We were slotted a few hours in the afternoon to sit down and play with Rush Hour, and we were awed by the appearance of Will Wright himself during this time. Naturally, Will just wanted to watch us play the game, and we just wanted to sit and talk with Will, which we did and it was great to listen to him speak. Eventually, we did sit down and play around with Rush Hour, with the Maxis team looking over our shoulders and telling us to "check this out, do this, click on that!" It was a terrific afternoon!
Here is what we learned during the day at Maxis and our impressions of Rush Hour. Most of it you likely already know, but maybe some specific points will be new info to you. At the very least, we hope that it will reinforce what we believe to be a great expansion pack, which simply could not disappoint.
Rush Hour starts out with a set of improved tutorials to get new players into SimCity 4 and experienced players exposed to what's new with Rush Hour. The tutorials are very well done in Rush Hour, and if you feel the need, there will be a meaty 100 page manual (not the 45 page pamphlet we got with SimCity 4). The tutorials will walk you through everything that is new in Rush Hour, and is a recommended crash course, so to speak.
U-Gotta Try It
Speaking of crashing, the biggest pleasant surprise for both Rybolton and me would have to be U-Drive It. I think the majority of the community was skeptical when we first heard about U-Drive It. Sure, so you can take a car and drive it around, big deal? No, but it's brilliantly done, and more fun than you think. Throw in some missions, and 35 different vehicles to drive and learn to master (from speeding boats to tanks to UFOs), let us have the wheel and the skepticism pretty much evaporated.
U-Drive It is fun, and U couldn't pull us away from it.
You start off with three training missions, that let you command air, sea and land vehicles. You will only ever be required to do these training missions once to get yourself familiarized with the handling of the different types of vehicles (i.e. you will not be required to redo these training missions at the start of each new city). Once you've completed these training missions, you will see real mission options appear as little icons around your city as your city grows and progresses.
The U-Drive-It missions are tied to different ploppable buildings. For instance, to drive a passenger train mission you will need at least three Passenger Train Stations connected by rail. Other missions are tied to rewards or business deals. The UFO does not become available to drive until you have Area 5.1, much like the Tank isn't available until you have the Army Base. You can also just casually take one of your Sims out for a spin around the city in a vehicle of your choice (and that they can afford).
There are over 80(!) different U-Drive It missions, most of which can be directly attributed to Thomas Vu (or The Insidious Dr. Vu, as he is affectionately known by the Rush Hour team). Each mission will be presented to you with a window describing your objective, an "Accept" or "Cancel" option as well as a "What's my alternative?" option which will switch the morality of the mission a little, depending if you are a good or naughty mayor. Some of these missions are pretty funny; chalk it up to typical Maxis humour and charm.
Courtesy of SimsZone.de
In one mission I was driving a recently liberated (from its rightful owner) vehicle that I had to get out of town before being stopped by the police. The actual mission set-up did not refer to the car as "stolen" due to some party poopers at the ESRB. It is actually funnier to read through all of the gibberish Maxis had to come up with to keep the mission included in the final game and avoid using the term "stolen car".
Another mission had me going after The Evil Doctor Vu's headquarters by dropping bombs from a jet! It is oddly disconcerting how the Evil Doctor Vu in the game resembles Thomas in real life. One of the most difficult missions I found was to skywrite a symbol of a heart over the city using the biplane.
While the so called "good" missions can result in other benefits, they always raise the mayor rating in the location where the goal is completed even if it's in the middle of a body of water. The "evil" missions can net you some big cash, but I found that rebuilding after blowing up the power plant to be rather... expensive. Evil missions come with a negative mayor rating too, naturally.
A successful mission will garner you some kind of reward, while failed missions have no real adverse impact on your city, even if you crash your car into pieces. Rewards can still be attained without using U-Drive It missions; in fact, you can turn off the U-Drive It mission indicators in the options so you need never see them.
Courtesy of SimsZone.de
U-Drive It itself is pretty easy to get the hang of, and can take a while to master (for example, the tank requires a lot of skill to manipulate effectively). If you are using a street vehicle, a nice little feature lets you "snap" to the road. Toggle the road snap off to do some off-roading! When driving behind tall buildings, your vehicle will appear in a green outline, so it's difficult to actually ever lose yourself.
