Simcity isn’t just about the presentation and style, however; it’s also about the little things and the attention to detail. And the disasters. But mainly the little things.
So, acolytes of the series will be pleased to know that Maxis has rolled out a series of small tweaks across the game too, building on top of the game’s core. You can now build curvy roads, for example, that can be literally painted onto the landscape, while civil unrest is presented on the map as a protest outside city hall that you can watch steadily form as issues increase in severity.
A close eye on the landscape itself is therefore strongly recommended because, while Maxis often gives you hints about upcoming issues through a news ticker at the top of the screen, some problems can’t be predicted by the media. Reporters are very likely to scold you if the level of water pollution is reaching unacceptable levels, but they can’t be relied on to spot rogue arsonists or individual criminals – you need to spot those things for yourself.
Arsonists, which were the specific type of criminal we saw in our demonstration, appear like micro-disasters when certain conditions are met, such as high crime and a low number of fire stations. They can often be spotted by eagle-eyed city planners, in this case as a black transit van that emanates heavy metal music, but may be easily missed if you aren’t paying attention.
Once they’ve appeared though, there seems to be no way to stop them directly – they target a building and trundle along until they get there, before rushing inside to noisily splash petrol around and fleeing the scene. Seconds later the building bursts into flames and, unless you’ve got fire stations positioned nearby, the fire will spread to burn down the neighbourhood and, eventually, the whole town.
If you have built a fire station though, even then it’s not a straightforward solution; fires take time to bring under control, meaning that if your firemen don’t arrive on time, it may still be too late. This is why it’s important to upgrade your buildings whenever possible; so that you have multiple firecrews in each station, just in case two fires break out at once.
Not all the upgrades we saw appeared to be as function-orientated, however – there are cosmetic add ons too, such as signs and belltowers that can be built on to firestations.
The other thing to note about Simcity is how Maxis claims it's been built "from the ground up, rather than from the top down". This means that, while previous Simcity games had incidents that were derived from specific rules - i.e., not having enough roads causes traffic jams - the new game is built on physical interactions. So, while traffic jams in Simcity may still be caused by a lack of roads, they can also be caused by poor road layouts, because each car on the road is a properly simulated agent.
This change sounds small, but in effect it adds a whole multitude of issues and complexity to Simcity's city design and means that you'll have to have a much better understanding of how cities work if you want to make a flawless habitat.
That said, we've still seen very little of Simcity so far and haven't seen anything beyond the examples cited above, so how well and widely these systems are incorporated still remains to be seen on the whole. For the moment though, while the visuals are certainly a lot softer on the eyes than some strategy fans would have expected, it seems like there's both enough accessibility and complexity ploughed into the game to make it something worth waiting for.
Simcity is being developed by Maxis for the PC and will be published in 2013 by Electronic Arts. It currently doesn't have a firm release date.