Hands On Impressions of SimCity Societies
This is not the SimCity you know. Let's get that out of the way first. To have any chance of appreciating this game on its own merits, you need to first divorce yourself from most of the concepts of the classic SimCity game model. EA knows that this will be a huge challenge for the devotees of the franchise, but they have assured us that there is plenty of depth to explore for those who are looking for it, and plenty of easily accessible fun and fulfillment for devotees and new-comers alike.
But let's start with what EA showed us, then we'll get to what we learned on our own and finally my own personal impressions after playing the game.
The preview may be a bit lengthy, so there are chapters for you to jump right to the points that interest you.
- 1. Introduction: Welcome to SimCity Societies
- 2. How does Societies Play
- 3. Roads and Transportation Networks
- 4. Buildings Buildings Buildings
- 5. Custom Content and Moddability
- 6. Closing Comments
- 7. Personal Impressions of the Game
Introduction - Welcome to SimCity Societies [top]
We have been told that with each iteration of SimCity, the game had become increasingly complex. There was a diminishing return of the fan base with each release, and EA felt that it was not attracting enough new players. The game, as we have been told, had become dense and impenetrable to new comers. Unlike those who had the benefit of following the franchise over the years, i.e. from SimCity 2000 & 3000 to SimCity 4, new comers were finding the game too cryptic and difficult to get into, let alone enjoy.
Societies attempts to address these issues by completely changing the design of the SimCity model to make it more accessible to new players, while retaining a level of depth that devotees have come to expect.
Think of it this way: Classic SimCity was like a toy you could play with, kind of like a model train set, where you build things and kind of watch it work and move around. Societies, then, is almost like a chemistry set; you have a bunch of disparate ingredients and you mix them together to see what you get.
How does Societies Play [top]
So this is how the game now plays, as I understand it. (It's worth mentioning that the build we were using was in alpha state, and that EA's Rod Humble stressed that there was plenty of time to make changes and additions. We're definitely interested to see what can be done between now and the slated release for November.)
First, you choose your terrain to start your city. The options include Grasslands, Tundra, Tropics, Desert and others. We got the impression that these might change.
Here, I've chosen grasslands. There is no terraforming in the game, though you can import your own greyscale height maps to generate your own terrain. Gone is the Region Play concept of SimCity 4; each city is now once again a microcosm and completely self-contained.
Once in the opening landscape, things look a little familiar, aside from the menu and user interface. Your first order of business will be to lay roads, and supply power. But the familiarity ends there, and there are new approaches to old concepts. There is no zoning for Residential, Commercial or Industry. Instead, you plop buildings as you see fit. There are no power lines to connect, instead a power station will supply power to the city until it is overloaded, in which case you add another one. As with classic SimCity, there are different types of Power Stations, ranging from coal, gas and wind to more advanced power generating technologies.
There will be no "demand" for residential, commercial or industry, instead you will use the numbers in the Societal Values interface -- also known as Societal Energies. These are: Productivity, Wealth, Creativity, Spirituality, Obedience and Knowledge. You will use these Energies to decide what to build next, and thereby influencing the nature of your city's society. As you've no doubt heard before, build lots of Obedience structures, and your society becomes Authoritarian. Plop lots of Creativity generating buildings and your city starts to appear more fanciful.
The term "demand" is used loosely, because the term implies that you, the player, are obligated to satisfy these demands, but in Societies, you don't necessarily have to. In some cases it will be to your benefit to satisfy them, in other cases, you may want to ignore them altogether, again, it goes back to the kind of city you are trying to build.
Unlike in SimCity 4, where bigger, richer and smarter were always usually more desirable, Societies does not impose these judemental values on you, the player. We have been told that you are free to build a small city, or a metropolis, your Sims can be perfectly contributing members of society even if they aren't educated or even happy. There are tools for you to mold the Society that you want to create as well as devices to "cure" those moody Sims.
When selecting your buildings, there is a filter from which you can select a City Building Style: All Buildings, Contemplative, Romantic (European), Industrial, Fun City, Capitalist, Normal, Small Town, Cyberpunk and Authoritarian. These will filter out those buildings and focus on the ones that best match the style of city society you are trying to create.
The intention is to allow players to just play in one of these themes. For example, select Small Town, and only buildings appropriate to a small town will appear such as farm houses, trailer parks and general stores and you can focus solely on the Small Town set for your city. If you want a strictly Cyberpunk or Romantic feel, you can focus on those themes by using the building filter. Of course you can select Normal and normal looking buildings will be available to you and you can build what most might consider a normal looking city.
So let's get back to game play. Now that you have this swatch of land and you've laid down some major roads, plopped a power plant, you will want to encourage people to move in. Since Residential doesn't grow on its own, you will plop the type of housing you want, motivated by the type of city society you want to create. In my first lame attempt at a city, I set myself a personal goal to build a Small Backwater Town, where the Sims perhaps weren't very educated, but they sure liked their spirituality. I plopped down several trailer parks for them to live in, some row houses and a farm house along my quaint country roads.
