Long before game designer Will Wright created the best-selling computer game of all time, The Sims, he created SimCity, an innovative game with a clear, compelling premise: You're the mayor, and your goal is to plan a city from the ground up (and from a godlike vantage point) and then nurture it, eventually turning what starts as a sleepy little town into a bustling metropolis. SimCity was challenging and plausibly realistic and even had a surprising amount of humor, especially for a game with a seemingly mundane subject. About 15 years have passed since the original SimCity was first released, and while the classic SimCity series is still well known among PC gamers, it has only reached its fourth full installment. And SimCity 4 for the most part isn't a huge departure from its predecessors, either, not that it really needs to be. The game does have a number of new features and a few additional layers of depth on top of the preceding SimCity 3000, and its visuals have been impressively overhauled. However, due to the presence of some stability and performance issues, as well as a few noticeably lacking features, SimCity 4 doesn't seem as polished as it could have been. On the other hand, it's still a complex and detailed strategy game that can entertain you for hours on end and even teach you a thing or two.
One of the biggest changes to the gameplay of SimCity 4 is evident from the start. Immediately as you begin the game, you're presented with a view of SimNation, though it's not much of a nation at first. SimNation is divided up into numerous smaller square segments, yet each of these in fact can hold an entire city of your making. These cities can even interact to some extent, exchanging surplus energy, water, and such for cash. At any rate, getting started is as easy as clicking on any SimNation square, naming your city, and appointing yourself as mayor, and you're off. But before you begin, you may wish to take the step-by-step tutorials of the game's mayor mode—the heart of SimCity 4—and the god mode, where you can terraform the land to your heart's content, making the terrain as flat, as hilly, as undulating, or as improbably strange as you like. It's easy to use the terrain-morphing tools found in this mode, and while it's perfectly viable to just pick one of the ready-made territories to start your city in, it's tempting and straightforward to custom-tailor your own.
Once you decide it's time to get started with your city, you may find the early going to be very familiar if you've played any of the previous SimCity games. You'll start by plopping down a power plant, preferably one that doesn't create too much pollution, and then laying down some residential, industrial, and commercial zones, then giving them some time to incubate. Laying out zones is as easy as dragging rectangles using your mouse, but SimCity 4 tries to make things even easier on you by automatically inserting streets, giving larger zones a gridlike pattern. This is a mixed blessing, since these auto-built streets often don't line up as you try to construct adjacent zones, leaving your city with bits of wasted space here and there, at least until you get used to dealing with this feature. And since city maps in SimCity 4 are smaller overall than in previous SimCity games—probably a necessary limitation due to the fine level of detail you'll see down to individual houses and sims—that wasted space could be a big missed opportunity for your city. Plus all the extra roads can really hose your budget early on. The auto-roads feature really should have been optional.
As in SimCity 3000, the three zone types each have several different density options, so light-density residential zones are likely to sprout small houses or low-income apartments, while high-density residential zones could turn into tall, fancy condominiums. Denser zones are costlier to put in place but pack in more people, which means more tax dollars. But in SimCity 4, it pays to start slow. The early going can be very challenging at first (and there are no difficulty options available to ameliorate this), as you'll naturally wish to immediately add all the amenities you'd want in a city: running water, schools, hospitals, police stations, or a football field. At any rate, a fledgling town needs only the basics, and a continuously updating news ticker that's part of the interface will keep you informed about whether your sim population needs anything you're not already providing. You'll eventually get a feel for how to get people coming into your town without driving your budget too far into the red. The goal, of course, is to make your newly established city profitable as soon as possible, since that's when you can start expanding in earnest and finally afford that hospital or police station you've always wanted next to your football field.
Having to contend with the constantly shifting demand for the three zone types while continuously adding better services and transportation options for your population and while also keeping an eagle eye on your monthly budget adds up to some involving gameplay. SimCity 4, like its predecessors, succeeds at being an active, hands-on game where there's usually something interesting you can be doing. Even if you're waiting to rake in a certain amount of funds, you can use that time as an opportunity to scrutinize the many different statistics and charts available to you or to correspond with your various advisors on how to proceed. Or you can use the handy query tool to click around your city, gleaning all kinds of information, including a few amusingly pointless statistics. You can even just sit back and observe your city at the closest zoom level. See those crime-scene-style chalk outlines near your football field? Those mean you probably should spring for a new police station thereabouts. All this is not to say SimCity 4 is a fast-paced game, because you can play it at the rate you want. It's possible to pause the action outright and build as much as necessary before starting the clock back up, and you can freely switch between three different game-speed settings.
