Crispy Gamer

SimCity Societies (PC)

If you can imagine Stalin with a copy of Dwell magazine, you might have some idea of what?s going on in the SimCity universe.

Signaling a new chapter in the Sim empire and a slight change of focus for the SimCity games, SimCity Societies attempts a tightwire act of upgrading all the city-building fun that has kept the series viable for almost 20 years while freshening up the formula with more than a graphical overhaul and the usual pile of new buttons to press.

So what?s the first thing you do when reimagining a classic? Throw out the thing that made it unique, of course.

In a bold, almost reckless move, Societies takes the step of discarding zoning from the game. Plotting out industrial, residential and commercial zones isn?t just a part of the SimCity game series; in a significant sense, it is the game. It might seem strange to think of land-use controls through zoning as one of the most classic gameplay mechanics of all time. But ask any SimCity player about their preferred layout of those little green, blue and yellow territories that blossom factories, homes and shops like bacteria in a petri dish and you can start to understand what a big deal it is to simply junk the heart of the old game.

Not surprisingly, this tactic delivers mixed results.

The next chapter in the Sim saga starts with an open field and no need to organize your city by use. In this SimCity, you place buildings according to your own master plan. As long as the ground is flat and the lot big enough, you can jumble structures together any which way you choose. Put a corner market next to a set of houses, wantonly mixing commercial and residential uses. Throw a row of churches or temples in between some factories and bars of a working class district and see what happens. Always dreamed of opening a clown college next to a bank? SimCity Societies lets you live the dream.

Being a game and not just a dollhouse kit of parts, Societies does provide a system of constraints designed to provide some city management fun. To get a town to work and open up the full range of building types, players now must worry about something called ?social energies.? Buildings consume or create one or more of the game?s energies: productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority and knowledge. And while every city will end up with a mix of different energies, the game encourages you to focus on one or two when shaping the soul of your city, from an arty San Francisco or a brainy Boston to a holier-than-thou Buddhist retreat.

It?s a neat idea, but one that bogs down under a raft of niggling details that will frustrate the dedicated city planner, because as often as not, the energies generated or used by buildings seem arbitrary or just plain odd.

Understanding that an aquarium generates knowledge energy makes sense: You can imagine tiny school groups wandering in and leaving, filled with the knowledge of the mating habits of manta rays. Other buildings, however, leave you scratching your head or looking for the inside joke: Bath houses generate spirituality? Uh, OK. The art museum consumes spirit while generating creativity? Hmm. Build a cathedral and it will consume spirit at a rate slower than the dojo produces it while the evangelical megaplex cranks out spirituality at a rate three times greater than it consumes prosperity.

The net result of this wacky generation and use of social energies is a city built more to balance these invisible forces than to fit some rational plan. You start to pick buildings based on their social energy rather than whether or not it makes sense, say, to put a meatpacking plant or tattoo parlor next to an elementary school.

A promising feature, and one that takes center stage in ads promoting the game, are themes. Buildings come classed into collections such as authoritarian, romantic, fun and cyberpunk. Without any prohibition on mixing styles, you are as welcome to craft an authoritarian romantic city as you are to build fairy tale castles on the main street running through a rural town. This provides plenty of funny choices and surprisingly coherent cities. Why a cyberpunk capsule hotel doesn?t seem out of place next to a mini-golf course or row of brownstone townhouses is something we?ll leave to the urban theorists.

The fact that it all looks cool remains the high point of the game. Even though the detailed 3-D people and buildings always threaten to bog down all but the most powerful 3-D machines, half the fun is getting the camera in the right place and enjoying the scene. Drop the point of view down onto the street where you can watch individual Sims stroll in and out of stores, and you find that you now control the most fascinating ant colony devised to date.

On one level, this junk-drawer approach to city design does make for interesting places, but eventually players will run into one of the biggest limits of the game: the land. A complete lack of terraforming tools sticks you with the ground that god, or at least the game, gives you. If you?d like to nudge a little hill out of the way to squeeze in a building, forget it. If you need to carve out a flat place for a road, no dice. You?ll end up wandering your buildings and streets around every little lump, knoll or dip.

Roads themselves have not gained any appreciable intelligence, either. Even though the ability to add dirt roads to your redneck haven has its own simple ?Dukes of Hazzard? charms, it?s not long before you have looping, winding streets that won?t connect, no matter how hard you try. Forget diagonal streets. Not only doesn?t the game support them, but laying out straight roads is hard enough.

Other changes in the classic SimCity play take a while to sink in before you realize that you really do miss them. Complex overlays of pollution, traffic and crime give way to bouncy icons that hover over buildings and people. Want to know where the criminals lurk? With a click of a button, every single pickpocket and burglar shows up in the city with a floating label. It?s kind of funny to see. Unfortunately, the game never really gives you that summary information that can help you figure out where to place the next police station. One of the more peculiar moments in gaming comes when you realize that you actually miss the budget spreadsheet from the original games.

Perhaps to make up for the limited road tools, the game is very forgiving about where you place buildings. For one thing, you don?t need to worry about connecting them to power or water. If you have enough electricity in your city, it finds its way to every lightbulb in town. Even roads don?t matter as much as they have in the past. Build a ranch on a hill too steep for streets and some bold pioneer will move in. Better yet, watch the house: The resident Sims will manage to commute down the slope into town to make it to work.

If all this sounds strangely familiar, that?s because it is. Play Societies for a while and you realize that you are actually playing real-time strategy game without a threatening enemy. You just build and build and build and the taxes come pouring in. You build until every useable piece of land has been consumed and then you only have the disasters menu you tempt you. And, why not? With coffers filled with funds fleeced from simple-minded Sims just happy that you unleashed some mimes to entertain the masses or that you built a fountain, money is never really an issue. You can tear down and rebuild to your totalitarian heart?s content.

Ultimately, the success of Societies depends on the same thing every city needs: community. By exposing, documenting and supporting many of the game?s content-creation tools, SimCity Societies invites players to create new buildings and Sims, to alter and invent new behaviors in the game, and to load up their own maps. Sure, it?s only a matter of time until someone adds a nudist city mod. Likewise, more the devious-minded modders can explore topics such as cities with no jobs, limits on the number of children, curfews and death penalties for those mimes. Only once we?ve seen what players do when they crack open the sandbox and build with what they find will we learn the real possibilities of this simulated society.

This review was based on pre-release code provided by the publisher and a final boxed copy of the game with update #2 applied, purchased by Crispy Gamer.