Maxis tells us there are 35 different vehicles you can control, with special handling characteristics, different limitations and so on, that will take a bit of time and practice to master. Although we didn't get a chance to try all 35 vehicles, the news helicopter was my favourite. Flying vehicles, we discovered, cannot crash into buildings, they merely bump off harmlessly. Also, once you take off, there is no landing or touching ground again.
We asked where the idea of U-Drive It came from, and it seemed to start with the idea of allowing users to control the railway switches, and let you have the kind of control you would get with a model train set kit. The idea spiraled out from there.
Route Query Tool
Likely to be the most welcomed new tool in Rush Hour, the Route Query Tool will be a favourite for frustrated transit planners. The Route Query tool helps you see exactly how your transit systems are being used, you will be able to see the type of transportation for day and night commutes.
Click on any road tile to see the different transportation types that pass through it. Click on a building to see the routes used to and from that structure. Click on a house to see how Sims living there get to and from work. Click on a business to see how employees commute to and from work. Click on a bus stop to see exactly who is using it. You can also see what routes your freight use to get to your export points.
The Route Query Tool will help you identify exactly where to put your network transitions and bus stops. That means no more having to "spam" your bus stops at every corner just for good measure. You should have no more "blackhole of a bus stop stymies system" use the query tool to see how your Sims are getting to work, and place your bus stops appropriately
We know that there are new transportation options with Rush Hour: Avenues which have higher capacity and higher speed limit, but take up twice as much space as roads or streets; One Way Roads which have twice the capacity of a road, but can only go in one direction and increase the efficiency of intersections; ground level highways which are cheaper than raised highways; and elevated rails which are really an above ground extension of your subways. Intersections include ground and elevated highway cloverleaves, ground and elevated highway T-junctions, ground and elevated highway overpass onramps, ground and elevated side onramps.
Courtesy of SimsZone.de
Courtesy of SimsZone.de
Courtesy of SimsZone.de
You now have the ability to plop down your big highway intersections like cloverleaves and T-junctions first, and then draw additional road from the placed intersection. When placing highway intersections, as well as rotating with the END / HOME keys, the TAB key will also give you different connection options for that intersection.
Drawing a road over a ground level highway will automatically create an overpass (we assume the same for rails). Elevated trains can be connected directly to subways (bottom left of the screenshot). Raised highways can join to ground level, then transition into an avenue which can then become a road, which can then become one-way.
We have been warned that unwary mayors can paint themselves into a corner with one-way roads. For example, you can create a route for a Sim to get to work, but if you aren't mindful of your one way roads, they will have no way to return home. As a result, you will get a No Job Zot.
We aren't sure just how helpful your advisor will be in helping you identify these situations. However, we've been told that your transportation advisor's messages have been edited and improved to be more helpful over all.
You can re-paint roads and make them one way but they can only be connected at intersections, in other words, one-ways can't suddenly stop in the middle of a road. The direction in which you "paint" the one way road is the driving direction that will be set. Theoretically, you should be able to get a fairly decent functional round-about with the one way road tool, and drawing roads connecting off it.
We also have 47 bridge types to choose from. A single type of bridge can support different types of transportation, but some bridges are limited to a certain transportation type. While different types of transport can share the same bridge type, they cannot be combined on a single bridge. A bridge selector will pop-up when you draw over a body of water, and it will also allow you to adjust the height of the bridge and has an indicator to show whether or not a ferry can pass beneath.
Visually, all the new bridges look stunning, even if the approach to the bridges themselves are still a little steep: something that we've been told can't be helped. Bridges, however, can not be used to connect cities.
Trains, trams and trolleys did not make the cut. They would be considered a complete network type of their own and there just was not enough time. Sunken highways would have also been a great addition to round out the new network options, but again, just didn't make the cut this time around. Real round-abouts were pushed for, and they would have loved to have it in, but not this time.
Toll booths will give you a way to generate some small income, but they have the effect of slowing down traffic and reducing mayor ratings. Toll booths have a fixed rate, and we will not be able to adjust how much it costs to use them. Maxis is eager to see what potential the community will discover for toll booths.
Use public parking garages next to your mass transit to encourage Sims to "Park and Ride" to work. Public parking garages will also help reduce traffic and pollution in your city.
The pathfinding has been entirely rewritten and how Sims find jobs has been tweaked. Maxis couldn't have fixed it without the research and experimentation done by the community, and reporting the symptoms so that the problem code could be tracked down.
