Let me make a couple of admissions right off the bat. The last SimCity game I played was the original SimCity published way back in 1989. So if you’re looking for how SimCity 4 differs from SimCity 3 or SimCity 2000, I have no idea. What I’ll try to do in this review is simply describe what’s in the game and how good it is. But note: I quickly got bored with SimCity when I played it, and SimCity 4 has similar enough gameplay that I quickly got bored with it as well. I recognize that some people must like the franchise – it wouldn’t have made it to its fourth installment otherwise – but I’m not one of them, it appears, and while I’ll try to review the game without bias, I’m sure the bias will sneak out from time to time. So you’ve been forewarned.
In SimCity 4 you play the mayor of a city, except you’re way more powerful than any real-life mayor. You get to do things like place schools, police stations, fire stations, and hospitals; decide budgets for those buildings; lay different kinds of roads; zone land for residential, commercial, and industrial use; provide water and electricity; and more. Of course, you’re not all powerful. People might not use the land you zone, or they might use it for different purposes than you intended (like when polluting low-tech industries use your high tech land), and you have to concern yourself with making money, but otherwise everything is pretty much up to you.
What SimCity 4 does well is give you lots of options. Just for power needs you can choose from wind, oil, coal, and natural gas. You can even burn garbage for power. Plus, as your city grows and meets certain requirements, you might be able to use solar, nuclear, or hydrogen power. Similarly, there are lots of different residential and commercial buildings, so your city blocks don’t look alike, and there are all sorts of special buildings around. You can add the White House or Big Ben or the Taj Mahal. So, visually, SimCity 4 is great.
Also, SimCity 4 is a completely open-ended game. There isn’t a campaign or scenarios to complete. There are just regions, and each region is broken up into rectangular blocks where you can place cities. Even here there are options. The game comes with regions like San Francisco, London, and New York, and it even allows you to create your own regions, complete with forests, wild animals, hills, and rivers. Plus, since the map blocks are right next to each other, you can connect your cities and make one a suburb of another, or even use one city to buy water or trash from another.
In fact, it’s the buildings in the game that give any sort of objectives at all, because there are many “reward” buildings. As your city grows, you might be able to add a church or a golf course, and, if you meet much more stringent requirements, a Major League Baseball stadium or an opera house might become available. So you might start a city just to try and achieve one sort of building, and then start a second city to achieve another (the reward buildings are somewhat mutually exclusive, and you won’t have room to include many of them in a single city anyway). Plus, with all the other options with buildings, you could try creating a city that is pollution free, or creating one based on farming, or just creating some to try out the different mass transit systems (there are four).
The problem is, while there are lots of building options, gameplay remains about the same. There isn’t really a lot of difference between using buses or subways, or relying on coal power instead of natural gas. Different options cost different amounts, and they pollute different amounts, but mostly the differences are cosmetic. Worse, not only does the gameplay not change very much, it isn’t all that exciting to begin with. Buildings have funding levels, which sounds like a good thing since it means you don’t have to hire twelve teachers to teach 10 students at an elementary school (as an example), but the funding levels can only be changed manually, and there aren’t any helpful summary screens to help you out. So once your city gets big enough, you have to spend a lot of time going from school to school or hospital to hospital to make sure your employees aren’t being overworked (causing them to go on strike), and that you aren’t spending too much money on their services. That isn’t a lot of fun.
Moreover, the interface for SimCity 4 isn’t very friendly. Not only is there no help for adjusting funding levels, but there isn’t an undo button, you only get one save slot per city, and the only way to load your city is to exit it and then select it from the main menu. And autosaves? Quicksaves? Forget it. The lack of an undo button is especially surprising, since SimCity 4 is a game where it’s easy to make small mistakes, and where you need to experiment a little. Plus, “events” in the city (such as learning your school teachers have gone on strike) cause problems. Events can happen so quickly that they interrupt each other (meaning you won’t even necessarily see what the event was), and they do a bad job of interrupting what you’re doing. One time I was in the middle of placing a road when an event came up, and I ended up with the road stretching from where I started all the way to the event, destroying everything in its path. That caused a reload, which was annoying because I hadn’t saved in a while.
The interface is just an example that SimCity 4 isn’t the same sort of friendly, casual game as The Sims. You can’t just plunk down a school here and a road there and expect to muddle through successfully. SimCity 4 is actually difficult to play because money is hard to come by. You always start with $100,000, but that disappears quickly in a new city, and the main way to replenish your funds is through taxes. But taxes don’t bring in a lot of money, and it’s difficult to pay for the basics let alone things like recycling centers and universities. That’s why you have to carefully budget your schools and hospitals, and it’s also why you have to pay careful attention to where you put buildings, so utilities and civic services cover your city with the least expense possible.
So, overall, SimCity 4 is a nice looking but repetitive and slightly annoying management game – at least for me. Fans of the earlier SimCity games will probably like this version as well, since it seems to play about the same, and since you can import characters from The Sims into it and watch them take part in your city (but, like the rest of the game, watching your sims gets repetitive and boring rather quickly, and that’s if they don’t decide to move out). So buyer beware.