SimCity Societies Review - 05/12/2007

We rated Monte Cristo's City Life very highly when it released way back in May 2006, and SimCity Societies most closely relates to that. It's a departure from the more complicated gameplay of SimCity 3000 and 4, but fails to find the superb balance of SimCity 2000; rather it provides a foothold for new budding city-builders to get their foot in the door of the mayor's office.

There's one earth-shattering, alien-invading, fire-starting feature that may decimate the hopes of many a SimCity fan (and don't worry, disasters are still very much on the agenda), and it's that you no longer place building zones of residential, industrial and commercial in your city that SimCity has long been famous for. In fact, you place each building specifically to match the wants and needs of your population, which is lifted pretty much straight out of City Life. In fairness to Tilted Mill Entertainment, the new developers of Caesar IV fame, there are a huge variety of buildings for you to place.

It's split into sections, with the first, and most critical, being houses. There are a number of themes you can choose for your city, but these tend to feel a little gimmicky and, dare we say it, childish. There's no harm in creating a fun-filled candy-land, but SimCity has always had a tone of seriousness, even when you eventually got bored and unleashed the aliens on your bustling metropolis. With that said, there are still lots of normal looking buildings to use. You get three models for each type, so for example there's basically the equivalent of English council estates, and it comes in three pretty similar, but slightly different alternatives, allowing you to place them next to each other and have a wall of slightly-varied grey sin-making concrete blocks that blot out the sun in the same way as you get in South-East London. You can also build cottages in the same way, some with hedges, some without (that's generally the extent of the variety for the mostpart), homesteads, farmhouses, flats, bachelor pads, ultra-modern apartments etc. etc. The choice is nice.

Unfortunately, placing each building to provide your city with space for 5 more citizens gets pretty tiresome. Sure, you can go for the aforementioned mass-accommodation, but these cause disease and crime, look horrific, and are boring. It is testament to the developers that you will feel like creating slums in your city (more than enough grotty buildings are provided to this end), farming communities and upmarket pockets by the river, but it at no point feels like a real city.

When it comes to workplaces, these are done in a similar fashion, but much like City Life again, the population statistics are not really representative of each building. Some, well, most in fact, provide you with employment for about five workers, and larger complexes stretch that number upwards, but there's always a feeling that when your population hovers around the '150' mark, that you just want to leave your PC for half an hour, let your money build up, and then build a complex of twenty 1950's gas stations to sort out employment for your city. The workplaces follow the same themes as the residences, allowing for certain societies (yes, it lives up to the name) to develop.

The infrastructure of the game has been dumbed down to the level of the Sims, which will please some sectors of the gaming community, but doubtlessly disappoint most. There's a limit to the statistics you face, but as for wants and needs, there's only really the 'social energies' that you have to keep an eye on, as these stop buildings from functioning. They include areas such as spirituality, production, authority and creativity, but can be catered for by placing certain buildings, decorations or landmarks. Some use certain energies, and others produce them, often in confusingly inconsistent patterns.

The simplest aspect of the gameplay is that you no longer have to worry about connecting buildings with water or power, just building a power plant will suffice. In fact, the power plants produce pollution, obviously, but as you can put them anywhere on the map and not have to worry about connecting them to your buildings, you can just put it miles away and do away with global warming (which is addressed in the game) altogether. You don't provide water for your Sims either, they just get it somehow. Roads, something which SimCity 2000 managed to do well, are awful here. You'll have a great vision of an American block system to provide 20 new apartment blocks, and end up with disjointed, ugly and more Parisian traffic systems than anything - dead ends, wide squares of tarmac and parts that only miss joining by a hairs breadth are all too common. The fact that there's only one width is very frustrating, as it means if you build something an inch too far forwards, the only alternative is to destroy it an move it back so the five car wide roads can flow through.

To keep people happy you need to build various amusements for them, again based around the social energies idea. These are a bit more interesting, you can build things like schoolboy football pitches, baseball ground, pubs and shopping centres, and as you build more you unlock advanced versions, though it has to be said that there is a limit to them and they get repeated fairly regularly. Surely in this day and age it wouldn't be hard to just create a few variations of each one, so that if you were to place two within a mile of each other they wouldn't look exactly the same? Decorations can further enhance or drain your social energies, with things like fountains, advertising hoardings and murals.

Certain buildings have special abilities, such as the police station's SWAT mode, which costs Simoleons but sends out a crack team to clear the streets of criminals. You can increase the output of certain buildings in much a similar manner, and stop fires for example using the fire station's ability. It would be better to be able to access these from the menu, as once your city increases in size it gets hard to track the location of all of your services.

On a technical level, you get to see your Sims engaging in the activities, such as playing football, stumbling home drunk or setting fire to your town hall, but the game does suffer from frame-rate problems, it take a while to warm up after loading, and never really seems to run smoothly. Textures in the distance only load once you move close to them, but detail close up is decent. You can click on each individual Sim, like in City Life, and follow them through their daily grind, and it does feel like Societies is aimed at the audience of the Sims rather than Sim City's before it. With that said though, it feels like an opportunity missed, as it's in the dangerous middle ground that doesn't have the quirkiness of the Sims games, or the strong mechanics of Sim City. The fears that this is merely a spin-off are not completely founded, as there are times when you'll raise a smile at a new idea for a section of your city, or the appearance of a new housing development, but in all, it really is just a mismatch of ideas that never really seems to know the direction in which it's facing.

- Mike Hazleton



EA Games
Tilted Mill Ent.