PAX Prime 2012: SimCity preview

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Simulation fans have been pining for a new SimCity since the release of SimCity 4 in 2003. Sure, there’s been games between then and now, like SimCity Societies and SimCity Social, but they just aren’t the same. They aren’t what PC gamers want from the series, and it looks like Maxis and EA have finally acknowledged that with a new title in the series simply titled SimCity.

It looks good, too. Not another middling offering meant to make what money it can between major releases, but a proper SimCity that doesn’t mind being cutesy and somewhat cartoonish in exchange for quality gameplay. While SimCity has never been overtly serious in tone, this new direction highlights exactly what proper SimCity has always been about: having fun.

As I stepped up to the demo station at PAX 2012 to get some time with the game, I noticed just how massive the machine was that I’d be playing on. It towered over me as I played, glowing green and showcasing the Nvidia technology that SimCity ostensibly "runs best" on. However, as I moved around the simple starter town that the game provides, I realized that it doesn’t really matter what machine you run the game on; the art style allows it to look beautiful on any machine, as the highly stylized nature of the visuals make the game seem totally scalable across a variety of machines.

The demo started with a short tutorial that introduced me to the basic elements of gameplay I would need to know before starting. Thankfully, it didn’t teach them through long text prompts and boring arrow pointers; it taught them by showing. I got an alert that said that local business owners needed more space to work and that they needed me to zone out more space in the city for commercial use. If it wasn’t for this demonstration, I would have had trouble later down the line when trying to build businesses on residential or industrial property without the proper zoning requirements.

I continued to play through the demo tutorial, learning all about fires and the need for more firehouses, crime, and utility distribution. Taking control of the utility system was probably my favorite part of the entire demo, as it took the familiar need of spreading power throughout the city and turned it into visual data that you could see as it moved throughout the city.

For example at one point the power plant became overloaded and shut down, leaving my city visually dark. I built a new planet and once it was up and running, I saw the power fill the lines under the street and work its way out to each of the areas of the town. It was extremely satisfying to hear the audible flips of circuit breakers and power being restored to houses and businesses alike.

The same happened when I built a new garbage processing center and (my favorite part) a new sewer outlet to stop the visually clogged pipes underneath the city streets. These small visual elements do much to add to the overall experience of the game and really drive home the fact that you are in charge of an always-moving city more than ever before.

The demo tutorial is exceptionally smart in that it teaches you in a way that you wouldn’t normally expect, and that does wonders for speeding a tutorial along, as well as modernizing (while not drastically changing) the classic gameplay that made SimCity so popular when it first released.

While we won't know for sure until we get our hands on the final game, it seems like SimCity is back and with more PC power behind it than ever before. There's lots more for us to see, too; we still haven’t had a chance to play with big cities working together for the classic SimCity experience and haven’t seen anything of the all-new multiplayer mode. With that in mind, we can’t wait to see more as we get closer to SimCity’s February 2013 launch.

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