Supposedly, the traffic simulator is by far the most CPU intensive; the smarter we want the simulator, the more demand it has on processing. Maxis has tried to find happy-medium values for the heuristic attractor to keep the load on CPU and game speed reasonable. Modders can still change these values themselves, but do so at the expense of processing.
Region traffic view
There are new reward buildings in Rush Hour and they will be more useful, for example larger elementary schools and bigger pumping stations. We will also see a return of the marina with boats that you can drive, and we will see cruise ship ports as well. We will also have new vehicles to dispatch, such as the police helicopter.
In addition to the new reward buildings, there are a few new ploppable buildings. The Grand Railroad Station has a much higher passenger capacity than the Passenger Train Station, and it helps to increase desirability for commercial office space. Sims no longer have to rely on their lazy mayor to put a bus stop right next to their home. The Public Parking Garage can be placed near mass transit stations so that your Sims can drive to their favourite mode of public transport.
One new business deal makes exploring "Area 5.1" a reality. Area 5.1 is a fictional location based loosely on the never admitted to exist Area 51. Having Area 5.1 in your city will give you $380 Simoleans per month, but UFO sightings will skyrocket. No news on any negative effect, but I expect that abductions will occur.
Two types of ferry have been added to SimCity 4. The Passenger Ferry will only carry walk-ons and the Car & Passenger Ferry can carry both walk-ons and drive-ons. There are separate terminals for both and the two types of ferry will only use their own type of terminal. Ferry terminals require a road connection for Sims to drive to and from (use public parking garages to further encourage use of ferry systems). You will need to build two of the same type of ferry terminal on each side of the body of water. Build ferry terminals in two different cities that share a body of water to allow your Sims to commute to another city.
Rush Hour will not include new landmarks - they will be rolled out on SimCity.com. We asked if Maxis had considered some logical landmarks to also provide jobs, however, the idea was scratched because of awkward balance issues.
User Interface, My Sims and Gameplay Changes
Also seeing a return, as we all know, are signs and labels. The neat thing about labels is that they are colour-coded according to what you are labeling, you can drag them around and they will align to your street's orientation, or toss them up on a hill. You can also orient them using END / HOME keys. Highways cannot be named, however, but you can use a sign and tack a name on it that way. There is also a dedicated Bulldozer icon for removing signs only; so you don't accidentally demolish any buildings - nice touch!
When asked why such logical and much-loved features (such as Make Historic) were omitted from the core release of SimCity 4, we were met with some dumb-founded expressions by the producers: "Oops." The good news is that signs, labels and Make Historic has returned in Rush Hour.
My Sims has been improved to be more useful, and while I didn't play long enough with My Sims, what I did see did seem much more improved this time around, with the promise of some actual usefulness. Your Sims' thought balloons will give you quick, at-a-glance information about that area of your city where they happen to be at the time: a green icon means that they are content, and a red icon means they are not. We can also query any Sim walking along with the microphone query tool and they'll give you immediate feedback of their current area.
We have more options with our Sims by choosing not only where they live and work but what they drive (based on their wealth level). The screenshot below shows a Sim using a pogo stick to get to work. You can change where they work and live, but they will also move on their own if there is redevelopment.
As mentioned, the transportation advisor has been largely overhauled to provide more useful feedback, as well; the other advisors have been tweaked with more useful messages. A Master Budget Query will allow you to adjust funding for each structure (i.e. health and education) independently. You can adjust funding city-wide, or click for more details to see the names of the school or hospital and adjust funding locally. Clicking on the name of the building will jump the map to that location. This more detailed budget query window will eliminate the need for hunting around the map manually for all your elementary schools just to adjust local funding, for example.
There is also a new data view for Traffic Volume. Traffic volume data will tell you what routes are being used the most and the congestion map will show you where there is high capacity. The data view also shows "crawling ants", which are tiny moving dots to represent the movement of traffic as well. The Traffic Volume data can also break it down by trip type; see where cars, buses or freights are being used.
Unlike the core release, the simulator will now visually run at the speed you are playing at, so in cheetah mode you will see cars zipping through the streets compared to turtle mode, and when paused, everything is actually... paused!
We asked about the possibility of an Undo button, for the clumsy mayor, but the answer, in short was a "no". The inherent problem of an Undo button is the fact that the simulator is always running, always updating, always calculating. So if you plop a fire station, say, then hit undo, the effects of the fire station has already been calculated into the simulator, even though it technically does not exist. While we were not told that an Undo option was impossible, we were told that it would require a lot of work and changes to the simulator and how the game plays.
