If you own SimCity 4, you need to own Rush Hour. Its as simple as that.
SimCity 4 came out last January, received critical acclaim, and sold briskly to say the least, so it didn’t take a brain surgeon to guess that Maxis was working on an expansion for it. Well, after a few months of waiting, that expansion is finally here. SimCity 4 Rush Hour, as the name suggests, focuses on improving the transportation options in the game, giving the player greater control over almost everything even remotely having to do with roads, subways, ferries, and even monorails. In that focus, the expansion goes off with barely a hitch. Rush Hour includes more new modes of transportation – and ways of diagnosing and improving them – than most will ever be able to scratch the surface of, let alone use strategically in city planning.
One of the first things I did while in my city, Blarney, was try out the new “U-Drive-It” missions. These essentially allow you to take direct control of a slew of different vehicles, ranging from limos and tanks to tugboats and helicopters, and speed through your city’s streets (or skies, or waters). The controls are very straightforward (it’s a lot like playing a first-person shooter or one of the older Grand Theft Auto games): W is accelerate, S is slow down, A is left, D is right, and the Space Bar is horn. Unfortunately, you cannot re-map (or re-assign) these keys, so you’re stuck with them. Luckily they work very well and are actually relatively responsive for a SimCity game. The objectives and quasi-story-based missions that propel the driving are solid; they’re definitely not going to enthrall you in any way, but they do their job. They range from the basic “Point A to Point B” stuff to putting out fires and throwing cash to pedestrians from your limo’s sunroof. Nothing terribly exciting, but again, they serve their purpose. One problem I do have with this mode is that sometimes its near-impossible to see your vehicle’s path when you’re surrounded by tall buildings. Sure, the thing goes all transparent and lucidly shaded and outlined, but that’s it. You know where your vehicle is, but you don’t know where other ones are, let alone numerous objects that could be in your way. I also wish the mini-map was larger and easier to derive more information from with quick glances.
Surprisingly, these “U-Drive-It” missions run with very little lag, which was something I was worried about for a while after hearing about them from Maxis months back. I mean, this is SimCity 4, a game already known to have some performance hiccups, especially in bigger cities….and you want to add a sixth zoom level (oh yeah, there’s a sixth zoom level, immersing you even deeper into your cities) and have me speed through a city in a bus at 40 MPH?? Yeah, you can see why I was concerned. But my trepidations have mostly been laid to rest – you’ll experience some draw-in issues once in a while, and there is still a minor “drag” that occurs while on busier roads and intersections, but that’s about it. It's certainly nothing that will irk you too much or hamper your performance in the missions. Just to give you a context: I was playing on the computer that I use for web stuff and most gaming, which is a 1.8GHz with a RADEON 9700 PRO and 512 MB of RAM; just a small cut above mid-range systems, so most players should be fine. If you can run SC4, you can obviously run Rush Hour fine.
While we’re on the subject of performance and everything, the expansion as a whole does not speed up or “fix” the game a ton in terms of how well it runs. However, there was, as far as I could tell, a mild but noticeable increase in how quickly the game draws-in all the buildings and scrolls through a city (especially the bigger ones). Maybe its just my quirky imagination, but I didn’t have to wait as much for things to load up, which is nice. Its possible that Maxis has improved the game’s performance in ways that are only possible with additions like Rush Hour, and not in patches. All the same, kudos to Maxis for not making SC4 run slower that it already does – I dunno how they kept the thing from exploding. With the things this expansion adds to the game, it could have ended up being a complete disaster. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whew.