Within the "city-proper" itself, designated by real city roads, I decided to plop some places for my Sims to work. This included a community garden, and a Spooky Barn, as well, for their spiritual needs, I plopped an Altar and a Temple, eventually a Beer Factory. For some Venues where the Sims can go to relax, I plopped a Dive Bar. As I flipped through the buildings available to me, I started plopping down what might best fit my society. A General Store, a Pawn Shop, a Realtor, and Town Hall. I started drawing out roads, and plopped more housing, this time Brownhouses and Row Houses, and when more people moved in I plopped more places to work. I then plopped some Venues for my Sims so they have something to do, such as visit the Antique Shop, the Art Gallery, the Museum, the Cafe, a Car Dealership and a Bistro.
Later, I threw in an Elementary School, and Florist. For the first little while, I didn't seem to have many problems, so I was just happily drawing streets and plopping buildings. Some buildings were locked to me, so I had to look up their requirements to unlock them (more on that later).
Things were looking fairly idyllic, Sims drove to work in cars or jalopies, there was some traffic congestion, but I just drew more roads to resolve that. After playing some time, I manage to cross a population milestone, and was rewarded with a building or a bonus. There are also City Acheivements that will offer you a permenent bonus, but there wasn't enough time to play that far.
So the essential concepts of Societies is this. Sims need somewhere to live, Sims need somewhere to work in order to be Productive, and Sims need Venues to relax in order to be happy. All of these things have risks and rewards, as you might imagine. Lowly working Sims might be content with a Dive Bar to hang out. Each building can be clicked to view its Building Card, which contains specific information for that building.
For example, the Dive Bar, described as "A dirty, unhealthy place where Sims meet up, have a drink, and shoot some pool." It generates 4 Productivity, and gives 5 Happiness. However, it also has some negative side-effects. Each time a Sim visits the establishment, there is a 3% chance that a criminal will spawn, and once spawned there is a 25% chance that it will be a burglar, a 5% chance that it will be a hooligan, a 2% chance that it will be a vigilante, a 1% chance that it will be an arsonist and a 67% chance that it will be a pick-pocket.
That means, each Sim that walks in and out of the establishment will have a 3% percentage chance of becoming one of the above "agents".
A pick-pocket will wander the streets and pilfer from your hard-working Sims.
Vigilantes will seek out criminals and fight them, but they themselves are criminals so they will fight each other. They don't always target criminals, especially if criminals can't be found; they will pick on healthy working Sims instead.
Burglars will go and burgle houses, not only that, they will target homes that actually have stuff that the owner might have picked up at a nearby retail Venue. Enhancements for homes and Accessories for Sims are prime targets for burglars.
Victimized Sims become non productive. You can address this problem, if you are able to recognize it, by placing a local police station for example. A police station will increase your Obedience Value.
So some buildings may spawn agents who will wander your city. Mimes and Preachers will stop people in the street, your Sims might be delighted or annoyed. Fighting monks will perform for your Sims' enjoyment, but the Master Monk fights crime just like a policeman.
The Men in Black will target all artists in your city and efficiently dispose of them. The Celebrity can increase the attractiveness and effectiveness of a Venue simply by visiting it.
Over time, there will be many other agents that will be at work within your city, and the player will be able to see them in action.
There will be a balancing act between the Society you want to create, versus the immediate needs of your city, and what you have to plop down to solve some problems.
Each building you plop down will have at least two values: what Societal Value it will cost, and what Societal Value it will generate. If you are playing freeform, you might not care too much about these values and you will just start to see a mish-mash city of differing Societal Values; this, I found, was the easier way to play. However, if you have a set goal in mind (make a highly spiritual uneducated Small Town) the choices become a bit more difficult, and occassionally limiting, at times.
Throughout your game, you will constantly be eyeing those Societal Values, which numbers are high, which numbers are in deficit. Challenges will emerge throughout the game. Not all buildings will be available to you when you start, you'll need to do some work to earn them.
As you play, to unlock additional buildings you will need to meet specific requirements. For example, produce an amount of Creativity, Productivity, Spirituality, etc, and new buildings become available. You could also be required to meet population limits, or have a certain amount of Simoleons in your treasury. As well, the Happiness of your workers overall may be a requirement. Some buildings may require up to three of these requirements to be met before they are unlocked.
Buildings also contain Abilities and Actions. Many have one or the other, some have both. The Courthhouse for example gives a boost in Simoleon output to nearby buildings, but it also has an action that charges up based on workers showing up at the courthouse. There is a Root Out Corruption action that modifies the output of a targeted building permanently, which we've been told is a powerful ability.
Another example is in the Authoritarian or Cyberpunk buildings, called the Behavioral Resarch Lab. For §2500 (which is a lot) you can put a mood altering device on any home in your city. This device moves the Sims' mood a little toward neutral every day, so that they are neither happy or discontented.
The game boasts over 350 buildings when the game ships, and these buildings will be categorized and divided into six City Style filters.
