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SimCity 4 review for PC
 
Simcity 4 Computer game cover
Gamermall.com rating:
8.4
Minimum Requirements:
Windows 98/2000/ME
PIII 500MHz
128MB RAM
16MB video card
8X CD-ROM drive
1GB hard drive space

Features: Online

SimCity holds a special place in my heart. After short stints in the Computer Science, Physics, Psychology, Communications and Math departments, I was finally forced by "The Man" to select a permanent major in my fifth year of college -- also known as the sophsenjunmore year.

Being your average slacker, I learned early on to never schedule a class before 11am. I was too busy staying up late playing Civilization, Master of Magic and SimCity 2000 to bother with anything earlier. It just so happens that I was going through a big SimCity 2000 phase when I was locked into making this heavy life decision. A note to all of you students out there, whatever you pick in college is what you're forced to do for the rest of your life, so choose wisely because you're stuck with it; there is no getting out, even for those of you who thought Human Sexuality would be a great way to meet girls.

So there I was, thumbing through the class booklet, when I came across a major that sounded kind of interesting: Geography. Urban Planning to be specific...none of that state capitals crap for me. And what's this? No classes before 11am and I can work my schedule so I only have to take Tuesday and Thursday classes?!? This is the dream major!

It was set. The next day I signed up to be a future urban planner, following in the steps of such world-renowned names as Bob Smith, Bobby Smith and Robert Smith (no, not the lead singer of The Cure), all because I had an extreme fascination with a videogame and I liked to sleep in.

I learned about all manner of things, from journey-to-work models to NIMBY to concentric ring theory. I even pursued a Geography Masters at the University of Georgia after that, and planned on writing my thesis on how SimCity 3000 portrayed real-life Urban Planning issues and theories. You see, in the early days of development, Maxis was looking to get down to the individual level with SimCity 3000, so you could actually roam the streets and poll your individual citizenry to see what they liked and didn't like about urban life. This is the stuff Urban Planning thesis papers are made of. It was a colossal project, and unfortunately, SimCity 3000 was delayed for years because of it, and it never really emerged as the robust and personal-level city simulation the development team had originally set out to build.

I know what you're thinking. "That's all fine and good, Tal. Thanks for the boring life story. So what in the hell does all of this have to do with SimCity 4?" Well, while that grand vision that Will Wright and the boys had for SimCity 3000 never saw the light of day, it has been rekindled in a sense with SimCity 4. Of all the games in the SimCity franchise, this one comes the closest to modeling real city morphology dynamics, and is a true evolutionary step to the series as it adds entirely new elements and simulates urban planning on a grand scale never before seen in a SimCity title.

Breaking away from the single-city model, SimCity 4 focuses on planning at the regional level. Each of the regions in the game -- which include Berlin, the San Francisco Bay area, New York, London and a few others -- are comprised of a few dozen squares where you can build the metropolis of your dreams. If you build in a square adjacent to an existing city, you can strike up trade deals with your neighbor where you can import and/or export power, trash and water. While you could generate similar deals in SimCity 3000, now you can actually go to the neighboring city and control them hands-on, so you may build an agrarian-based smaller city with a large landfill so you can ship all of that dirty trash out of your city to the country and let the farmers deal with it. This regional planning really adds a lot more depth to the series than in previous games, and lets you switch from town to town customizing each so you don't get as bored only working on a single city for 40 hours at a stretch.

Customizing a region is relatively easy with the included toolset. All you do is load up an area in God mode and you can paint on geographical features like mountains, craters, mesas and canyons. You can even add an assortment of animals to your landscape to give it a little wild feeling to the land if you like. There's also an erosion tool that will smooth out your entire region so those stiff-peaked mountains can be rounded off a bit. All in all the toolset is very powerful and easy to use. One drawback though is that there are no random regions, so you either have to use the included regions or customize your entire map, which can be a chore if you want an interesting landscape but aren't willing to put the time into making your own.

