When you think about Maxis, it's pretty easy to think of The Sims. However, the famed studio would have never made The Sims if not for its previous blockbuster franchise, SimCity. The original SimCity is almost 20 years old and has spawned three sequels on the PC, the last of which appeared in early 2003. So when EA and Maxis announced SimCity Societies earlier this summer, it brought the long drought for a new SimCity game to an end. But from the get-go, it was made clear that Societies isn't a "traditional" SimCity game by any means. We finally got our hands on a work-in-progress version of the game to discover the changes.
The classic SimCity model was a fairly laissez-faire system. You, as a city's mayor, built the infrastructure and public services for a city, such as police stations and schools, as well as zoned the land for different use, whether it was residential, commercial, or industrial. Your virtual citizens did all the rest, deciding on what types of buildings and businesses to erect in the space you designated. It was very much an urban simulation. Societies offers up a vastly different gameplay experience because it's more of a city-building game where you are intimately involved in the placement of almost every object and building in the game. If earlier SimCities let you play as a "hands off" mayor, you'll be immersed up to your elbows in Societies.
If you're a SimCity veteran, it may take you a while to get used to Societies because many concepts have changed or been done away with altogether. There's no more zoning, which is perhaps the biggest change that we noticed. Instead, there's the idea that you balance six different energies in a city: productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge. The buildings that you put down can either contribute to a societal energy or require a certain societal energy to operate. So if you build a bank, it generates 12 prosperity points, and those points can be used to "power" other prosperity-type structures, such as tony brownstone residences, each of which requires a single prosperity point to run. Keep in mind, this type of societal energy is entirely separate from the idea of electricity, and you still need to construct power plants to generate electrical power for the city.
The result of all this is that you can create any type of society you want, based on the types of buildings that you put in it. If you want a tranquil, pastoral city, then avoid the productivity-class structures, such as monolith blocks of apartment flats and go with creativity-class cottages instead. However, it's not that easy: You've also got to address the needs of your sims because they want to be happy. Thus, to keep them happy, you need to provide them with houses, work, and venues that cater to their needs. And that's where it gets a bit tricky because suddenly you have to juggle a lot more than how much societal energy each structure may generate or require.
The most important factor in real estate is location, location, location, and the same goes for Societies. Where you place things in relation to one another is as important as what buildings you decide to place. Your sims want to be close to all the important locations in their lives. At the same time, you've got to take into account that buildings are affected by the structures near them. So to build the optimal city, you've got to be careful of how you arrange things. It's also important to keep in mind that time of day plays an important role. Let's say you build a pub. It can make up to seven visitors happy at a time; however, it's only open during the day or from 9 a.m. to midnight. (The pub, by the way, generates three productivity points but consumes two creativity points; to build the pub, you need to already have structures that generate a total of at least 13 productivity and 17 creativity points.) Some structures only work half of a day, others during the day, while others are open 24 hours. Each societal energy has its own different take on all the key structures. We've already mentioned housing, but there are vastly different types of workplaces and venues as well. For instance, an office building will generate plenty of prosperity, while a charity center will generate spirituality, but both will provide jobs and revenue.
As in most city-building games, you start small, but the idea is to keep growing. Doing so allows you to unlock more advanced structures. Eventually, your city will take shape and its composition will be entirely up to you. You can create an urban utopia full of artists, a university town full of knowledge structures, a totalitarian police state full of authority buildings, or--most likely--a city that blends all these elements together. It wouldn't be a SimCity game without graphs and filters; thus, there are a ton of both in the game to help you analyze your city. The biggest feedback, though, comes from your sims themselves. You can see them walking around town, and the unhappy ones will have a big red unhappy sign floating over them, indicating you've got a problem. If you right-click on a sim, you can call up his or her info card, letting you know of any issues.
The scale of the game certainly feels "smaller" than earlier SimCities where you could build humongous metropolises that stretched for miles on end. Instead, the camera is kept close to the ground in Societies, which lets you focus in on all the tiny details and the goings-on of your sims. This gives the game a much cozier feel, though it lacks the epic moment of SimCity games when you could zoom all the way up into the stratosphere and look down upon your creation from above.
Societies is clearly a different approach to SimCity, and that has caused a stir amongst the SimCity fan base. However, EA looks like it's trying to reach different audiences and those who may have never played a SimCity game before. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out in the coming months, as SimCity Societies will ship in November.