With the Building Style Selector, we have a new tile set, you can set the amount of years to cycle through the sets (Chicago 1890, New York 1940, Houston 1990 and Euro-Contemporary), specify a time (say every 10 years), or let all develop simultaneously (there does not seem to be an indication as to which tile set is currently active if you set it to cycle).
A touch of European Contemporary.
Rush Hour brings the difficulty settings back to SimCity by adding Easy and Medium to the Hard that we've all been playing at with the core release. At lower difficulty, players can expect more initial funds, more help from your advisors who are less stringent on certain things, more tax revenue and higher RCI demand. Your existing cities will be listed as Hard, and cannot be changed to the lower difficulty settings.
Disasters, BAT and Other Neat Stuff
Two new disasters which we've heard about are the UFO and the Autosaurus Wrecks. The Autosaurus is a collection of cars transformed into a giant metal beast that causes havoc. It's actually quite amusing to watch. The UFO will summon a mother ship with smaller UFOs flying around zapping things - you can actually take control of one of these baby UFOs.
What we know of the Building Architect Tool is that it will almost likely be founded on GMAX, a lite and free version of 3d Studio Max. We have seen one building, modeled and textured in GMAX exported into the game, and it looks pretty decent, if a little rough around the edges.
Some of the major issues they have to deal with is trying to decide how easy and accessible to make the BAT for the vast majority of users. It will, inevitably, boil down to using a 3d application, and the type of users who are adept at or willing to learn this new realm will likely be a smaller group.
Still, buildings that are created aren't just plopped into the game. They will need to be on a lot, so there's the tie-in with the lot editor. Another issue that would have to be addressed is allowing the user to add to the menu system, something that Maxis is still considering.
My suggestion, if you are really interested in making your own buildings, start playing with GMAX and give yourself a head start if you've never used a 3d application before. Maxis has promised to provide as much information and start-up tutorials and presets as they can to help with the considerable learning curve.
The ability to visually edit the network tiles with props, and so on, is a possibility. Mass region editing as well as a region traffic simulation system have been talked about, but not much more info at this point. Arcologies? The official word is that there are no plans for them right now. With the advent of the BAT it is likely that arcologies may end up being a user-created modd (hint-hint Ralphaelninja).
In Rush Hour there are a lot more funny little messages in your ticker, what Maxis calls "fluff" messages, they have no real bearing on the game, but are quite humours to read. These are set to appear randomly as your population rises. Overall, there is a total of something like 20,000 lines of new text (for tutorials, advisor messages, popup boxes, fluff messages etc.).
There are more textures in Rush Hour than in the entire core release of SimCity 4, we've been told. There is also a sixth closer zoom made for U-Drive It missions. While you can drive some vehicles at further out zooms, it becomes difficult to see and judge your environments. The sixth zoom we played did not seem to hamper the speed of the game at all. The team has assured us that Rush Hour runs quite well on a moderately lower end system with details set at default levels.
There really is a lot packed into this expansion pack, and I think Dr.Vu will make a few believers out of skeptics with the coolness of U-Drive It. Maxis wants us to know that never did they withhold a feature purely for the intention of releasing it later in an expansion pack. There was a lot they wanted to get into the game, and with a finite amount of time to get them in there - things just end up not making the cut; never was it premeditated to deprive gamers of cool features.
Ninety new buildings, and an entirely new tile set itself would be worthy of an expansion back, but we also have 47 bridge options, and 6 new transportation networks, the return of our favourite features and some vastly new and improved features we never had. And after the rebate for existing core game owners, it's a lousy ten bucks. Almost criminal what we're getting away with!
Aside from the wonderful gameplay we got to enjoy, what really impressed upon us was just how much everyone at Maxis seemed to love talking about their game, and hearing what the players want or expect from their games. We were honored to represent you, the community, and Maxis made it very clear that they cherish the community that has grown around their games, and they seemed to enjoy having access to us in that capacity.
It was an honour to be with Maxis for the day, and to have a sneak peak at this great expansion to a great game. If you got any enjoyment out of SimCity 4 at all, you will not be disappointed with Rush Hour.
If you have any questions about this article, please PM Dirk or STomnibus.