However, don't let the sound of regional planning scare you. Anyone familiar with the previous SimCity games will be right at home. While the menus are very reminiscent of The Sims, the gameplay is very much SimCity. You are the mayor, and it's your job to turn an empty plot of land into a thriving metropolis. Acting as a the city planner, you have to zone residential, commercial and industrial areas, decide where to place police stations, schools, fire stations, and hospitals, supply water and power to the populace, and enact city ordinances to educate your residents about recycling, CPR and power conservation. All of this while balancing the budget and making sure you don't piss too many people off so they will move to your city and increase the local population.

To make zoning easier, Maxis added a road tool to the game that automatically places roads in the optimal places to maximize land use. The automatic road tool is a good idea in theory, but it doesn't work perfectly in practice. If you're a micro-managing freak and want your cities to look pretty like me, you still pretty much have to lay the roads where you want them if you want any control over layout, which you most certainly will. While the automatic road tool works well for individual zones, it's best to lay the roadwork yourself when connecting zones to one another as you're often left with unattached and orphaned road segments if you let the Computer do the driving.

All of the advisors from SimCity 3000 are back to help you out with the tall task of managing your city, and they'll give you feedback on what you're doing right, as well as what you're doing wrong. As you can imagine, there's a lot of information coming at you at all times. The game interface takes up a lot of the viewable screen space, so playing in any resolution less than 1024x768 is going to detract from your gameplay experience because you just can't see everything you need to at once. But with that said, with the sheer amount of graphs, charts, news and feedback, the interface works very well if you're playing in higher resolutions, and is actually quite elegant in its simplicity.

There's also a new kind of city feedback in this iteration: your Sims. If you play The Sims, you can import your Sims into SimCity 4 and move them into your town. They're kind of like your advisors, but instead of focusing on large municipal issues, they tell you about their personal lives, like where they work, how long they have to drive to work in the morning, and how safe their neighborhood is. However, the integration with The Sims isn't as easy or as in-depth as it could be. I couldn't even export half of my Sims, and while the personal feedback is something new, your Sims don't really add much to gameplay. You really don't have much direct interaction with them, and I was a little disappointed that they didn't even have the same traits as in your Sims game. For example, I moved a family I had in The Sims into my town. The father was 32 and the mother was 30, with the male and female children 28 and 26 respectively. While I didn't mind little Timmy telling me how much he loathed working at the factory, I wish my Sims had retained their traits from the game when I imported them. In addition, it seems there's no adolescent feedback in the game at all (which is why Timmy and Timmitha were in their late twenties), which would be a great indication of how well your schools are doing.

The development team at Maxis didn't fully realize the goal of getting to the personal level in SimCity 4, but it's a lot closer than ever before, and moving down more to the individual level is probably a feature that Maxis will address in SimCity 5 and beyond.

When I was "studying" urban planning, I had a dream to build big parks around small cities. I now realize that I was an idiot. It just doesn't work. All them parks cost money. You've got bush pruners, squirrel exterminators, public restroom attendants -- the works. This becomes readily apparent in SimCity 4. Now every municipal upgrade requires a monthly upkeep cost, so you can't just build huge parks without draining the city coffers. Because of this the game does seem a lot more challenging than previous versions, and your strategies from SimCity 3000 might not work, but it's a much more accurate representation of city planning and maintenance. Rome wasn't built in a day. It's usually better to start with a small farming community and move your way up to a thriving metropolis over time, being careful not to wring your budget dry before you can balance it out and start making money.

In addition to the road tool and importing your Sims, SimCity 4 adds a slew of new buildings and landmarks into the mix. There are dozens of new parks and recreational facilities, such as basketball courts, softball fields and even skateparks, which you can use to beautify your city and encourage people to move to certain neighborhoods. Landmarks like the John Hancock building and Big Ben are available, and help to encourage commercial development by enticing more tourists to your town, but some do have negative drawbacks. For example, one of my Sims moved in next to Big Ben and kept complaining that the ringing was keeping him up at night, so I eventually sent him packing by demolished his building and putting commercial space next to the towering clock. Unlike SimCity 3000 Unlimited, you can't select different building styles, like the Japanese or European building sets, but the buildings are varied enough and have enough detail and character so you don't really notice.

