SimCity was challenging and plausibly realistic and even had a surprising amount of humor, especially for a game with a seemingly mundane subject. About 15 years have passed since the original SimCity was first released, and while the classic SimCity series is still well known among PC gamers, it has only reached its fourth full installment. And SimCity 4 for the most part isn't a huge departure from its predecessors, either, not that it really needs to be. The game does have a number of new features and a few additional layers of depth on top of the preceding SimCity 3000, and its visuals have been impressively overhauled. However, due to the presence of some stability and performance issues, as well as a few noticeably lacking features, SimCity 4 doesn't seem as polished as it could have been. On the other hand, it's still a complex and detailed strategy game that can entertain you for hours on end and even teach you a thing or two.
SimCity 4 is similar to its predecessors, but it offers a number of interesting new features.
One of the biggest changes to the gameplay of SimCity 4 is evident from the start. Immediately as you begin the game, you're presented with a view of SimNation, though it's not much of a nation at first. SimNation is divided up into numerous smaller square segments, yet each of these in fact can hold an entire city of your making. These cities can even interact to some extent, exchanging surplus energy, water, and such for cash. At any rate, getting started is as easy as clicking on any SimNation square, naming your city, and appointing yourself as mayor, and you're off. But before you begin, you may wish to take the step-by-step tutorials of the game's mayor mode—the heart of SimCity 4—and the god mode, where you can terraform the land to your heart's content, making the terrain as flat, as hilly, as undulating, or as improbably strange as you like. It's easy to use the terrain-morphing tools found in this mode, and while it's perfectly viable to just pick one of the ready-made territories to start your city in, it's tempting and straightforward to custom-tailor your own.
Once you decide it's time to get started with your city, you may find the early going to be very familiar if you've played any of the previous SimCity games. You'll start by plopping down a power plant, preferably one that doesn't create too much pollution, and then laying down some residential, industrial, and commercial zones, then giving them some time to incubate. Laying out zones is as easy as dragging rectangles using your mouse, but SimCity 4 tries to make things even easier on you by automatically inserting streets, giving larger zones a gridlike pattern. This is a mixed blessing, since these auto-built streets often don't line up as you try to construct adjacent zones, leaving your city with bits of wasted space here and there, at least until you get used to dealing with this feature. And since city maps in SimCity 4 are smaller overall than in previous SimCity games—probably a necessary limitation due to the fine level of detail you'll see down to individual houses and sims—that wasted space could be a big missed opportunity for your city. Plus all the extra roads can really hose your budget early on. The auto-roads feature really should have been optional.
You'll have to start small, but think big.
You'll have to start small, but think big.
As in SimCity 3000, the three zone types each have several different density options, so light-density residential zones are likely to sprout small houses or low-income apartments, while high-density residential zones could turn into tall, fancy condominiums. Denser zones are costlier to put in place but pack in more people, which means more tax dollars. But in SimCity 4, it pays to start slow. The early going can be very challenging at first (and there are no difficulty options available to ameliorate this), as you'll naturally wish to immediately add all the amenities you'd want in a city: running water, schools, hospitals, police stations, or a football field. At any rate, a fledgling town needs only the basics, and a continuously updating news ticker that's part of the interface will keep you informed about whether your sim population needs anything you're not already providing. You'll eventually get a feel for how to get people coming into your town without driving your budget too far into the red. The goal, of course, is to make your newly established city profitable as soon as possible, since that's when you can start expanding in earnest and finally afford that hospital or police station you've always wanted next to your football field.
Having to contend with the constantly shifting demand for the three zone types while continuously adding better services and transportation options for your population and while also keeping an eagle eye on your monthly budget adds up to some involving gameplay. SimCity 4, like its predecessors, succeeds at being an active, hands-on game where there's usually something interesting you can be doing. Even if you're waiting to rake in a certain amount of funds, you can use that time as an opportunity to scrutinize the many different statistics and charts available to you or to correspond with your various advisors on how to proceed. Or you can use the handy query tool to click around your city, gleaning all kinds of information, including a few amusingly pointless statistics. You can even just sit back and observe your city at the closest zoom level. See those crime-scene-style chalk outlines near your football field? Those mean you probably should spring for a new police station thereabouts. All this is not to say SimCity 4 is a fast-paced game, because you can play it at the rate you want. It's possible to pause the action outright and build as much as necessary before starting the clock back up, and you can freely switch between three different game-speed settings.