Okay, back to the actual game. The “U-Drive-It” stuff definitely isn’t the only thing the RH brings to the city-building table. We’ve got new bridges, almost too many highway options, monorails, subways on frickin’ stilts, double-wide avenues, a radical new building style (Euro-Contemporary), actual useful ways to diagnose traffic, and a couple of new disasters to boot. The new bridges are completely aesthetic in nature, and don’t really effect traffic in any way, but you can choose from around 13 styles when you construct a bridge, as well as adjust the height. Not being able to choose what kind of bridge to build has been a festering depravity of the SC series for years, so this is truly a godsend. Another big gift are the double-wide, Time Square-esque avenues, which are a fantastic way to give a troubled portion of road a quick and relatively cheap booster. They also just look cool, and help a lot in my pursuit of re-creating New York City in virtual form. You can also build one-way roads, which, unless I’m missing something, I’ve yet to find a suitable use for. Supposedly, they can boost traveling speed in one direction, but then you just have to build another one going in the other, so it ends up getting costly and cluttered. Oh well, nobody’s making you use them.
The other notable additions to SC4’s repertoire of transportation mediums are the monorails, ground level highways, elevated rail, and passenger & car ferry systems. Monorails are the most expensive of these, but carry the greatest efficiency. If you can outfit your entire city with a fully functional monorail system, your traffic problems are basically over. Laying the rails can be difficult, though, especially for cities that are already deeply rooted in road-based transportation, which brings me to another of my peeves with RH: the layout tools. I wish oh so much that Maxis had made it easier for players to migrate their cities to the new options. Its not so much that its hard to lay everything by and large, its that the game still gives almost no reason as to why you can’t lay them. Its frustrating to see that land is “unsuitable” to network on. That’s great, but why is it unsuitable? Is there some deer somewhere that I would crush if I placed a track strut, or something? Tell me why I can’t build it, so I can fix it without having to bulldoze from here to freaking Timbuktu. Am I asking too much? A little contextual reciprocation besides a red line would be nice. Aside from this problem, the rest of the new stuff is great. Ground level highways rock my socks off, and are perfect for when you need to build an elevated track over a highway line but don’t want to move it. You can (usually) transition seamlessly from an elevated section to a ground level one, and even place roads over it with an overpass. Badass. Still, as with everything, it can be hard to lay in some nooks and crannies, but you’ll get the hang of it with some practice. The elevated rail is essentially the subway aboveground. It's very similar to the monorail, but is cheaper and can obviously link up directly to already existing subway lines using the Subway-Elevated Rail Transfer. The disadvantage is that it's slower – no big deal for the penny-pinchers. The last thing I will talk about is the ferry system. This bad-boy is the bridge’s little brother. If you don’t have the money to build a long bridge, these are your replacements. All you need to do is build one on each shoreline and you’re good to go. They come in two flavors; one that carries only passengers and a more expensive one that will carry both people and their cars. Obviously, it’s a helluva lot slower than a bridge, but what do you want from 10-ton boats?
One thing I also have to mention are the road labels and area signs. Not much to say about these except that they’re welcomed with open arms after SC3000 and the basic SC4 did not carry them. This was by far one of my favorite things in 2000, so its awesome to see them finally return in a much deeper iteration of the game. When SC4 came earlier this year and there was no “sign of signs”, I was one sullen simmer, so my thanks go out to Maxis for bringing them back. If you’re like me and enjoy making various landmarks out of areas of your cities, the signs will prove invaluable. The street labels are also great for micromanagers such as myself and help to add a little personality to each city and region in the game.
There are a few other features new in Rush Hour that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity, they’re probably not worth mentioning in an impression report. I’ve also not tried everything out in the past few days – there’s so much. I could talk about the robotic whale or Truckasauras, but those are surprises best saved for those who do buy the expansion...
In conclusion, if you’re even a small fan of SimCity 4 or the SimCity series as a whole, Rush Hour is a worthy addition to your collection. You really owe it to yourself to try this thing out. It doesn’t completely overhaul the core SC4 gameplay, but its an expansion, so it shouldn’t by nature. What it does do, however, is give you even more of a reason to spend hours upon hours playing SimCity 4. Its certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and has some issues that may irk you slightly, but it’s the best expansion I’ve seen in a while. All you’ve got to lose is some wear on the transmission. Give it a go.
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