SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition Review

Before SimCity 4 was re-released for Mac, the last SimCity game I had any experience with was the one from before the millenium happened (Simcity 2000). I last played that, um, must have been before the millenium happened (I have played the rather wonderful but underappreciated SimCity Societies, but that doesn’t really count, and it was never released for Mac in any case).

For the past nine days I have played SimCity 4, read about SimCity 4 and dreamed about SimCity 4. I have even played SimCity (5), having no desire to ever review it, purely for comparative purposes. In spite of all this, I don’t feel fully qualified to write this review. But I’m going to do it anyway, because:

  • There’s a slim chance someone will read it who has played less of SimCity than I have and will find my witterings useful
  • It will make me feel better about everything else I’ve neglected during the last nine days
  • I am not likely to play any more of it

Ooh, that last point. So SimCity 4 is awful then? Nope. Noooo. Not at all. But if I keep succumbing to its time-bending wiles, I fear for my sanity and general health. And then who will review your games? In short, I must stop playing SimCity 4, for you, dear reader. Now let me try and make sense of the feverish notes I scribbled whilst living inside SimCity 4, before I go off and load up the Mac version of Angry Birds to get a bit of a reality check.

First, and most importantly, the Very Good News: SimCity 4 in no way feels 11 years old. The only time you really notice you’re playing an 11 year-old game is if you pay attention to the fact that some of the GUI has been stretched to accommodate wide screens (so circles look distinctly elliptical), when using the awful zoom control, or when going through the tutorial, which gets all excited about the concept of a “ToolTip!” as if this is A New And Revolutionary Thing (which at the time, perhaps it was).

The tutorials themselves are better than some of those found in modern games (and embarrassingly better than the one in SimCity 5, which seems to think it’s perfectly reasonable to congratulate you for clicking a button that’s taking up a sizeable chunk of the screen, has a big highlight around it and is the only thing you can even click, thus congratulating you for a task that could be completed by a primate with half an hour to spare), and which actually imparts advice that is going to be useful to you when properly playing the game, namely that you should not build anything until you need it– something I jotted down to include mentioning in this review, on no less than three separate occasions.

But then the tutorials ended, and I arrived at the first stumbling block. SimCity 4 lets you sculpt landscapes, (quite literally) move mountains and carve out grand canyons in its “god mode”. From there you can venture into “mayor mode”, where most of the game takes place, designating residential, commercial and industrial zones, and building transportation and utility networks, and generally keeping your SimCitizens coddled. But for all of this, it gives you a blank canvas (assuming you don’t just keep playing the tutorial maps). There are some predefined regions (a region in SimCity 4 is really a neighbourhood of cities, and each city in the region can “deal” with other cities to a limited degree), sparsely populated, and based on real-world cities, but there are no scenarios, no pre-made cities for you to load up and just try to achieve some aim or other. So it’s up to you to start a new region and then make your own fun. To quote jiiiiim, “I don’t like making my own fun. You’re the game, you make me the fun.”

Actually sculpting the landscape wasn’t much of an issue, as you could just take one of the pre-built regions and start a city on an empty tile (or maybe bulldoze an existing city and start over) if you’re not feeling particularly creative. Sooner or later, you’ll have to actually form the foundation of the city though, and after agonizing for maybe an hour over the best place to put my first residential zone, I plotted out a small rectangle low-density (don’t build it denser until you need it denser) residential zone by the river, then a low-density commercial zone, and, furthest from the residential zone, some agricultural and industrial zones. Then the magic happened.

It’s been said that software development is like gardening. But you want to know what’s really like gardening? SimCity 4. Looking back at my time with the game, it seems that all I was really doing was ploughing, planting, watering, trimming. The results are just the same. When you designate a zone in SimCity 4, you’re just sowing seeds. These will eventually grow into buildings, getting bigger and more exuberant over time. They’ll get so far without your help, but really they need to be cultivated. That means providing them with power, water, sewage and so on. It also means they need to be pruned, cutting down excess spending, removing extraneous or otherwise defunct buildings, and they need to be maintained, just responding to whatever the inhabitants take issue with. Hell, you can even decorate everything with completely superfluous signage if you want to. But mostly, mostly you’ll just sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

SimCity 4 is very much a game in addition to being a virtual garden, and so you do have some degree of responsibility, and there are very clearly defined failure states. Budgetary concerns are the most obvious and most immediate, but there are six factors in total that combine to affect the happiness of the populace: environment, health, safety, traffic, education and land value. The thing is, budget might be the only one you really need to worry about, at least before you have a large city with long-term ambitions. I built one city with the single aim of making it as depressing as possible. A valley of dense housing surrounded on all sides by pollution-spewing industry, “The Pit” received the lowest possible ratings in all categories except for traffic, but with a carefully balanced budget (achieved by turning off the power now and then), the mayoral rating was positive for 50 game years (and this on the hardest difficulty). In fact, considering I made no input whatsoever beyond the initial zoning and power plant installation, I’d pretty much created a utopian society, with no crime or fire happening anywhere for that amount of time. Then I decided that the 192 citizens actually didn’t need any anything more from me so I cut all the city’s expenditure to 0, at which point the mayoral rating dropped, the roads self-destructed, fires broke out, and presumably everyone became feral, before leaving the city. But still I didn’t lose the game.

