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It's SimCity, Jim, but not as we know it...
The SimCity and Sims game series are undoubtedly what legendary game developer Will Wright is most well known for. Here at TVG, we vividly remember playing the original SimCity game in I.T. lessons at school. Oddly, the Acorn computer clusters that we had our lessons in (purchased from a certain supermarket's 'Computers for Schools' promotion), always seemed to have SimCity lurking somewhere on their hard drives. Perhaps educationists saw it as a way of training society's future town planners to actually do something right for a change. Either way, we would surreptitiously play through a few games while our I.T. teacher tried to teach everyone how to format a floppy disc.
Will Wright has long since gone on to create SimCity 2000 and 3000, before crafting one of the most successful game series of all time, The Sims. SimCity 2000 and 3000 were not only great city building games, but each one also added significant gameplay depth to its predecessor. By the time the series had reached SimCity 3000, the depth was really quite impressive. Housing had to be sorted out via boroughs, meaning that if you put a shack near some yuppie apartment complexes, it did nobody any favours. There were advisors that criticised your actions, such as environmentalists who weren't too happy with the amount of toxic waste oozing into their rivers (stupid tree hugging hippies!).
Wright had nothing to do with SimCity 4, which makes sense as the game took his two most successful series (The Sims and SimCity) and put them together to create a kind of bastard child of the two games. Importing your Sims into the SimCity 4 gameworld wasn't exactly every hardcore city builders idea of fun. Of course, the owners of the SimCity IP (EA) have inevitably taken this idea of The Sims meets SimCity, and tried to make it the games selling point. This is really the concept behind SimCity Societies, which is basically turning a legendary city building series into a sanitised Sims game that appeals only to evangelical Christians (who don't play games anyway as they're made by the minions of the Anti-Christ, apparently).
The result is, SimCity Societies may be one of the few game sequels in recent history which has squandered the hard work and perspiration that had gone into its predecessors. The gameplay depth of SimCity Societies is closer to the first SimCity game (originally released nearly 20 years ago) than it is any of its more recent predecessors. As far as your city's infrastructure is concerned, all you have to do is plonk down a couple of power stations (without even connecting them to a grid) and then make sure that your Sims' housing is fairly close to workplaces and venues. That's it! The only other factor is the gimmicky feature upon which the game is based.
Apparently, SimCity Societies allows gamers to create the city of their choice. You are supposedly able to sculpt your city into all number of bustling urban settlements, from an authoritarian nightmare to a cheerful and happy place, or perhaps even a sanctuary for the creative artist. On playing the tutorial you're told to create a happy city. Obviously, I promptly quit this and decided to create a nightmarish dystopia. I built every building that I could find which raised the cities authority rating. Housing was restricted to sleeping tubes; workers spent their days at bureaucracies and military schools; while oppressive statues sat in the middle of city parks.
Inevitably, riots promptly started and I had to put up with repetitive sound bites of Sims voicing their incoherent discontent by saying "Savissa soona, verki nerb!" Or some other irritating drivel. What's more, the poor graphics (saved only by the fact that 4 year old PCs can run them) illustrated Sim sprites fighting on the streets with animations that were on a continuous, repetitive loop that failed to stimulate. The conclusion from this social experiment is that you can only carve your own themed city once you've opened up enough of the unlocked buildings in the game to do so. This requires a little explanation.
All of the buildings in SimCity Societies have various attributes which can add to or take away from the six 'Societal Values' that affect your Sims' happiness. These values are prosperity, productivity, creativity, spirituality, authority and knowledge. If you don't have good levels in all of these areas then you'll quickly find that your citizens will get pissed off with you. So, let's say that I choose to build a corporate hive. This gives me +10 authority but requires 8 of my prosperity points. In reality, then, whenever you start up a new city you'll begin by creating a more balanced and heterogeneous community. You do this in order to raise the levels of your 'Societal Values' more quickly by taking advantage of all the buildings on offer.
More buildings become unlocked as your 'Societal Values' increase with your population, and then it becomes easier to carve your city around your own specific megalomaniacal visions. But, until then, you'll have to focus on boosting your 'Societal Values' and increasing your population with the aim of unlocking more buildings and upping your happiness levels. In reality, building your society is not quite the free choice that the blurb on the back of the game box describes it as being due to certain inevitable in-game balances.
'But,' you ask, 'each citizen is depicted as a unique Sim in the gameworld. Doesn't that add to the gameplay?' Well, the answer is not really. It can be cool to go around clicking on individual Sims to find out what they're up to. Sometimes you'll find a punk who likes to pick-pocket, for example. However, semi-interactive sprites in city builder games are quite an old feature. In fact, they go as far back as the original Tropico game which is over six years old. It's nice to see it in SimCity Societies (if you enjoy the garbled jibber-jabber of Sims), but you'd certainly expect it more than you'd be surprised by it.
Behind this gimmicky 'Societies' feature, however, is gameplay that is about as deep as Donald Trump's soul, and as complex as the mind of a Miss. World contestant. There's a complete lack of subtlety and nuance to the gameplay, making for a very slight learning curve and an uninterestingly plain experience. The content is also lacklustre, as there is absolutely nothing to do other than start a city from scratch. This means no scenarios, no winning conditions and there are only three unimaginative game modes on offer: Normal, Unlimited Simoleons and Freeplay (where all of the buildings are unlocked at the start). Obviously, it is easier to create unique 'Cyberpunk' or 'Capitalist' societies etc. in Freeplay. However, with everything unlocked in this game mode, a bottomless pit of money and no rewards for your hard work, you quickly forget why you're actually bothering to carry on playing.
Speaking of these rewards, you'll find that continued progress through the Normal game mode will unlock them. For example, getting a certain quota of happy citizens can earn a bronze, silver or gold medal, while more extensive achievements earn you trophies that unlock special buildings. It's nowhere near enough of an impetus to carry on playing until your city has reached metropolitan proportions though, as your curiosity over the mystery buildings will waiver after about half an hour.
Perhaps the only redeeming feature of SimCity Societies is that some of the buildings are quite cool and have slightly humorous twists to them. An example of this would be Sims driving out of trailer parks on what look like Model-T Fords. But, other than that, it really is a struggle to find good things to say about SimCity Societies unfortunately.
The sound effects are repetitive and irritating, the camera feels slightly restrictive, the graphics are significantly below par, there's very little content and the gameplay is tedious. If you want to witness the death of a great computer game series, buy SimCity Societies. Otherwise, stay away.
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