Monday, February 23, 2004


King of the World
... sort of

SimCity 4 has more detailed
functions and "God Mode,"
with a variety of new options

Something funny happened to video game designer Will Wright en route to destroying the world. While creating the air combat title "The Raid of Bungeling Bay" in 1985, he learned he'd gotten it all backward.

Official Website:

Mac OS X

ESRB Rating:
E - Everyone

Electronic Arts

The game's objective, as with many of its contemporaries, was to lay waste to enemy fortifications with a heavily armed vehicle -- in his case, a powerful, well-equipped helicopter.

Wright discovered in the creation process that designing the backdrop to a video game was far more enjoyable than wiping it out.

In fact, in this election year, anyone running for office should be made to try their hand at Wright's "SimCity," in which it is also far easier to lay waste to a city than build it up with the necessary attention and know-how regarding development, preservation, human services and social issues.

The goal is to create a fully functional, livable city -- a far cry from more simplistic games that simply call for destroying enemies in a race toward prizes or points.

In the arcade boom of the 1980s, when video games were designed to last only several minutes to earn a steady stream of quarters from those who took up the challenge, a creation-based, build-it-yourself game that could essentially go on forever was a novel concept indeed.

Wright designed an early version of SimCity in 1985, though the product was not released for the PC until 1989. The idea was to take charge of a city and build it from the ground up, as real city planners might, with strict attention to roadways, zoning, water, electricity and budget concerns.

While the PC market was considerably smaller than the arcade market at the time, in-the-know gamers, overwhelmed by SimCity's stunning originality and playability, gave the game its first devoted following. Before long, a feature in Newsweek appeared, instructors began introducing it to classrooms across the country as an innovative teaching tool and SimCity became a massive success.

The objective of SimCity 4 is to build a fully functioning city, from the ground up. It can amount to a full-time job.

FAST FORWARD TO 2004 and SimCity 4. The wondrously imaginative extension of Wright's original title has earned rave reviews from major media outlets to Internet gaming sites. Not only is SimCity 4 more detailed than its predecessors -- SimCity, SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000 -- it also includes a staggering variety of options like terraforming, which allows users to sculpt and define landscapes by authorizing an awesome array of natural acts such as erosion and crater-blowing meteor showers.

One could play Mother Nature and allow wild animals to graze the land, and, with the click of a mouse, zoom in to enjoy one's handiwork as the planet's omnipotent creator. Or, if such a notion strikes, annihilate an entire city with a devastating succession of environmental disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, through options found in SimCity's "God Mode."

If you'd prefer to skip the power trip and get down to the game's main attraction, you may enter "Mayor Mode" and begin building your city. Armed with a modest budget, a panel of advisors and wide-open spaces, you are charged with the formidable task of creating a livable, attractive community from scratch.

Of course, Rome wasn't built in a day, and a bustling metropolis in SimCity 4 requires many dedicated hours of play. Should you decide to forge ahead with this endeavor, expect to put in a lot of time and be sure to get familiar with SimCity 4's invaluable onscreen tutorials, which will save you countless hours of frustration.

Just like any real city, the town you build needs an income stream to keep running smoothly. When our writer's fledgling city caught fire, he says he was lucky to have a fire department ready to roll.

IN PLAYING THE GAME, I've determined city planning is not for me. My attempts at establishing a city in an earlier SimCity version proved vexing. Though I had dreams of creating a world-class metropolis with all the bells and whistles, I found myself trapped in an endless cycle of settlement and exodus. The goal is to attract residents, not have them pack up and leave.

As with every prosperous city today, your community must establish residential, commercial and industrial zones, which depend on one another for growth. An area devoid of jobs and basic civil services like water, electricity and roads simply will not grow. These concerns must be addressed first.

Once these necessities are in place, you will see structures rise from the ground as new arrivals begin moving into your blooming community. Once established, schools, hospitals, and police and fire stations can be built to serve your citizens. While these services keep the community content and make your area attractive to prospective residents, you must watch your budget carefully and make sure your neighborhood generates more money than it spends.

But it seemed that every time I thought I had inaugurated and stabilized a community, residents would leave over a lack of basic provisions. Power outages were a constant problem, and when my decades-old power plant finally gave out after years (time-elapsed, of course) of degeneration, I gave it up.

Even before I'd installed the newfangled SimCity 4 on my home computer, I knew it would require a serious investment in time. As with earlier efforts, when I finally took the plunge, it was fascinating to see the physical results of my actions in elapsed time and witness a community expand before my eyes.

Several hours of dedicated play resulted in a self-sustaining community, though truth be told, it was struggling with many concerns. There were no hospitals in my neighborhood, for one, because they would have drained more money from the city coffers than they were worth.

To keep residents distracted and happy, I built parks and recreation areas, some of which I later demolished, also out of fear it would siphon too much city resources. I was thankful to have a fire department, however, when an unexpected factory blaze threatened to consume my community's industrial sector.

Essentially, my city exhibited the usual problem of growth vs. livability. I was turning a profit each month on taxes generated by the many new factories, business and apartments that began dotting my growing neighborhood. Each addition to the area brought me closer to my goal of creating a dynamic, functioning metropolis, but my community seemed to attract only low-income residents who were willing to put up with living in such close proximity to a burgeoning industrial zone. I had, in effect, given birth to a ghetto.

A WISE SimCity mayor will, from time to time, consult his panel of advisors, who offer tips on finances, utilities, transportation, health, education and environment. Detailed budget charts will show you where your town is heading financially. Mayors with communities in the red can make cost-cutting moves by decreasing budgets, downsizing civil services and demolishing money-sucking projects like oversized shopping malls and underutilized parks.

It is also a good idea to check the public opinion polls occasionally to see where you stand with your citizens. Have you aggravated environmentalists by trying to build too much, too quickly? Do people view the mayor as being soft on crime? Whether you cave in to popular opinion or carry through with your plans, your city will be built -- or dismantled -- by the choices you make.

I found myself captivated by the entire SimCity 4 experience, though after several hours, I decided to suspend play. I have determined that playing God or mayor is close to a full-time proposition. I have not abandoned the game forever, but I do, after all, have a life.

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