SimCity 4 has a sleek, attractive interface that's highly reminiscent of the one found in The Sims. Though all the different buttons are unlabeled and not necessarily intuitive, detailed pop-up tooltips appear when you float your mouse cursor over any of the options, and it won't be long before you figure out where everything is. Just as the interface effectively lays out all the information and building options you need to be the best mayor, the game itself now grants you a much finer level of control over some aspects of your city. As in previous SimCity games, you can raise and lower the tax rate to bring in more money or increase demand. However, taxes now are broken down first by the three zone types and then by economic class, meaning you can opt to heavily tax your arrogant high-tech industries while giving your humble farmers a break, and so on. Additionally, as in previous SimCity games, you can adjust the budgets for your police and fire departments and such, but now you're able to do this locally as well as globally. Does that inner-city precinct have a lot more on its hands than that suburban one? Then you can probably afford to cut the latter's budget, but maybe not the former's. To some extent, the game now forces you to micromanage your city in such a fashion, though it isn't strictly necessary.
SimCity 4 also lets you spring up a volcano in the middle of your downtown, for all it cares. Like previous games in the series, disasters are very much a part of SimCity 4 and are liable to strike at any time, especially some of the more plausible ones like fires and riots. Unfortunately there's no option to disable random disasters from happening, so expect your big cities to catch fire often, even if you have lots of fire departments in place. Instigating these terrible events yourself is also possible via a handy disaster menu. The game's rather brief manual suggests that you can opt to play the game as sort of a cruel dictator, raining down fire and brimstone whenever your sims displease you, but really the only right way to play SimCity 4 is to play it straight and do what's right. Sure, you can get yourself into serious debt and then take up an offer to build a toxic waste dump in your town to help foot the bill, but you'll just end up paying a bigger price later on. Goofing around with disasters or blowing all your money on a Hollywood sign can be a fun diversion, but it isn't really the point of the game.
Neither is the new MySim mode, which lets you import your characters from The Sims into the bigger world of this game. It's true that you can gain a lot of useful information about your city by transplanting one or more sims into homes of your choosing, as they'll frequently provide constructive criticism through the news ticker, but why follow one little person around when you've got 50,000 of them that need taking care of? As such, the MySim mode seems like an afterthought. The game also promises cooperative multiplayer support, but this isn't actually ready yet. Experienced SimCity players might also go in expecting to have numerous prebuilt cities available from the get-go, as well as stand-alone scenario options, but none of this is present in the game. The game does include regions modeled after real-world locations like San Francisco, New York, and Berlin, yet these are almost entirely barren landscapes--you'll need to build the actual cities yourself. Previous SimCity games also included challenging scenarios, such as having to deal with the aftermath of San Francisco's devastating 1906 earthquake. However, SimCity 4 offers only the standard free-form game mode. You'll of course be able to download plenty of player-created cities, but it's somewhat disappointing that the game itself seems rather bare-bones.
It also seems rather rushed, in that you'll likely run into obvious performance issues during play. At worst, the game might not even boot up--incompatibility with the anti-aliasing features of certain video cards can cause this to happen. Crashes to desktop also aren't entirely uncommon, and graphical glitches crop up from time to time. Plus the game just runs sluggishly as you start to really build up, penalizing you rather than rewarding you for managing to build a big city. Though you'll witness some incredibly detailed graphics at the closest zoom level, transitions between zoom levels are ungainly, and you'll see a mosaic effect gradually wash over the screen. The game's camera can also be unusually unresponsive while you scroll around your city.
SimCity 4 really does look impressive otherwise, and there's a lot of variety and a lot of funny little details to be seen. This is the first SimCity game that lets you see your city at night as well as during daylight hours, though you still won't get any seasonal effects, unless you count tornados. The game also sports a lot of really great audio that gets more and more detailed the closer you zoom in to street level, while a surprisingly good soundtrack consisting of a variety of jazz-inspired tunes plays in the background.
SimCity 4 has one of the highest pedigrees of any PC game and does a fine job overall of living up to its name. It's too bad that some players will invariably get soured on the experience due to some of the bugs and the missing or underdeveloped features and options. But most will find in SimCity 4 a deep and enjoyable strategy game that's flexible enough to be played at any pace and entertaining enough for all audiences.