This is essentially the game flow; you can set your mind on the type of building you wish your city to have, and manipulate your Societal Values so that you can get the desired buildings unlocked for your city. You will need to keep Sims happy by building Venues, keep them Productive by building places for them to Work, which in turn gives you money, and of course, you need to provide them with housing. All the while, keep an eye on your power consumption, crime, pollution, and make sure your city streets are sensibly laid out so that your Sims can get to work in time.
Too much pollution can cause climate change, which may result in sick Sims, and a sick Sim is not a productive Sim. Beautifying your city can generate Happiness and Creativity. There is indeed some depth here for those who want to explore each minutiae and experiment with all the relationships between the buildings.
And of course, as your city grows your Societal Energies will swing one way or the other, you will begin to see some of your buildings evolve to match one of these themes. You may see more fanciful buildings when you have a surplus in Creativity, and you'll see more ominous buildings if your Obedience level is high.
What happens when there's a fire? You dispatch your firefighters by selecting the action on the firehouse and clicking the building you want them to put out. Distance is a factor, but they will drive there, eventually. Fire stations do not operate on a service radius, so they will try to get to any part of the city that you send them to.
Similarly, hospitals and clinics no longer operate on a service radius. A sick or injured Sim will sit in traffic or take a subway to get to a hospital even if it's on the other side of the city.
Some items do have a radius of effect, these include decorations that effect the immediate area, an example building with an area of effect is the Courthouse, which, if placed near an office building or other workplace improves productivity.
Roads and Transportation Networks [top]
Roads and Networks: SimCity purists may wince. Roads, as far as our build was concerned, consisted of two types: dirt roads and city roads. As you can imagine, dirt roads haven't much capacity, are single lanes, and fairly ugly. City roads look a bit better, have higher capacity and overall more efficient, but that seems to be all your options for roads as it currently stands. There will be no Streets, Avenues, One Way Streets, Boulevards, Ground Level Highways, Raised Highways, T-Junctions or Cloverleafs.
Transportation options: There will be trains and bus stops, but no elevated trains, or ferries. Certainly, we got the impression that transportation networks in Societies is largely de-emphasized. We did manage to see a bridge, but we're pretty sure there won't be 47 types of bridges like in Rush Hour, these bridges, as we experienced, evolve visually as your Society changes.
Power lines: There are no power lines to connect. When you're in a power shortage, simply plop another power station.
Water: There will be no water pipes to lay. This, for some, will be a good thing!
Traffic: There is what appears to be a rudimentary traffic model. This appears to address mainly path-finding and congestion. Put your Sims' homes in one area and their Work in another and connect the two areas with a dirt road and you will certainly see a traffic jam. This, as I found, was easily remedied by drawing more city road connections. There are no further complex transport systems to consider.
Grids: Some observations regarding roads. They can be placed straight or at right angles, so expect very grid-like cities to optimize your traffic flow. There are no diagonal roads, and certainly nothing that could be considered rounded in anyway. We did bring this up to EA producers, and they were sympathetic to our wishes, it will remain to be seen if - at the very least - diagonal roads will make it in to the game. It seems like a logical inclusion because each building can be rotated at 45 degree angles prior to placement. I didn't find much use for the non 90 degree rotations since all my roads were laid in 90 degree grids.
Buildings Buildings Buildings! [top]
Graphically, the game has come a long way from the initial screens that were released some months ago, we're talking about the candy cane lanes and Ferris wheel that have been burned into your memories. Looking at the screenshots, at some angles, the cities do look almost beautiful, if not entirely realistic.
There was plenty of building repetition, which has always been the bane of SimCity. Here's a random shot from SimCity 3000.
In this build, Societies seems to suffer from the same building repetition syndrome. It feels like the game mechanics force you to plop multiple buildings just to be able to get the required Societal Energies in order to meet some challenge or other to unlock things. It seems that you sometimes don't have a choice but to building-spam to get the Societal Energy points you need to progress. EA has told us that multiple buildings of the same type will give diminishing returns on their values when plopped, but we weren't able to see any kind of feedback in the game to this effect.
It seems, at least at this stage of the game, that building repetition will be unavoidable, even necessary for a successful city. There is hope that once the game is released and the community starts modding and creating their own buildings, that this won't be as much of an issue.
Custom Content and Moddability [top]
EA has confirmed that Societies' assets will be an open format. Building specs will be stored in XML and readily accessible and editable, so players can easily alter the fundamental properties of each building. A version of the Building Architect Tool is in consideration, but will not likely ship with the game. There are no details yet on what that tool will be or look like, if it will be something like GMax or a proprietary software that EA will release to players.
All in all, support for custom content out of the gate and the ability to change many aspects of the game assets sounds encouraging. We'll have to wait to learn more.
Closing Comments [<a href="#top">top]
Much credit goes to EA for trying something new, especially for a company that has been accused (even by this community) to generate derivative titles year after year, it is refreshing to see a developer try a new take on an old franchise.
I hope that EA understand that we devotees hold SimCity very close to our hearts, and I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that we all want a great SimCity game. I'm encouraged that there is still time to add and change and revise, so I'm looking forward to trying something a bit more final, if not the final game itself once it hits store shelves.
There is most certainly a fun game here in SimCity Societies, though it may not be for all tastes. My personal impressions, follow.