Camp EA 2002SimCity 4 impressions

The new update to the classic city-building series introduces what are perhaps the biggest gameplay enhancements it has seen thus far. New screens and video inside.

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There's something to be said for new, better-looking versions of classic games. No doubt by now more people have played SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000 than the original 1989 version. And while these updates did offer more than just new graphics, none has changed the game's core mechanics as much as SimCity 4 seems to. SimCity 4 promises to be more intuitive than any of its predecessors, with more direct, visual feedback for problems in your city, while at the same time adding several new layers to the city simulation.

SimCity 4 takes a broader, more regional approach. A number of large regions, like the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City, will ship with the game, each of which has up to 64 city-sized regions of varying sizes. These areas are remarkably customizable, since the game has a sophisticated set of terraforming tools that players can use while in "god mode." They'll be able to create mountains, rivers, or lakes, plant trees, and add wild animals--all by choosing a brush and "painting" over the terrain. To keep micromanagement down, the tools are smart enough to change the appearance of terrain and trees to match elevation. The city regions don't exist in isolation, and you have direct control over how cities trade resources. There are good reasons to specialize cities, so you can create one with lots of power plants (and pollution) to supply the region with power, another that's an economic powerhouse, and others that are sleepy residential communities.

SimCity games are consistent in their macroscopic approach to city management, but SimCity 4 seems to introduce a better balance of close-up detail. As mayor, you still control city zoning rather than placement of individual houses and buildings, and the new zoning tools add basic necessities like roads automatically. Of course, these are just basic roads. You can put down higher-capacity four-lane streets, complete with stoplights, where there's a need. At the same time, infrastructure buildings like schools now have a visible radius of effect, which means you have to plan for distinct neighborhoods. Creating a neighborhood that satisfies residents' needs will increase property values, and if growth is planned right, the pressure of higher densities will prompt redevelopment and taller buildings. There are three tilesets by time period--a turn-of-the-century brick style, a mid-20th-century steel-and-concrete style, and an ultramodern style--and older buildings can coexist with new ones until there's some reason for its sim inhabitants to remodel.

Visual details are a key way the new game will provide immediate feedback on how changes affect the health of a city. Most policy changes take effect almost immediately. For example, if you drastically cut funding to the fire department, strikers will form on the sidewalk near firestations, and low-paid fire crews sent out to combat fires will be comically incompetent.

A major new addition is the day/night cycle, and sim citizens follow this 24-hour clock to do various animated activities around the city. For example, at 8am you'll see school kids walking to school and minivans driving up to drop kids off. By watching for these details you can get a good idea of how your city is faring. The 24-hour clock is divorced from the fast-moving calendar, since six months can pass quickly in SimCity and the flickering of day/night colors would be rather disturbing at that rate. Instead, the clock passes at a constant rate, no matter the current speed setting.

SimCity 4 also includes a nod to The Sims and Maxis' cancelled SimsVille . You can import characters from The Sims or select from a slew of premade sims. Characters carry over their skills and personalities and live out autonomous lives in your city, taking jobs and finding homes. These sims still retain their "needs meters" that reflect how happy they are, so they can be a good focus for how well designed your city is. Each city can have up to five sims living in it, and the ability to follow them around in detail looks like it'll add a new dimension to the game.

SimCity 4 is nearing alpha, the feature-complete stage, although there are many details yet to be tweaked and polished before the game's release late this year. Maxis plans to have online community tools that will let players share cities and regions. While the company hope to develop some cooperative multiplayer ideas into the game, it's more likely that such features will be incorporated into a subsequent add-on rather than in the initial release. To be sure, there will be more details on SimCity 4 as the game nears completion.

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