This is not SimCity as we ever knew it - and that's a shame. It was great before; the original being one of PC gaming's building-blocks and one of the platform's true design classics.
Societies comes not from traditional SimCity developers Maxis, but Tilted Mill, they of Caesar IV and its brethren. And with new developers comes a new approach.
Some things never change, though. You still begin with an empty square of land, of varying terrains, with options for landscaping. Then there's an arsenal of icons to plop onto the ground. Paint roads, drop in houses, give residents somewhere to work and, most importantly in Societies, somewhere to play. Next... well, that's where things differ: that's about all there is to it.
The new approach Societies takes is in offering "societal values", which in turn shape the cultural theme of your city. Rather than balancing the specific needs of your citizens, here you juggle six attributes: Productivity, Creativity, Authority, Spirituality, Prosperity and Knowledge. So say you want to build a courthouse - it will give you 11 Authority but cost 4 Prosperity.
To bring in Prosperity, you could build a financial building, bringing in 28 Prosp but costing 15 Prod. However, you could erect a fountain and earn six Prosp at no cost beyond the 1,500 Simoleon price. Or - and here's where Societies collapses into an ungainly pile of rubble - spam 20 fountains across some far-flung corner of the map, dumping 120 Prosperity into your coffers.
And then there's the Venues you have to build. Societies strips down a Sim's needs to simply having a place to go after work. A rehab centre or a dive bar, an art gallery or a butcher shop, just so long as there's an empty seat inside. Not enough Venues and your Sim will get pissed off, at which point he'll not only skive work, but somehow shut down entire businesses. So, er, have enough Venues then. Problem solved.
But surely you're not made of money? Well, it's pretty hard not to be. Use any common sense when developing your city and the money will come pouring in like you'd released a Sims 2 add-on pack featuring a new puppy. I've got one city, six hours in the building, with every scrap of ground built upon, and 3.5 million in the bank, going up tens of thousands a day. A city with no pollution, no sign of crime, and a population almost orgasmic with happiness.
More interesting are the themes. These range from the enigmatically named Normal to more novel motifs such as Cyberpunk or Authoritarian. As you focus on one aspect, the entire city will adapt. For instance, my second city, Hell On Toast, had uniquely Authoritarian buildings and Venues. Soon I was ruling an Orwellian nightmare, with shopping malls featuring burning turrets, and Big Brother videoscreens everywhere.
It's a neat idea. However, you aren't restricted, and so long as you've unlocked building types, you can build anything from any theme. Any difficulty from not doing so is entirely self-enforced.
Encouraging you to specify are Achievements. These are awards based on your completing a collection of goals aimed at a specific theme. Trouble is, in that six-hour venture I received nine out of the ten Achievements in one city, only missing one because it's apparently broken, demanding the rather confusing "20 or fewer workers whose mood is better than 'Happy'". So, um, none would do? (I had hundreds.)
Also suffering in this unhappy new 'City is the engine itself. You can't zoom out to any helpful distance, and once your city is thriving, the thousands of animations on screen at once bring everything to a juddering mess. That's even with the specs turned to low and the murderous shadows switched off.