Becoming God: playing the SimCity beta

01:26, Jan 28 2013

Happy Monday to you all (and to you Aucklanders having the day off due to your anniversary day, Double Happy Monday to you).

My gaming over the weekend consisted of playing the SimCity Closed Beta, which kicked off on Saturday morning and ends sometime today. According to EA, taking screen shots was a violation of the beta conditions so screen shots here are from EA.

I first saw SimCity at an EA event late last year and it was my pick of a game to keep an eye out for. After playing it over the weekend my opinion hasn't changed: it's still great fun but I'm holding off on being too enthusiastic until I can spend several hours uninterrupted with the full version.

Understandably, EA has raised the ire of a few gamers with the fact that there's no offline mode - you need to be connected to the internet everytime you play SimCity.

So if your internet connection drops out, like mine did a couple of times during the beta, you're kicked out of the game you're playing and have to start a new game when you're able to reconnect.

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It's frustrating to say the least and while most of us have reliable internet connections and I know publishers like to claim that persistent internet connections are a response to piracy, it creates problems for people who have legitimately bought a game who want to play it somewhere there isn't an internet connection handy. It happens. Ubisoft tried it with Assassin's Creed 2 but, eventually, backtracked and removed the need for an ''always on'' connection. I hope EA revisits it sometime, too.

Funnily enough, while the beta behaved itself most of the time I got a handful of ''Error communicating with Origin. Please check that Origin is online'' messages. Origin is EA's online game service and my internet connection was just fine, thanks.

OK, so how does SimCity play? The first time I started the beta I was presented with the city of Summer Shoals. Load times were long - this is a beta so I understand that things aren't optimised yet and, surprisingly, the default graphics setting weren't as amazing as I expected (tweaking things in the options menu bought improvements) and in this tutorial level, I'm confronted with city worker Eva Stanton, who tells me that Summer Shoals ''really needs'' my help because the previous mayor did a terrible job and was - gulp - run out of town. Tough crowd.

The tutorial level shows you how to build roads to connect Summer Shoals to the ''outside world'', how to create residential, commercial and industrial zones and how to interpret the budget and population panels. It also introduced me to a neighbouring city, Lucky Shores, which has that precious resource, water - which Summer Shoals doesn't have, strangely - so I have to strike a deal with the Lucky city where they'll provide us with water. They did. Phew.

The next game gave me a blank canvas with a city called Clearwater, which I would be able to rename later (I renamed it Campbelltoon). The beta lets you tinker around with SimCity's gameplay for an hour then that session is closed. You can start as many sessions as you like during the beta but, frankly, an hour just wasn't long enough to really get to grips with the intricate gameplay mechanics that you'll face in the final version. You right-click on the mouse to drag around the screen, press the left mouse button to rotate the view and use the scroll wheel to zoom.

With Clearwater, you can lay out your city any way you like so I started by building a few roads in a fairly basic grid pattern and connecting Campbelltoon to the main highway just on the city's doorstep. In the beta residential, commercial and industrial zones are free to build (I'm not sure whether this is the case in the final version) so I generously set up my residential and commercial zones.

When you do that, little trucks arrive on the site and workers pile out and start building, with the final structure rising out of the ground. When they're done, removal vans start arriving, spewing out families and furniture. Campbelltoon was starting to take shape.

I was still missing crucial utilities, such as water and power - and my residents let me know it, one telling me they'd move out of town if such amenities weren't provided - so the first step was to build a power source. The beta gave me just 50,000 simoleons (the Sims currency) so by the time I'd built the roading network I only had enough for a wind farm, which cost 8000 simoleons, I think, which I duly plonked down on the outskirts of the city.

The wind wasn't particularly strong where I placed the wind farm and it took a good while for it to actually start pumping out energy, once it did it produced enough to power the whole city. Putting more wind turbines would increase the energy output.

Building the wind farm introduced me to the intricacies of the game's data layers.

When I clicked on the power icon in the game's menu bar, an exclamation mark surrounded by a red triangle meant there was a problem with the supply line, and drilling down into the data layer showed the power flow through the city - indicated by a pulsating yellow line.

A gap between two roads meant power wasn't getting to several houses in one subdivision.

A quick repair job saw the break repaired and residents were happy, their lightbulbs glowing bright in the night.

A one point several of my Sims were getting sick so I had to build a hospital, which cost 20,000 simoleons - perhaps it was because their waste didn't have anywhere to go, so I had to build a sewage outfall pipe, so that the city's business could go somewhere. I plopped down a sewage outfall, costing me 3500 simoleons, as far as I could from the residential areas. My son started laughing at the brown blobs moving from houses to the sewage outlet, then being pumped into a large concrete pad. He found that highly amusing.

I built a town hall, which my citizens cheered about, and was told I had a high enough approval rating from citizens to build a house for myself and was even told to do so by the game, but that option had been disabled in the beta. Big-ticket items like street car depots, train stations and airports were also disabled in the beta, as were disasters, so I wasn't able to raze my city with a meteor shower!

But the biggest cheers from my citizens didn't come from providing them with electricity, retail shops and running water. It didn't come from providing them with a medical centre or a school. It came from me plonking down several bus stops so their children could go to school. Tiny things please tiny minds, I suppose, and Sims are pretty tiny.

I probably played four games of SimCity over the weekend and each was pretty similar in outcome to the last, but from what I've played there's going to be an incredible amount of depth to the latest Sim game. An hour just isn't long to really get into it - it's a game that, like Sims games of the past, will require hours of time to get the most from it. I'm not convinced an "always on" internet connection is required but I'm looking forward to the final product.

How was your gaming weekend?

Other stuff you might be interested in: Game Junkie is on Twitter and you can email him here. He'll even answer your emails, not get some smart robot to do it. He also has another gaming blog here, which was actually updated recently. You should check it out.