Game reviews: SimCity 4 (PC)

Rather than my usual style of reviewing, in this case I'm instead writing a blog-style essay. Some spoilers about the gameplay follow.

Several years ago I saw this game, ie. SimCity 4, really cheap, practically free, at a store and I bought it even though I have never been a big fan of simulation games (such as the Sim-style games or RTS). It was on my games shelf all these years. My intention was to try it "some day" when I had the time. Of course newer and more interesting games kept finding themselves on the same shelf, so the poor old SimCity 4 never got its chance, always set aside by newer and more bombastic games.

This summer it has been really hot in Finland, and my PC doesn't like hot climate very much. When the room temperature raises to 26 or 27 degrees celsius and over, the CPU fan starts really spinning and the CPU temperatures sky-rocket. Usually my PC is really quiet, and in cool conditions I can have a continuous 100% load on it without it making much noise, but in hot weather it starts making so much noise that I am afraid to load it too much. So no gaming during the hot season.

This year I happen to have this laptop, which seems to be less prone to hot weather, so I have used it as my main gaming platform. Of course being a laptop, and a bit old one at that, it cannot run the newest games. So you are probably already guessing where this is going. That's right, while deciding which game I could play which the laptop can run, SimCity 4 finally got its chance. Not only is it optimal for the laptop because it's not a high-end game requiring a supercomputer, but the game itself being a calm mouse-based resource management style game is very suited to be played on a laptop.

I wasn't a big fan of simulation-type games, and that hasn't really changed. The game is not really exciting, but maybe a bit boring. Not much happens. However, for some reason it has this strange addictive side to it. I keep going back to the game time and again, although I'm still not very excited by the game type.

At first the game seemed impossibly difficult. No matter what I did, expenses were always higher than income, and the city funds were shrinking rapidly. In fact, my very first city got bankrupt so fast that I just scrapped it completely and started over, this time much more moderately, building more slowly, allocating resources sparingly, and waiting for the population to slowly grow. Yet, still, the expenses seemed to always be higher than the income, and again the funds shrunk inevitably towards zero. In fact, at one point I was in debt and had to take a loan.

Of course you could simply raise taxes to the roof in order to bump up the income, but then nobody wants to live in your city and you are toast. (This is actually what happened with my first city which I scrapped.)

Then, when everything seemed to be lost, some kind of critical mass was achieved, and the cash flow became positive. First just a little, but as more time passed and as I managed even more resources, the positive cash flow increased steadily.

A large and important part of the game consists of careful juggling of funding and resource management, and you have to constantly keep everything in a nice equilibrium: Spend too little and you are toast, spend too much and you are toast. Taxes too low? Toast. Taxes too high? Toast. And so on.

There are quite many such things which need careful equilibrium. The citizens need to be educated, or else they will be poor tax payers, so you always have to aim for maximum education. Thus you need to build different types of schools (from elementary to university-level) and constantly watch their funding: Too little funding and the citizens won't learn a thing, and in the worst case the teachers will go on strike. Too much funding and you will be spending all of your income into them.

The citizens need health services. Again, you need to build hospitals and watch their funds: Too little or too much is bad. The optimal equilibrium is the goal. Police and firemen need to be employed to keep the city running. Again, you have to watch the funds.

Then of course there are the resources: You need to provide resources to the citizens, such as electricity, water and transportation. Here you also need to carefully reach an equilibrium: Too little resources and funding, and your citizens won't have the needed resources and move out. Too much funding, and your expenses will be too high.

Of course there are different types of resource factories, and which one is the most economical depends on the amount of energy needed. For example for a small settlement it's enough to have one or two windmills. It's also the cheapest and cleanest. However, when your city grows, they will not be enough. You can build more, but at some point they will not be cost-effective, and instead it will be cheaper to replace them with a larger power station (which will be more expensive to build, but cheaper to run than the myriad of windmills for the same energy output). Of course larger power stations will also contaminate more, which is another factor. (Contamination affects, amont other things, the likablity of the neighborhood.)

As the city grows larger and larger in population, transportation can become a real headache. Too many traffic jams, and once again you can have unhappy citizens who start leaving the city for greener pastures. You have to always keep your road system flowing. Building better roads, interconnecting them properly and building a bus transportation system helps a long way. However, after a certain critical mass of population is reached, they won't be enough. Then you'll have to start thinking of highways and metro tunnels, which are really expensive. And if you don't set them up properly, they might end up being inefficient at easing the traffic flow.

Of course you have to zone some terrain for the citizens to build their homes and places of work. As your city grows and the citizens get educated and healthy, demand for more building area will increase. However, you cannot expand your city forever, if for nothing else, because there are physical limits to the sandbox. Rather than expand sideways, your city needs to expand up. However, it's not you who decides how tall the buildings are, but the citizes, and getting them to want skyscrapers is a long and arduous task.

There are tons of other things as well, small-scale and large-scale (such as business deals with other cities, high-end transportation between different cities by highways, trains, boats and airplanes for high-end cash flow, terraforming, landmarks, natural disasters, etc.)

Even though I'm still not very excited about this type of game, it's just somehow addictive. I want to get the city more developed, I want to see the taller buildings, I want to see the highways constructed, I want to maybe break the one million citizens barrier (assuming it's possible)... I think my current 35000 citizens is just scratching the surface. I want to see a world-class metropolis, not a country town.