I remember playing the original SimCity in 1989, the game that made legendary designer Will Wright legendary, the game that first coined the term "Sim", for "Simulated Citizen". I would sit for hours each day; growing my city, annoyed at traffic, trying to squeeze a few more Simonleons out from the budget.
And along came SimCity 2000, the 1993 sequel, which replaced the top-down view with an isometric viewpoint - a "3D" city! It took my breath away, and, again, I would commit hours each day; balancing my budget, wondering if I really needed the taxes from polluting Industry, trying to tame the traffic beast.
However, the two further games since, SimCity 3000 (1999) and SimCity 4 (2003), barely improved on gameplay besides improving the graphics for successive generations of computers. Each game was the same game - an old favourite, true, but old favourites aren't exciting, are they?
Thus it was with a brave new hope that I looked forward to SimCity Societies. Tilted Mill Entertainment, who had taken over the developer reins from Maxis, promised what sounded to be the next evolution.
In each of its predecessors, you "zone" areas to be developed into residential, commercial or industrial districts. You have no idea what your Sims are going to build in that residential zone you just placed, it could be anything from small homes to towering apartment blocks. Part of the allure of the series lay in the joy of discovery, whether it is trailing a Sim to see what he does all day, or finding aliens descend from the Heavens to draw crop circles in your corn fields.
In Societies, you no longer allocate zones, but place buildings in the way of other simulators, city or otherwise, such as Tropico, CivCity: Rome, or, even, Zoo Tycoon. The discovery comes in the game's six "social energies" - Productivity, Prosperity, Creativity, Spirituality, Authority and Knowledge - from which you decide to focus on one, a mixture, or all. The energies that make up your city will decide how your city is going to look, be it an Orwellian 1984 totalitarian state or a city full of Ferris Wheels with candy stores lining the yellow brick roads. As you build buildings of a certain energy, the game unlocks more buildings; build enough Chocolate Factories and Tree Houses, and you will be allowed to build a Fairy Tale Palace.
Amusingly, the soundtrack, too, changes accordingly, from the marching beat of Authority to the colourful tunes of Creativity. A pleasant surprise was finding the soundtrack encoded in .mp3, so you can play the tunes even without the game.
The idea is innovative, and still relevant enough to the original games' "feel" of being YOUR city, just the way you built it, as opposed to other building games, where you are simply developing a certain city - be it ancient Rome or Jurassic Park, it was always someone else's city.
Unlike the original games, where you try something and hope for the best; a constant balancing act between Commercial and Industrial, between fixing problems and expanding your city, Societies is pretty much smooth sailing. The six energies are little more than resources in an RTS, to be accumulated and spent accordingly. Gone is the triumph of seeing your city develop from village to metropolis, in gaining your one millionth Sim. Instead, Societies gives you what you want on a silver platter. Want 1984? In a few hours, it's yours, and once you have unlocked all the buildings of that type, it's pretty much the end of your city's evolution.
"Building Actions," such as a boost of cash when a workplace has had enough Sims having worked there, or spending cash to have a nightspot be more popular and grant more happiness, moves Societies another step toward other building games, away from the passive effects of the original series (place a hospital or a police station and you're done, short of adjusting the dreaded budget for micro-managers).
Lacking the depth of the original games, Societies has brought the series from epic to casual, changing itself from successor to spin-off.
As a casual game, however, it is very very pretty, with intricate details, such as homes decorating themselves with pink bunny balloons outside their doors when my Creativity-based City grew. "Special Sims" randomly spawn out of certain buildings, such as criminals or the police who catch them, or street artists from an art school, who draw portraits of Sims on the street, increasing their happiness for a few days.
Thankfully, it retained much of the quirky humour of the original series - the random name generator offers Simapore and Simcinnatti, creepy buildings may spawn ghosts or zombies, criminals run while being pursued by police, culminating in a fight.
Societies, thus, would appeal more to fans of The Sims than to fans of the more cerebral SimCity (And The Sims Carnival SnapCity, released a few weeks after Societies, is yet more of a casual SimCity). Away from the burden of bearing the "SimCity" title, the game does have much to offer. After all, doesn't everyone want a city full of gingerbread houses and ivory towers? Where happy folk work in chocolate factories?
Oh, you know you do. Just admit it.[an error occurred while processing this directive]