During PAX Prime I got a chance to have a brief hands-on with the pre-alpha Sim City. Michael Donahoe, the community manager who was giving the demonstration, was also kind enough to answer some of my questions. As the game is in pre-alpha, it was requested that I not take any pictures, but hopefully my words can do it justice. All pictures in this article are official images provided by simcity.com
If you are a veteran of the Sim City games, like I am (it rather frightens me to think that it was nearly 20 years ago that I played Sim City 2000) then this game will be familiar to you. Your goal is to manage the city, not to manage the Sims in it, as is the case in the Sims series of games.
Of course, Sims do live in your Sim City, and they go to work, shop, eat, and do all the other things that Sims do. Your job is to make sure that they can get what they need and get to where they need to go. You do that by making sure that they have enough water, power, garbage service, and plenty of goods and services.
How do you do that, you ask? This is where this SimCity differs a bit from its predecessors. When you take actions, you can directly see how they affect the city. For example, during the tutorial I was informed by the city manager that there was not enough power. My town did have a power plant, but it had been switched off to save money. When I turned it back on, I could see the workers arrive and the plant power up. Once the plant began generating power, then I could see where the power was going and scan around my city to ensure that everyone was connected. The same holds true for water, sewer, and garbage and other services such as police and fire. Of course, you may not be able to provide all these services right away. Your little town doesn’t have the population to support a waste treatment plant, so until you get more people and upgrade your town hall into a city hall, you have to make do with pumping your city’s waste into nearby fields. (Ick! And believe me, your citizens think that’s icky, too, so it does motivate one to upgrade.
All of this should be familiar to people who have played the other Sim City games, as Sim City 4 did allow you to see when water pipes would fill, for example.. What is different here is that there seems to be more ways to actually see how these services are affecting the city. There are color overlays and charts that give you a staggering amount of information, if you want to delve into it. If charts aren’t your thing, though, you can click on the Sims around town and see what they have to say. If they feel something is missing, they’ll tell you, up to and including staging a protest in front of City Hall. I had many, many parents complain that I had no school for their children to attend, for example. (I couldn’t build one because of the pre-alpha state of the game. I actually found myself apologizing to the poor sim parents.)
That quandary of mine brings me to another feature of Sim City. What if you can’t meet the needs of your city? What if you live in a desert and there is just not enough water? Well, that’s where trading comes in! As was the case with Sim City 4, your city is in a region of other cities. You can control all the cities yourself, you can have a region of just you and your friends, or you can join up with anyone out there with an internet connection. The down side to this is that you do need to be connected to play, but it does open up many opportunities for trade. In the desert city, for example, you could trade solar power for water, or you can even potentially loan out fire and police in the event of an emergency in your region. As the game is still in pre-alpha stage, any or all of these features are subject to change, but it would seem that the trading aspect is what makes this version of Sim City unique, so I would expect the trading aspect to be carried through to the end game.
Overall, I found that the controls made sense and that there seemed to be a natural progression from town to city. The graphics in the demo are in pre-alpha as well, so I will not go into too much detail, but I will say that I felt like I was playing in a zoomed out Sims 3 town, rather than a big Sim City 3000 city. The city itself looked very pretty. It was not just a simple grid. Some of the roads curved, which made the city look much more natural. Being able to have designs other than a grid should have some interesting effects on gameplay as well. One wonders what an oddly curved road will do to fire response time, for example. I could tell that the town was made up of individuals rather than it being its own entity. As for the gameplay, I started with a demo town of around 1000 people, and I could place limited services based on the size of the town. I could see hints of what was to come, though, as there were opportunities to upgrade buildings and add features that I did not yet meet the prerequisites for. I will be very curious to see just how big a metropolis one can grow one’s Sim City into, and how the placement of resources (or lack thereof!) will hinder or aid one’s progress. I look forward to seeing the next iteration of Sim City!