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Part of the reason I fell out of love with SimCity as I grew older was that the game just got too complex. It stopped being about building residential, commercial, industrial zones, and started being all about infrastructure and careful placement of water pipelines and subways. While some praised the game for living up to its "simulator" roots, many - myself included - drifted away from the city-builder of our youth, relegating Will Wright's creation to the realms of nostalgia.
Part of the reason I've (already) fallen so heavily for the new SimCity is that it looks just like the game I played two decades ago. Visually, it couldn't be further from the simple black squares of the pared-down Commodore 64 version, but the sense of fun is back. It's gone from being an illustrated spreadsheet of taxes and details to a beautiful, animated world, home to all manner of tiny pixellated people. And this time, the people really matter.
While at E3, we checked out a behind-closed-doors demo of SimCity (it's not quite playable yet!) and then chatted a little with SimCity lead producer Kip Katsarelis, who told us all sorts of things about what we can expect when the game launches in February 2013.
A residential area - green on the map - is painted onto the terrain, and a little house is constructed as we watch. A teeny tiny moving van pulls up alongside the house and a family moves in. As the van disappears, a teeny tiny car pulls out of the driveway and trundles down the road to the nearby Industrial zone, which stands idle. As more cars park in the industrial zone, smoke starts billowing from chimneys, and soon teeny tiny trucks arrive empty and drive away full, headed for the commercial zones. It's all "real", and it's all being played out in-game.
Back in the day, traffic congestion happened when a number in a database suggested that population density had reached a certain point. In the new - PC exclusive - SimCity, traffic congestion happens when you design roads so poorly that the little Sims cannot get to their destinations. And while that mostly affects them when they're going to work (or home again afterward), if there's a traffic jam between the fire engine and the blazing inferno? That fire's not going to be put out.
Adding to the simulated realism (is that even a thing?): Roads are now curvy. Terraforming and re-shaping land is difficult, so it's no longer the solution to all your awkward zoning issues. Modular building structures mean you can adapt your factories to better suit your town's needs with new garages or a taller smoke stack. Bad guys drive fast cars away from the crime scene (and you can see the graffiti drying on the walls they're speeding from). Public transport is innovative and intuitive (actually, that's not at all like the real world).
But really, while the game is ever-so-much more real, ever-so-much more fun and ever-so-much more alive, SimCity is still the same old game we know and love, just with some very impressive modern tweaks.
It almost feels as if EA Maxis has taken a peek inside my brain, and paid close attention to everything I imagined happening in my cities. Then, through the wonders of modern technology, the studio has translated those thoughts onto the PC, so I can watch them being played out in front of me. Even though I had to wait 20 years for it to happen, it looks even better than I'd hoped.