If you don't think city planning sounds like a good time, you probably haven't played the Sim City series, the simulation devoted not to destruction, but construction. Though it lacks guns and swords, it has never lacked for innovation, playability, or fans. But where Will Wright was able to build the games into an empire on PCs, EA will have to settle for a hamlet with its handheld update, SimCity DS. Even though you can spend several enjoyable hours placing parks, building roads, and crafting a sprawling city, a few structural flaws make this version feel relatively small town.
Small isn't necessarily bad though, especially when it comes to handheld gaming. When you start, the first thing you'll want to do is study the tutorial content. There are 15 distinct lessons, but as you'll quickly discover, these are just the tip of the burg.
In case you've never played SimCity before, here's how it works: The point of the game is to build a city on a big piece of land that's been divided into a grid. Your city should consist of three types of zones: commercial, industrial, and residential. For people to develop your zones, you need to build roads. You also need to make people want to come to your town, so you need to spruce the zones up with things like parks and schools. Once they've arrived, you want them to stay, so you build things like hospitals, police stations, and fire stations to keep them from being driven away by the likes of fire, crime, or death.
But before you jump into all this, you'll take a random personality test to get matched with an advisor. The advisor seems nice enough at first, but then gets way too friendly. But not in a cool, "What are you doin' after work?" sort of way. Rather, he or she will interrupt your labors constantly just because some high school kid thinks the town needs more zoos or a bush caught on fire. Fires are the worst because your advisor screams and then stops time until they're put out, even if the blaze is nowhere near a development. And the worst part? You can't turn him or her off.
Before your advisor gets an opportunity to drive you out of your town--or your mind--you'll need to pick from several pieces of land, each with varying amounts of water, scrub brush, and funding. For example, an easy development would start you off with $100,000 and little water, while a hard one would have lots of water but only $10,000 starting cash. From there, you'll want to build a power plant, some zones, and a few amenities, such as schools and parks.
It sounds easy, but there's a lot of room for error, especially in the early going. Even with your advisor and the tutorial, it's not hard to overextend yourself on your first couple attempts and wind up with an unhappy populace and no money. Unfortunately, the game will take no pity on you, so when your town is in the gutter you have only two options: start over or slowly manipulate the taxes until you have money again. The former option is the best, because the latter option takes forever. What, no social welfare?
Except, that is, for demolition. It's important to know that once you demolish something, it's gone. That sounds obvious, but the game will let you undo certain actions. Unfortunately, demolition is not one of them, so you want to be very careful. But there are two issues: First, this is a DS game, so you might be playing it on the go. If you're trying to demolish a small area and the car you're in hits a bump, you're liable to wipe out half your town. Second, you can't seem to demolish just one unit of land--the game insists on removing at least four--so even if your hand doesn't slip, you'll trash more than you would have liked.
But the game isn't all bad advisors and random acts of destruction. Indeed, figuring out how to manage a happy, thriving community is very rewarding, especially because it gives you a new perspective on something you've probably only experienced from within. Your god's-eye view of the city is enhanced by several informational screens you can access, which range from budget breakdowns and quality of life indices to crime maps. For example, you can quickly switch to a "fire risk" screen and spot any fire-prone areas. From there, you can plunk down a water tower or fire station, extinguishing the blaze before it even starts.
The more you play, the more the game's intimidating amount of information will make sense, and before long, you'll be well on your way to organizing a giant, happy city. And once you've made your way through all the difficulty levels, turning a piece of swamp and $10,000 into a bustling metropolis, you can move on to save-the-city mode, where you can choose from several extremely hairy rebuilding efforts. These are relatively short, usually saddling you with a strict time limit, making them perfect for car rides.
That sounds good until you realize you can't save any of your save-the-city games, so they have to be short. In fact, there's only one save slot in the entire game, and it's reserved for whatever city you've been developing in build-a-city mode. This incredible data bottleneck means that any time you want to start building a new city, you have to scrap the old one. Not only does this stifle experimentation, it also badly damages the game's longevity because you can't revisit old towns. Thus, you can never go home again.
Even when you've gone far beyond the ghost towns of your past, you won't see a lot of graphical improvement in the bustling cities of your future. That's because the entire game looks a bit shabby. The level of detail that made the PC and Mac versions fun to look at can't be rendered on the DS's little screen with its handful of pixels. Sure, you'll build zoos and sports arenas, but good luck picking them out of the crowd of teensy buildings. Fortunately, the graphics and the music are on opposite sides of the tracks; the game's tunes are both uptown and upbeat. The theme is both industrious and soothing, which seems to perfectly focus your mind on the task of designing the city of the future.
The game's only online feature is the ability to wirelessly send mail to other, nearby players. If you and a friend use this feature, you'll unlock special buildings you can place in your towns. However, you can't send the Sim equivalent of a Trojan Horse to pillage your friend's things and bring them back to your DS. So really, what's the point?
The point is to have fun building, as well as probably destroy an awesome city with tools and data that actually pertain to real life. No, you can't shoot any fireballs, but perhaps you will come away with some insight into why the place you inhabit in real life is either so awesome--or so lame. While the game is steeped in infrastructural issues of its own (the lone save slot is almost unforgivable), SimCity DS is still a nice place to revisit.