After years of banking on the success of the immensely popular The Sims games, Maxis is finally returning to the series that put the company on the map. Originally released some 13 years ago, Will Wright's SimCity offered eager players an opportunity to build a city from scratch in their own image. Sure, it may not seem like such a big deal now, but in 1989, SimCity was nothing short of groundbreaking. In the years since, Maxis has released a pair of follow-ups to SimCity, but while they were quite fun and very successful, neither of them caused as big a splash as the original game did. Now, well over a decade a later, Maxis is preparing the fourth installment in the SimCity franchise, a game that the company hopes will have the same effect today that the original game had in its time. Maxis plans to unveil SimCity 4 at E3 in a few weeks, but we have some early details on this truly impressive game right now.
In true Maxis form, the entire SimCity formula is being rebuilt from the ground up for this sequel. "SimCity 2 and SimCity 3000 have basically been elaborate revisions of the first game," said Maxis producer Kevin Hogan. "We're doing more than just giving SimCity 4 an updated look." For starters, the game's econ engine will be brand new, and it will focus on the needs of the individual inhabitants of your city--of your individual sims--and not of the city as a whole. That means that your actions as mayor will have more of a local effect than a global one. For example, in SimCity 3000, placing a school anywhere within your city would satisfy your entire metropolis' need for education. While efficient, this technique wasn't exactly realistic, nor did it give the game a very personal feel. On the other hand, building a school in SimCity 4 will satisfy the education requirements of only the surrounding neighborhood and not your entire city. What's more, any actions you take will be felt more quickly than they were in SimCity 3000. "If you have a poor neighborhood in SimCity 4, and you try to make it better by building a school or a police station, you'll start to see redevelopment happen really quickly," Hogan said. "In SimCity 3000, redevelopment didn't occur until the game's random walk parser reached that area."
Another major change to the SimCity formula is the way that this sequel presents its real estate model. Whereas the quality of the buildings was determined by the land value in SimCity 3000, in SimCity 4, land value will follow, not lead, the quality of real estate. So if rich people want to move in to a certain neighborhood, the buildings in that area will look ritzy, which will ultimately lead to an increase in land value. And since the demand for real estate determines that property's value, and since property value determines the quality of the buildings, you can bet that all the structures in SimCity 4 will have several different appearances that reflect the current state of their respective neighborhoods. Ignore the needs of a neighborhood for too long, and you'll upset the local populace, who will up and move away after a while, causing that area to deteriorate.
So the challenge of the game will be to find a proper balance between expanding your city and maintaining a quality of life that will keep all (or at least most) of your populace happy. "SimCity 4 isn't just about making the biggest city possible," Hogan said. "It's about attending to the needs of your citizens, about giving the city a little bit of character...After all, anyone can build a Pittsburgh, but it takes a little skill to build a San Francisco or a Manhattan." SimCity 4 will have three primary tilesets: a turn-of-the-century Chicago feel, a 1950s New York City appearance, and a 2000 Houston ultramodern look. As the game progresses, you'll automatically switch from one tileset to another, and this will ultimately give your city several unique areas and a distinct sense of history. Hogan envisions the typical user-created metropolises to have naturally occurring districts, like an old town, a warehouse district, a financial district, and so on. This ability alone will give your SimCity 4 maps all the style and character worthy of the world's San Franciscos and New York Cities--no offense, Steelers fans.
While mirroring the look and feel of existing cities isn't Maxis' goal for SimCity 4, the game's designers are perfectly willing to give you the tools to create your own Manhattan, San Francisco, or even Pittsburgh, if you're so inclined. Like in SimCity 3000, you'll start things out in SimCity 4 by terraforming a piece of land before laying down your roads, lots, and buildings. To do this, you'll have a number of tools for flattening, smoothing, pulling, pushing, and eroding almost any kind of terrain to suit your city-building needs. It's interesting to note that two major changes have made been to SimCity 3000's terrain engine for this sequel. First, you're no longer limited to building on flat ground. Small houses and office buildings can be constructed on sloped terrain, and you'll be able to see the angled foundations underneath those structures. Second, terrain and time of day will affect weather patterns. Place some mountains on a coastline, for example, and you'll actually see clouds starting to develop. Coastal valleys like San Francisco's Bay Area will almost always have heavy fog in the mornings.
Built This City on Rock & Roll
According to Hogan, this new approach to city planning has been implemented to give SimCity 4 a more personal feel than before. Other small details throughout the game also convey that same effect. Buildings don't magically appear out of thin air when you construct them, for instance. Instead, you'll see girders being erected outside the hull of the building, and you'll notice little sim construction workers pour concrete, lay asphalt, and paint medians while building roads. Traffic lights will direct cars and pedestrians through the major intersections. Efficient power plants will billow acrid smoke if left unmaintained, and this smoke, as well as other objects in the game, will be affected by weather patterns like wind. The disaster system from earlier games will also make an appearance in SimCity 4, though with a few notable changes, the most important of which is increased control over these disasters. Tornadoes, for example, will be on a leash of sorts. That is, you'll be able to implement a certain measure of control over their general direction, but in the end, they'll decide where they want to go, what they want to uproot, and how many cows they'll throw into the next county. Fires and volcanoes will also plague players in SimCity 4, as well as a few other disasters that are still in the works.
Dealing with these disasters will also take on a new form in SimCity 4. "There will be a toy-like quality to disaster control in the game," Hogan said. "In SimCity 3000, you'd put out a fire by simply placing the right icon on the burning building, but we want to give the player an immediate sense of gratification in SimCity 4." That means you'll actually see the fire trucks leave their station and make their way through traffic to the location of the fire before putting it out. Of course, if you've mismanaged your roads and left your fire engines without any possible way to reach the inferno, the fire will rage on. So in a sense, your cities in the game will require a deeper level of involvement in your part than in SimCity 3000, for example, and yet, they'll also take on a life of their own. Hogan explains: "Cities will have a pulse, like they do in real life. Day will turn into night, and weary commuters will head home on the roads and freeways you've built. Cars will drive at different speeds on different roads." Crowds will also ebb and flow, as will the tide and morning fog in the game's coastal cities.
As you've probably already guessed by looking at these screenshots, SimCity 4 is being developed using a brand-new 3D engine that gives the game a living, breathing look. Volcanoes will rise from the ground and spout lava that will flow realistically down its sides and burn up anything in its way. Steam will rise from the ocean if lava flows touch the water, and after it hardens, lava can be terraformed like any other terrain. The colorful palette that graced SimCity 3000 returns for SimCity 4, and this will undoubtedly give the entire game the vibrant look that few other PC games--no matter what genre--have ever matched. And while you won't be able to rotate the camera at will, you will be able to choose from four different perspectives and make use of a 5x zoom.
Visually or otherwise, SimCity 4 looks impressive, and we're certainly glad to see that the desires of closet mayors everywhere will be fulfilled by this city-building game from the company who invented the words "city-building games." Maxis is still working out the details of the game's campaign structure, though Hogan explained to us that SimCity 4 will depart from the series' standard mission goals, and will instead feature a more personal results and rewards system that will be conveyed to you by a number of petitioners--sims, really--that you'll be able to see walking or driving throughout your city. You'll even have the ability to start up multiple neighbor cities like you could with The Sims, and have a number of your populace commute from one of these cities to the other during the day, and back at night.
Anyone making the commute to E3 this year will be able to see SimCity 4 first hand, but in the meantime, be sure to gawk at the new screenshots in our image gallery.