SimCity 2013 Impressions: Groundbreaking, Yet Troubling
Is it better to be the sole monotheistic god of an entire universe, or a member of a pantheon? That’s the question Maxis seems to be asking of fans with the serious changes they have in store for the SimCity series with their upcoming franchise reboot, next year’s (plainly titled) SimCity.
SimCity boasts the most advanced engine in series history, capable of truly astonishing visuals and complex simulations, with an aesthetic based on tilt-shift photography that is nothing short of astonishing. But as I learned in our interview with SimCity lead producer Kip Katsarelis, SimCity is also a major departure from previous entries in that it’s been designed “from the ground up” with multiplayer in mind.
Is this a series-killer? It might just be, especially for players who got into strategy games like SimCity or the Civilization series thanks to an addictive single player experience and return again and again seeking it. So it was with mixed feelings that I went into the E3 2012 (non playable) demo of SimCity. Unfortunately, while I was blown away by the game‘s aesthetic and technological achievements, I was left with serious concerns about its dramatic departures from basic series conventions.
First, let’s look at what is unambiguously awesome about the return to SimCity, the groundbreaking Glassbox Engine. When Maxis unveiled Glassbox earlier this year, they boasted it was the most complex engine in series history, with the ability to employ thousands of micro-simulations at a time. After seeing it in action, I’m not sure that ‘thousands’ isn’t an understatement.
Previous series engines worked by simulating high level statistics, and then feeding relevant animations representing the data into the game. So, say, pollution is just a cloud of gross smog, a traffic jam a simple block of traffic animation indicating a problem. With glassbox, those statistics are replaced by simulation units called ‘agents’, which represent individual components like resources or citizenry. The animations you’ll see in SimCity are a direct result of individual agents’ activity. Pollution therefore spreads based on weather, on where your sims happens to be driving, on where industry is based in your town. And to return to traffic, the actions of individual drivers actually affect the way your traffic jam progresses and resolves or doesn’t resolve itself.
The result, as we saw in the demo, is an amount of activity onscreen during your game that is, frankly, incredible. Sims, weather, vehicles, environmental events and so on actually exist independently and simultaneously, making a SimCity city feel more alive than anything ever previously seen. You’ll see sims walking around, shopping, driving. When you build houses in a neighborhood and sims move in, you’ll see their kids playing in the yard. If you fail to commit enough resources to elements like power supply, you’ll see affected areas performing poorly in noticeably individualistic ways.
Even problems like high criminal activity play out organically! Say you choose, as the dev working the demo did, to focus on making a city an industrial center for the purpose of generating money, at the expense of important infrastructure like schools and law enforcement. Even as the city becomes richer, you’ll see a gap between rich and poor arise, signified by a rise in crime indicated by the appearance of graffiti on buildings in crime-prone areas. (The game offers the ability to review the crime rate specifically, so you can see high crime areas highlighted in red, so you won’t simply have to zoom in and out looking for graffiti).
If you develop a high crime rate, you’ll actually be able to watch random dramatic events unfold, like the bank robbery we saw in the demo. The dev playing zoomed in on a muscle car with a skull painted on top (obviously a pack of hardened criminals), and followed it to a bank. The sims piled out of the car and ran into the bank; though the game doesn’t allow you to look inside the actual buildings, you could hear gunshots, screams and the bank’s alarm system. A few seconds later, the sims ran out, got into the car and sped off. The cops never showed up, another side effect of a crime prone city.
It isn’t just in the simulations themselves, but in the graphics that SimCity really shines. Literally, in some cases. Simply put, it looks fantastic, and that’s in part due to the decision to base the aesthetic on so-called tilt shift photography, aka ‘fake miniaturization’. That’s the technique by which perspective and focus are manipulated so that objects photographed from far off look like models rather than real things. Zooming in on your city creates a lack of focus around the edges of your screen, perfectly recreating the tilt shift technique. It gives everything a kind of twee appearance, which is a great look for a game built around playing god in a toy city.
In fact, as advertised everything in SimCity looks and functions so spectacularly you’d be forgiven if you walked out of the dem certain you were looking at the PC experience of 2013. There’s just one large set of problems.