just plop down buildings wherever you want now, much like in SimTown. In fact, many of the levers that you could use to exercise control over your city, like tax rates, building-specific funding levels and the like have been removed.

So what has been added in its place? A fair amount, actually. Buildings now either generate or consume one or more of 6 different traits. For instance, building murals generates ‘creativity’, which you can then use to build ‘creative’ structures like clown training schools (don’t ask). Depending on what sorts of buildings you build, your city will start to exhibit certain characteristics. On top of that there’s the general level of citizen happiness which is controlled by building leisure structures. The game actually shows you labour demand and supply now, so you need to keep the number of jobs roughly equal to the number of workers.

In ‘Strategic Mode’ (the new mode that the most recent patches have introduced), additional layers of complexity are added on top of this – for one, you now have some control over the levels of funding different types of structures will receive. These options are nowhere near as granular as SimCity 4 or even SimCity 2000, but they are nice to have. On top of that, you can’t simply place structures at will any more, as each structure now incurs an ‘upkeep’ cost that you need to consider before you build it. There are also ordinances you can enact for a cost to change global parameters in your city, much like in the previous SimCity games. Needless to say, Strategic Mode is really the only mode you should be interested in playing. In addition, there are varying levels of Strategic Mode, and harder levels will make it harder to strike the necessary balance to keep your city growing.

So the game actually has some strategic depth now. I can’t actually say how this depth works out in the long run since all I played is a demo. I will say, however, that in spite of the added complexity, the UI is a bit of a clusterfuck, far from the elegance of earlier SimCity games. Information is rarely available in a few clicks, and is often lacking in the kind of detail that I need. For instance, upkeep is displayed in terms of a daily cost, but the budget window shows cost/revenue information on a weekly or monthly basis, and in the form of a line graph of all things. This tells me nothing about what my exact shortfall is, which might help me decide what structures I need to build next. People accuse SimCity 4 of being too complex, but its budget window was far more elegant and gave me all the information I needed with a single glance.

In addition, I think restricting you to placing single buildings at a time really makes expanding your city more tedious than it needs to be. It might just be a personal preference, but if you need to create jobs in a hurry, you want to spend less time futzing around in submenus and more time actually placing structures that might create jobs.

Overall, I think Societies has been improved significantly from its initial release, but I’ll need to spend some time with the actual game in order to figure out how much improvement has been made.

And now, City Life.

I honestly hadn’t heard of Monte Cristo before City Life‘s release – their backlog of titles isn’t really anything worth talking about. City Life takes a similar tack to Societies, in that it tries to emphasize the ‘personality’ of a city, but it takes a far more realistic (and I think, superior) approach. It defines 6 subgroups of society, their needs, lifestyles and the interactions between them, and requires that you consider these interactions while building your city. As a consequence, certain parts of your city will be distinct from one another, rather than your entire city taking on a monolithic personality like something out of an old JRPG.

The rest of the game basically plays like SimCity 4 with some modifications, making City Life a spiritual sequel to that game. Even the in-game interface is practically a clone (with the exception that you can now free rotate and zoom to a first-person view). It takes the same approach as Societies does with regards to buildings, in that it has you place structures individually, but it also wisely lets you build up large areas with particular types of structures at once, which is effectively zoning.

However, the game doesn’t really teach you how to use this new complexity very well. The ‘tutorial’ is basically a slideshow, and not in-game. Depending on where you place your zones/buildings, they will be more attractive to certain subgroups, but the game never told me how I was supposed to make them appealing to certain subgroups, leaving me with a shortage of blue-collar workers and no idea how to redress it. In addition to this, there doesn’t appear to be much variation in the structures that get built when you say, build housing for fringe citizens. Societies definitely fares better in this regard.

All in all, though, City Life leaves me with a better impression than Societies does. The developers’ next game is a version of the game for the DS (which I suspect may not turn out that well) and a massively multiplayer version called Cities XL, which really sounds incredible. It’s good to see that even though Maxis is no longer working on SimCity titles, another developer has picked up the baton and run with it.

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