Speaking of the details, SimCity 4 is a major graphical upgrade over its predecessor. While it's still not technically "fully 3D," there's so much detail in this game that it doesn't really matter. This is the finest example of a living, breathing city as I've ever seen in a game. There's a day/night cycle, complete with lighting effects for all the buildings. Clouds move over the landscape. Planes leave jet trails. Pollution hangs in the air over industrial areas. If you zoom in close, you'll notice that the traffic is heavier during the morning and evening commutes. Stoplights actually go from red to yellow to green, and the traffic only goes on green. Basketball courts are lit at night, and there are quite a few midnight basketball games going on. Sanitation trucks leave the landfill and go on rounds to pick up trash. Power lines come complete with orange balls when you string them over water to alert tall ships. I even saw a scuffle break out on the corner of one of my zones, as the neighbors tossed each other down the street in a cloud of dust. The level of detail is absolutely amazing.

Of course all this detail comes at a price. While the minimum requirements are a PIII 500 MHz system, I couldn't imagine playing SimCity 4 on such a weak machine. On high detail the game chugs on my 1.8MHz rig with 512MB RAM and a GeForce 4, especially when I zoom in or scroll the screen. Smaller cities don't affect performance as much, and toning the details down helps, but you really owe it to yourself to see this game at high detail. Hey, it might even be the game that warrants a system upgrade.

Remember the infectious grooves from SimCity 3000? The tradition is upheld in SimCity 4, and the music is pure quality. The soundtrack in the game is wide and varied, with some tracks pumping and upbeat and others slow and laid-back. All of the music is very ambient and lays in the background just as it should, never overpowering the experience, which is a good thing since you'll find yourself playing this game for hours at a time. If you get sick of the provided tunes, you can also import your own .mp3s and rock out to Rage Against the Machine or Bob Denver while you construct your metropolis.

There are sound effects for most of the buildings in the game. If you click on a fire station you'll hear the squeal of a siren, schoolhouses feature the tardy bell that haunted me during my youth and residential buildings are even accompanied by the rumbling of the residents within. Gone are the voices that would announce helpful (and often humorous) events in SimCity 3000, but I admit that they did get a little annoying after a while, so I'm not too sad that they were left behind.

One thing I do miss from the other SimCity games are the included scenarios. While SimCity 4 offers a bunch of pre-made cities for you to mess around with, there are no goal-oriented missions like saving a town from utter fire destruction (or udder destruction in the case of Ms. O'Leary's cow). Also gone are the Arcos that allowed you to build incredible population sizes relatively quickly. SimCity 4 is a slower-paced game than any of its predecessors, so expect to spend some time with this one.

That's a good thing, though. With the regional planning, you could literally play this game for months or even years and never be at a loss for something new to do. I've played about 60 hours over the past four days, and I'm still looking forward to going home and playing again tonight. You'll definitely get your money's worth out of it.

Even after you've built your town up to a colossal conurbation, there's still fun to be had. What do you do once you have Mexico City on your hard drive? Destroy it, of course! All of the city destruction takes place before you in the grand glory of a Hollywood blockbuster. You can open deep volcanoes in the middle of downtown. Don't like that bully at school? Call in a meteor strike. And as a tribute to the UFO attack of old, you can even invoke giant robots to march through your city and blast your buildings with sonic rays.

Further increasing the longevity of SimCity 4 is the ability to play online. Unfortunately, the online components weren't ready at release, but in the manual Maxis promises that you can "participate in Region Play where each city is run by a different political machine." You can upload your city to the SimCityscape.com website and share them with others so they can see how you've mastered (or failed miserably) urban planning. Sounds interesting, but we'll have to wait until it comes online to try it out. Like The Sims, I also imagine we'll be seeing a lot of downloadable content for SimCity 4, from new landmarks to completely new building sets. There's already a traffic disc that you can get at some software retailers that includes things like military vehicles and paddleboats, so I imagine it's only a matter of time before you can expand your cities with new downloadable toys.

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