A tall, bearded man welcomes us to the demonstration of SimCity, his caffeine energy betrayed by the dark circles under his eyes. Enthusiastic almost to the point of mania, this is a man who seems to offset the stress of developing a near decade-in-the-making god sim with the help of a 24/7 Red Bull drip. You can't blame him.
Maxis producer Jason Haber might not have the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he's juggling several entire cities set over a massive slab of grassland, and delighted in showing them to us one by one. The first is Transportopia, an industrial town under a crown of factory smoke. Wholly geared towards production like a Russian gulag based in Pleasantville, there's an ordered chaos to the fleets of lorries delivering materials en masse to the hundreds of mills, plants and refineries which churn out steady streams of goods around the clock. This is where people make things.
The smoke and mirrors of previous games have been totally eradicated...
Zooming right in, the procession of cardboard boxes on conveyer belt mazes bear, we're told, a 1:1 ratio with the world - one box represents exactly one load of something, be it metals, electrics or petroleum. This is true elsewhere; why use graphs to represent traffic jams when you could use actual traffic? The smoke and mirrors of previous game have been completely eradicated - what you see is what you get.
Once loaded onto pallets and packed into trucks, they're sent to market at the neighbouring city of Monte Vegas, a tourist town and commercialist utopia founded on the principal that money does indeed buy happiness. On every corner there's a busy mall, on every boulevard a perfect line of neon-edged casinos. This is where people buy things.
Step off the glowing strip, though, and you'll find the City of Sim's underbelly: gangs of roaming crooks looking to steal their money rather than gamble for it like honest people. So densely populated is the place (well, it is Friday night), to the occasional detriment of the framerate, it was hard to sift through the details. Who's coming? Who's going? Who's spending? Who's not? That's where the Data Layer came in.
The Data Layer is an augmented vision mode rendering the world in block white and highlighting in primary colours the systems you're curious about. Need to see how the war on crime is going? Cops and robbers will be coloured in bold red and blue, chasing each other around the streets in realtime. What about overall happiness? That'll be symbolised by thousands of happy or sad faces. The Data Layer is both an efficient and unbelievably attractive way of analyzing your city.
Centring the camera on one specific tourist, a man named Andrew Daniels, whose income, happiness and occupation floated above his head, we watch him drive towards the third and final city on our checklist, Homeville, residential quarter to the previous industrial and commercial regions and creatively laid with spirals of immaculate red brick houses. This is where people go to sleep.
Sims work in Transportopia, play in Monte Vegas, and live in Homeville, spreading influence, wealth and happiness across three burgeoning hubs, and while as a player you might decide to focus efforts on one massive metropolis, one goal's always the same - the pursuit of happiness. Industry is happy when companies offer contracts; companies are happy when they have customers; and customers are happy when they earn enough money to treat themselves once in a while. Maintaining happiness across all three sectors is a complicated business - so now you can see why producer Haber looks so stressed.
"We're not just shoving this out and going away," he said. "There will be constant support from us from day one, whether that's mod support or patches, or new ways to play. We want players to keep on playing for years - that's the goal." Based on the sheer wealth of city styles, from police states to centres of education to, quite literally, cities for the rich, we'd say that goal is a dead cert.
This is basically The Sims on a regional scale, each house in that game the equivalent of an entire city here. Where one neighbour in The Sims could pop around for a cuppa, in SimCity a whole workforce might spend a wild weekend bar-crawling in some neighbouring town, boosting its economy in the process.
Poor planning will cause problems, especially if you base your entire economy on a finite resource like coal...
You can fit a handful of cities on a single landmass, and like The Sims, creation is brilliantly streamlined. You can lay single bungalow as easily as several suburban blocks with a simple drag-and-drop, and upgrading shotgun shacks to uber-rich steel and glass high-rises is as simple as clicking through a transparent overlay, provided you have the funds. Bridges, infamously fiddly in SimCity 4, are made by drawing roads over water, roundabouts by drawing in a circle, and tunnels by drawing through mountains Poor planning will cause problems, of course - base you city on the supply and demand of a finite resource like coal and, when it runs out, your economy will collapse - but there's always a plan B. For congestion, simply add a lane to roads or develop public transport: buses, boats, trains and planes.
If in doubt - demolish. Actually, nature might lend a hand. During our demo the powers that be (a cheat window) unleashed dirty, swirling tornados that ripped two-storey houses from their foundations and sent cars tumbling. There was even a realtime breaking news report in the upper right corner, "Hi, Tom. I'm live from downtown, and this twister is causing complete havoc!"
Among other random delights promised are UFO's, meteor hits, and earthquakes, but Maxis are leaving the rest a secret. If past SimCity games are any indication, however, expect plane crashes, rampaging fires, nuclear meltdowns, riots, and even attacks by giant robots and monsters. (Though possibly not a rogue, havoc-reeking Bowser, as seen in the SNES SimCity.)
In SimCity, the series is back on a grand scale, deliciously designed from micro to macro and, for the first time, letting multiple players find interconnecting cities in the same region. Crucially, though, Origin connection provided, lone players can still develop the district of their dreams, whether they want to manage economies and de-congest traffic or brace for some bizzare disaster. This is the deepest and (thanks to the sublime tilt-shift aesthetic of the brand new GlassBox engine) most gorgeous god sim we've ever seen. February 13th 2013 can't come soon enough.