You've probably scrolled down to the bottom of the page to see what score I've given it already, haven't you? Thought so. And if you haven't, you'll probably buy Sim City 4 regardless of what I've given it anyway. That's why Sim City is an important franchise. I'm sure you all realise this, and Maxis would have been fools to ruin it now. You'll be relieved to hear that they haven't.
3D or not 3D?
What most people wanted from Sim City 4 was a totally 3D, fully rotatable engine for swooping around their lovingly created metropolis. Indeed, I'll be the first to admit my disappointment upon first playing the game to discover that this just wasn't the case. The landscape is depicted in the familiar not-quite-isometric viewpoint that we've been used to for a while now, which is viewable from four fixed angles. The reason for this is apparently that should a proper free engine have been employed, the detailed, lush graphics we're presented with here would not be nearly as lavish.
As it happens, your view of the land really is 3D in a polygonal sense, but the fixed nature of the viewpoints enables the rendered models and textures to be far prettier than would ordinarily be possible on today's technology. Now I've spent a number of days with my head buried in the game, I'm more than pleased Maxis stuck to their guns over the 3D issue, because Sim City 4 really is beautiful. Every single structure and model - right from the huge skyscrapers down to the tiny Sims going about their business - is lovingly crafted with exquisite detail. Once your city begins to swell and sprawl across the landscape, it becomes a pleasure to simply zoom in on the highest magnification and scroll around, watching your bustling creation and its inhabitants living happily or, indeed, unhappily, depending on your mayoral skills.
But before you even get to exercise those skills, you're able to satiate the landscape architect in you. Using the terraforming tools is a superb way to form a challenging or familiar landscape, and forming it is just like moulding clay. There are tools for raising and lowering land, tools for creating mountains, valleys, mesas, eroding and smoothing terrain in any way you see fit, planting forests and even specifying which areas are rich with wildlife, and which type of wildlife you would like there - not for any particular reason, just because you can. The interface is pretty much self explanatory, but there's a helpful tutorial included anyway which holds your hand through the basics of Godliness.
Not confident in your skills as a God-sized gardener? Not to worry, you're provided with a number of template landscapes (or "regions", as they're referred to in the game) to move in on anyway, including the default Maxisland, New York, San Francisco, London and Berlin, some of which have partially created cities for you to move in next to and do business with. Each region is separated into a pattern of small, medium and large squares to populate, depending on your tastes, and each block can house a city that is able to do business with its neighbour. The space you can fill is practically endless, and should you manage to fill an entire region with cities then you can just as easily craft another region and begin filling that up.
Once you're satisfied with the way your greenery and rockery looks, you enter mayor mode and start zoning, powering and watering your land ready for potential residents. This all works the same as you remember it, with three types of zone and three different densities - residential, commercial and industrial zones in light, medium and high density flavours. The higher density areas are naturally more expensive to zone, as they reap the most tax Simolians per square by either packing in high rise apartment blocks, large office complexes or dense/high-tech industry. You're obviously going to require a strategic balance of zones in your fledgling city in order to cater for demand as well as keeping monthly profit ahead of expenditure.
A rich man's world
One problem I experienced with my first few attempts at cities was overspending - it's extremely easy to be eager to splash out with your bulging wallet by flinging down high density everything, over-compensating on power and water and slapping down fresh new roads and a subway system right off the bat. Before you know it, you're badly in the red with no way out and having to start over. It pays to keep a cool head right from the moment the little fireworks pop in the sky to signify there's a new mayor in town.
The mayor tools haven't changed much, and veterans will be finding their way around in no time, locating and placing zones, community buildings and landmarks with ease. Non-veterans won't take much longer to find their feet either, though. However, placing water pipes, railways and subways is as aggravating as ever, and some kind of overhead view might be handy for this kind of underground work. Thankfully, a lot of the road laying work is taking care of when you lay zones now - once your blueprint reaches a certain size, the game handily shows you where it will automatically place some cheap roads. Of course, you're totally free to go replace it with higher quality tarmac and raise the land value should you so wish.
All the small things
Sim City seems to take itself a lot more seriously these days, with more emphasis placed on strategy and money management, and less on cute jokes in the news ticker. This isn't to say SC4 is a total plain-Jane; there were plenty of little graphical touches that brought a smile to my face, and the enormous clanking robot disaster is inspired. Maxis have simply become more understated, and some may say more sophisticated with their humour, with a reliance on keeping things visual which suits me fine.
That Sim City 4 is jam-packed with little touches is something that simply doesn't leave you for days, and will have you raving on at your disinterested friends about how little clouds of toxic vapour cling to the tiny vehicles driving past the nuclear waste dump, and how the Sims run into the streets to riot and form picket lines when your city inevitably sees darker days, and how the soldiers march up and down the street outside the military base, and... well, you get the idea.
It might sound obsessive bringing up things like that, but that's the kind of effect Sim City 4 has on you - it hooks you with sheer fascination, and the creation of your magnificent cityscape is all the time carried along with a sense of awe and delight at the sheer detail of it all. I'm still now zooming in on residential areas, fascinated by the Sims heading off to work, the little ones swinging on swings in the park, the pool boys slaving away in a high-wealth district, the mums driving their kids up to kindergarten... sorry, was I doing it again?
Thing is, while you're getting swept up in all the neat little tricks and fancy new effects (The volcanos! The tornados! Wwwwoooowww!) you tend to miss that there's nothing really new here. Certainly, there's a new and absolutely gorgeous graphics engine, and the terraforming tools lend a whole new level of creativity to the game, and the ability to move individual Sims, including your pet people from the eponymous game, into the city and get their personal feedback is extremely helpful, but the gameplay itself hasn't changed much. And why should it?
This is a good thing - we couldn't have asked for much more than has been delivered, and I doubt Maxis could have done much more with a formula that they've improved upon time and again. Of course the novelty inevitably wears off just as it does with any game of its kind, and it really pigs out on your system resources, but Sim City 4 does a damn fine job of stealing your life for as long as it possibly can, just like the old days, and thank goodness for that.