Being one of the first games I ever got addicted to during my videogaming infancy on the Amiga, Sim City has lived on in my memory as a title of intriguing strategy and life destroying addiction. Thirteen years later, and in its fourth incarnation, can Maxis pull off another classic with Sim City 4?
The city that Maxis built
The most obvious advancement in Sim City 4 is that of vastly increased levels of graphical detail. We're still a long way off from having a fully-rotatable 3D cityscape to swoop through, but the introduction of polygons for vehicle models and some structures lends the visuals a more solid feel than we've been privy to before. The cities are also bustling with life as they grow - on the closest zoom level you can spy on your tiny yet wonderfully animated Sims going about their daily business.
Maxis has thought of everything, from little road crews that appear to lay tarmac in areas you specify instead of letting the roads materialise, to a full day/night cycle causing street building lights to flicker on and illuminate the city. Building crews will even turn up to lay the foundations for new structures in freshly zoned areas. However, before you even found your city you have the opportunity to customise the very landscape it will nestle on with the game's new terraforming tools.
The terraforming is a simple but effective addition to the tool set at the start of any new game, enabling you to customise the land any way you see fit by raising and lowering the terrain, weathering it with the erosion tool, creating mountains, cliffs and mesas, planting forests and even populating them with wildlife. None of this really appears to have any particular bearing on how your Sims will view the city itself, but it's another step towards giving the player total freedom to create their ideal vision.
The curious mix of both 2D and 3D graphical effects appear to take their toll on system performance though - the preview code we've been playing has been keen on crashing with irritating regularity, and when it isn't asking whether or not we'd like to quit due to the game's instability, it fluctuates between frame rates of seven to seventy-five. Hopefully the inconsistency of the engine's performance can be ironed out and optimised before we receive final code.
Perhaps somewhat predictably, Maxis hasn't changed much gameplay-wise, instead concentrating on redesigning the look and feature set of the game. One important change comes in the ability to run several cities at once via the region screen, enabling you to strike up business deals with neighbouring cities that you run can yourself, playing your own cities off one another as opposed to waiting for the computer to strike a deal. The region screen also enables you to swap cities with other players and move them into your Sim Nation to do business with them.
Another intriguing addition is the ability to move in your own Sim from The Sims for a while to see how they feel about the city you've created, enabling you to fine tune it down to microscopic detail based on their opinions.
Time to create havoc
But what would a Sim City game be without the worryingly entertaining disaster functions? For those moments when you're feeling a bit destructive and evil, there's a new range of toys to play with in the God menu including steerable tornadoes, huge bolts of lightning on demand and enormous volcanoes spewing rivers of lava through the streets, all presented with an impressive level of graphical vigour. Charming.
Having spent a couple of days with Sim City 4, it's hard not to think of the game as an expansion pack with some pretty new models and spangly graphical effects, but what more did we expect? The series undoubtedly has ever-lasting appeal to those who dedicate the time to explore the many facets and strategies hidden away beneath the surface, and SC4 is set to continue this tradition more than ever. There is already a legion of admirers willing to pour their lives into creating ever more impressive cityscapes, and Sim City 4 seems to provide a just-about-significant enough advancement in the series to satisfy our needs for now.