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SimCity is now the prefab house of the simulation genre. From the outside, everything looks fine: A streamlined interface; there’s a beautiful box-of-toys graphical style; Oh! — and nice trim on the windows.

Over time, you start to notice shortcomings. The economic math doesn’t add up; regional transactions simply don’t work; the floor space is impossibly small.

Oh, and this whole “buying” thing? Think of your $60 purchase as more of a long-term lease.

Maxis, the developer of this 24-year-old franchise, and publisher EA decided to rebuild almost everything you know about “SimCity,” for better and worse. There’s a graphical overhaul, an objective overhaul and a user interface overhaul. Most important of all, there’s a thematic overhaul. Like everything that comes out of a management focus group these days, SimCity is now focused on ‘social.’

For a game that has been the epitome of single player simulation for so long, that’s a big move. It means a city’s industrial goods can be traded to the “global market.” Sims (citizens) travel to nearby cities — ones not necessarily operated by you — for work and pleasure. Cities within a certain region don’t just share workers and goods, they also trade resources. This extends to money, electricity, and water -- even public services like trash collection, policing and hospital care.

On paper, it sounds like a marvelous new neighborhood. Groups of people laboring to create virtual groups of people. In practice, it’s a dump. Trade -- the main economic engine in the new SimCity, happens no matter how connected your city is to any region. Workers appear and commute no matter what kind of social net exists in your region.

While some “social” options become available when your neighbors move in, they’re actually independent of anything your neighbors do. For instance, you can buy water from a nearby city, but you cannot buy it based on your city’s demand. If they have 30 gallons of water available, and you need all 30 gallons, you’ll “buy” whatever small percentage the game wants you to buy -- water shortages be damned.

That’s not to say these aren’t great ideas, and that they can’t one day work. Indeed, for the first 10 days after the game’s release, SimCity did not work. The game’s servers -- unprepared for people to actually play the game, were overwhelmed by the millions of gamers who bought into these ideas. The game got better over time (plus, EA gave away a free title to anyone who purchased the game in the first 20 days), and there’s nothing stopping Maxis from patching other items as well. If they did, the game would improve markedly.

And yet it’s not all bad in prefab land as it stands. The aforementioned graphical style is amazing to see in action. SimCity allows you to zoom close and follow citizens as they make their way home from work, go shopping or head to a park. Each of the objects in your city, from the people on the streets, to buses, trains, or skyscrapers, look like a small toy model. Zoomed in, it’s as if you’re transported to a world of tiny Matchbox cars and Playmobile ambulances.

The game includes tools to quickly create videos and take screenshots -- probably in the hope that players could share them on social media. There are even some neat graphical filters included that make your city look like a live-action instragram.

Getting gamers in to play SimCity has never been easier. It’s instantly accessible to any age group or gamer level. Things like infrastructure have been totally revamped. Instead of building water pipes, roads, power lines, highways and subways, all you need worry about is roads and a few bus/rail car stops. Drawing them is simplified with simple curve or straight line tool. Bridges or over-water expansions are automatically formed. And roads require no extra maintenance, just to be upgraded to higher capacity. The same simplicity applies to zoning. Public buildings such as schools and police stations are easily upgraded by plopping modules nearby.

All of this makes the basic functions of creating and running your city very easy. The problem remains, however, with the stuff that makes a veteran gamer uneasy.

For starters, you do not own your city. Cities are not saved on the user’s hard drive. Everything must be stored on the “cloud” (add another point to the buzzword tally). It’s generally thought that this was added to deter piracy (it has not), which is an understandable reason why EA would push this system. The end result is, however, a huge degree of uncertainty for the user. How much time are you willing to invest in something you have no guarantees will exist in five years’ time? EA is notorious for shutting down game servers on its sports titles when new games come out, so what happens to your Simcities when the next game comes out? Or the one after that?

There’s a whole host of things that made me uneasy on the gameplay side, too. Interactions between cities, within cities and population behavior is all very erratic. One month a medium-wealth casino is filled with tourists from surrounding cities, the next month it’s empty. One month a landfill is clogged to the gills; the next month it’s running at 20 percent capacity. For those who take an industrial tract, mining out your small city area is a disaster. But strangely enough, collecting recycled goods can actually exceed the amount of material you can pull out of the ground -- even for cities with extremely small populations. Where are all these goods coming from? The game just seems to make them up.

In one city, I was able to run an entire economy on nothing but residential zones. Wealthy mansions were built, also skyscrapers. Few complained about the lack of jobs, and the city magically grew as the workers “commuted” to the empty lots around my city to work -- I suppose unemployment is low in the ether.

With all its simplification, both on the content side and user interface side, SimCity is perhaps best compared to another game that went through the same process recently: “Civilization 5.” Both games revamped complicated datasets and game goals to give users a clearer view of how to play. But where “Civ 5” let its computer-controlled opponents cheat to be a better match, SimCity just makes stuff up. These prefab walls aren’t just paper thin, they’re oozing with formaldehyde.

Bottom line: With tweaks, SimCity could be a great place to live. Until then, avoid it like FEMA.

Platform: PC Online: Simcity.comlaney.sam@stripes.com


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