So I took a different approach, trying to lose as much money as possible. This is extremely easy to do, in my case all I had to do was just reduce the taxes, which ate away at my balance sheet for a couple of years (all the while sending my mayor rating  through the roof), at which point I was rather hilariously offered the opportunity to install a toxic waste dump as a means to generate some cash (and supposedly spawning 12 mutant species into the bargain). Only once I was 100,000 in the red did I actually lose the game (which effectively dumps you back to the region screen and resets that city to the last save).

Later on, in a different city, I found that more residents means more problems. Buildings will explode, services will go out of commission, and there’ll be increased demand for more or less everything. But all of these serve as stumbling blocks to whatever grand plans you set yourself, nothing really that will directly result in a game over screen (you can also trigger a number of “disasters” whenever you want to challenge yourself a little bit more, or when you want to watch a giant robot lay waste to your immaculate creation). So really, the game is about managing the budget. That’s fair enough; after all it seems like most of the problems you encounter in the game can be resolved by throwing money at it, and so because that money is in turn generated by other decisions you’ve made with the city, there’s a bit of a feedback loop taking place.

None of this is to say that SimCity 4 is too easy, either. Just because actually losing the game seems to be little cause for concern at the start doesn’t mean you’ll be able to achieve all your objectives easily. Indeed, arguably one of the fundamental aims of the game is to grow the city as large as possible, even getting to the point where skyscrapers are erected. This is no mean feat however, as it requires a steady hand to properly nurture such a metropolis from the bare earth.

The tools that SimCity 4 provides you with makes some of this easy to do, although I found myself frustrated as often as I felt I had a good understanding of the current state of affairs. For example, one set of tools available to you are “data views”, which basically overlay the area with a heat map. You can choose to show things like crime and education, or even water coverage and pollution. By far the most useful of these is the one which shows road congestion, so you can quickly identify stretches of road that should be upgraded to ease traffic flow. Then there are various graphs, which show how certain parameters like employment or average health vary over time, and for which I often found infuriating because they seem to contain useful information that I just couldn’t seem to get anywhere. I know I have 3000 or so inhabitants, but how many of them are unemployed? How many of them are employed by which type of industry? The information is in those graphs, but it’s just not clear enough.

Similarly, the game prompts many questions as you play it, but provides little in the way of answers. What can I do to promote education, when the schools haven’t even been filled to capacity? What proportion of residential, commercial and industrial zoning is needed? And so on. But one positive side effect of the game’s age is that many, if not all of these questions have previously been asked and answered online. One 300+ page guide I found whilst in search of such answers sheds some light on just how detailed the simulation is, revealing that placing mountains around power plants will effectively fence in pollution, and that taxation tracks a Laffer curve.

All of this leads me to believe that I could probably play SimCity 4 for the next 11 years, learning new things about it all the time, and probably enjoying every minute of it, and that’s even accounting for the parts of the game that seem to be the weakest: the “MySim Mode”, which lets you undertake top-down driving “quests”, or import Sims to live in your city and bark at you like they have an itchy Twitter finger. Perhaps most telling of all, is that probably all of the issues inherent to sequel simply don’t exist here.

So we have a re-release of an 11-year old game that’s superior to its own sequel, and perhaps now’s the best time to get acquainted with it.

Performance & Quality

Street lamps turn on as day turns to night, and there’s plenty of animation that just gives everything flavour- cars driving about, birds flying overhead and people milling about. Really the only significant complaint I have is that the zoom function is jarring- there are very discrete zoom levels, and every single time I rolled the mouse wheel I was startled by the sudden change in scale. Close-up, things do start to get pixellated, but not offensively so.

The soundtrack included is remarkably good, even on repeat, sadly the same cannot be said for the other audio assets. One of the touted features is the ability to play music from your iTunes library, but the best I could get it to do was simply tell iTunes to hit the play button. Given that the game runs in proper full-screen, it’s not really an issue to cmd-tab into iTunes and just play tracks normally.