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SimCity Preview: A Classic Returns

Things'll be great when you're down town…

I was never a particularly good mayor. I'd do my town planning with all the care and attention of council official who dearly wanted a buzzing metropolis, but presumably had something of a drink problem. Power-cuts, soaring crime, noisy protests, bits of roads that didn't actually go anywhere; things always seemed to fall apart. Often the only option was to put my poor urban conglomeration out of its misery, finished off with a quick dose of earthquake and/or alien invasion.

This is why, come next year's SimCity reboot, I'm going to be the worst neighbour you've ever had. In the new iteration players tend to their skyscrapers on vast shared maps, meaning that sod's law will have it that I'll be the Shelbyville to your Springfield.

People fed up with living in my urban hellhole will trundle in moving vans to your freshly minted residential areas. My vast cloud of pollution will hover above your pristine sidewalks just as much as it does mine. Your remarkable industriousness, meanwhile, might get commuters driving from my city to yours every morning - but you'll probably get one or two of my arsonists to balance things out.

You could even build your very own 'Vegas on Sea'. A prime spot for a Godzilla attack this one...

Might it ever get a little annoying watching one of my manically giggling Sims run into one of your beloved buildings with a jerry can, hearing glugging petrol noises and a match being struck? Even when flaming Sims are running out of the building and screaming in a way that's pretty much hilarious?

"Well perhaps!" ponders Maxis General Manager Bret Berry. "It depends on who you're playing with. They may get frustrated with you, and start typing messages saying "Hey! Stop with the crime buddy!"

There'll be a degree of negotiation to SimCity it seems, bringing a little of the Civilization franchise to the table just as much as it does the online connectivity of Maxis' last outing Spore. "Online brings a whole connected world," explains Berry.

"You get to experience the ways cities are connected in real life - buying and sharing goods or trading resources. If you want to play by yourself you can, but you're going to have a much richer game if things are interconnected - you can buy and sell goods online, join in different competitions and there'll be different challenges that pop up."

This new SimCity, then, works on real networks of Sim movement, commodities and resources. You'll watch the ebbs and flows of the system you create as the fruits of your mayorship are ferried around the city. Whereas earlier games were all smoke and mirrors, here you'll be able to see coal being mined then driven to your power station where the fuel-pile will visibly start to dwindle as you await the next load. With a coal excess you'll be able to trade with your neighbours, but there'll also be a World Market where you'll be able to buy and sell what you've created to fellow mayors around the globe.

Coal Enterprises. An enterprise that pretty much does what it says on the tin. The tin of coal.

Maxis wants this flow of goods and resources to be clear and understandable, highlighting both when everything is running smoothly and when there are logjams that need vital attention. To this end every network (whether power, happiness, water or beyond) has a data layer that's viewed as a coloured grid beneath the streets. You might, for example, want to place a fire station to deal with the threat of my arsonist making a repeat appearance. While you hover said station above your lovingly curated rendition of Welwyn Garden City the data layer below it will turn green, orange and red to flag up districts that will and won't be protected.

The game's Glass Box engine is clearly sumptuous enough to suggest what's going wrong too. At a basic level problems with your electricity supply won't just be flagged by red strands within the power data layer, but because all the lights will be turned off. Likewise impoverished areas will have more people standing around looking depressed due to unemployment, while nearby buildings will increasingly be daubed with graffiti and more often than not illuminated by flashing blue lights.

You wouldn't know it because EA is hell-bent on only releasing art shots and 'not representative of gameplay' trailers, but this is an extraordinarily pretty game. Its good looks are strongly rooted in the stylings of tilt-shift photography - the dark art of camera angling and blurring that makes real world images look like miniature scale models. When you see scenes fast-forward, meanwhile, there's also a strong tang of time-lapse as you watch the Sims stutter through the landscape. As with most Maxis products, meanwhile, there are touches of lovable eccentricity everywhere- even if it's in something as simple as a man strolling through a park wearing a top hat.

Sims will protest outside the town hall when they're feeling narked. You can just ignore them though, as they're ignorant plebs.

It's in the sound effects, however, that Maxis' fun-loving approach is best underlined. Whoever's been manning the Foley desk at Sims central has been having a right royal time. They've been making the noise of designing residential roads that jut out from a main street sound like a cross between spokey-dokeys (for reference please see the 1980s) and a wooden stick being dragged over a washboard. Electric pylons being set out over fields sound like noisy plastic being stretched to breaking point. Everything looks, sounds and feels as if it's beautifully tactile - and you don't even have to request planning permission to get it all rolled out.

"So much time has passed in technology, in 3D and online - there's been so many changes since the last SimCity came out." explains Bret Berry towards the close of our conversation. "There's real fertile ground for us here. We're really focussed, first and foremost, on the technology and simulation - really being authentic and bringing it to life."

Maxis is genuinely showing early signs of excelling with SimCity. In fact, the more you think about the way their city systems work, and the way that their online systems will genuinely simulate the role of neighbouring cities and a real-world economy, the more you realise quite how deep this game will go. What's more, their dedication to introducing roads that bend in the middle is admirable. You'll feel pride in those curvy roads while you're building them, and even more when you call in alien invaders to rip them apart. Quite frankly, I'm not sure how I coped with SimCity being away for so long...