Cities are mongrels of things. The only good one to ever exist anywhere is Wellington, and that's because it's so small-town it's almost a small town. You can't walk from one side of the CBD to the other (which takes a whopping ten minutes) without bumping into someone you know, the rush hour traffic seems a pathetic trickle after sitting on the bridge in Auckland, and street crime is so low that car-theft, home invasion and white-collar crime make fun of it. But I digress. Cities? Who needs ‘em? Everyone would be much happier collecting eggs from free range chooks fifty-four klicks from the Middle of Nowhere. Seriously.
And it's not enough to build cities all over the place in real life; we have to do it in games too. The imaginary places we're supposed to escape to are fresh with the horrific realities of our time: war games, hand-of-God simulations, et al. It should be so easy to cast these aside and opt for your Sonics and Zeldas and Icos: but it isn't. So what is it about Sim City DS that is so arresting that for all my bluster I feel like a crotchety old man who talks about how music these days has gone straight to hell but finds himself tapping his feet to C4?
I was eager to get my hands on EA's DS remake/port (it seems to be a little of both) because I remembered playing Sim City 2000 on the PC; and remembered, too, how a typical session might go. I would put up a power plant. Some industrial zoning, residential zoning, some power lines, a park and a water pump would follow. People would move into my city. I would watch it develop, trying to curb the rapid exodus that always seemed to occur no matter how many recreation areas I added. Police? Got 'em. Firemen? Attending. What the hell do these people want!? Eventually, I would hike up taxes in a last ditch effort to raise enough money for a stadium, then ramp up the disaster setting to high and watch as flying saucers descended on my city and vapourised it.
I did things differently, this time. I played it smart. Even if you’ve played the original, it’s very helpful to take the time to work through the fifteen-module tutorial in Sim City DS. As mayor, you’ll always be concerned with using your power in the cruellest way possible (it’s how you roll), and so listening to your advisers is a positive step toward masking your contempt for your own people. They know their stuff. You should also know that there’s no shame in starting off on the easiest setting where you enjoy clear land, a small, conveniently placed slice of water as well as a fat bank account and frequent hints and tips. There are a number of areas you can choose to build your city in, each with varying degrees of difficulty based on landscape and starting bankroll. The easiest level starts you with $100k, while some of the harder ones as little as $10k.
Near all of the original features of Sim City have been resurrected for the remake, with the same building patterns and sequential development needed to get your city humming. You have full access to your city’s statistical data and control over your budget right down to how much you shell out for medical care or education. The detail is very impressive and the need to micro-manage is a treat rather than a trial. Through the various amenities you have to build you can control your city’s Aura – this is the yardstick by which you measure the overall success of your development.
Graphically, the game hasn’t come along in leaps and bounds. Some of the poorly animated characters you’ll meet back at your office as they ask for better transportation, a new library or more green areas, seem haphazardly thrown together. The art, in some cases, is quite ugly. The buildings, roads and other details are impressive enough when zoomed in, but zoomed out the rough sprites are hard to differentiate. That said, this does give a good sense of sprawl and allows you to truly appreciate the epic size of your city after you have been at it a while. Overall the sound is classic and non-offensive. Many of the effects are just as they were in the original.
The interface is well put together. The Build Screen is where you’ll spend a lot of your time, selecting options from across the top of the touch screen and down the sides. Because of the limited amount of space, there seems to be a lot going on, but I suppose the alternative would have been to have a complicated multi-tap menu where you really had to go searching. EA have done the best with what they have.
My biggest gripe is that the controls are awful. The stylus is not as precise as a mouse, and the tip is roughly the same size as the tiles in which you have to place your zoning, buildings, etc. It is entirely too easy to overlap or hit the wrong tile altogether, resulting in annoying and frequent demolitions. The scrolling is also very difficult – sometimes too sluggish, other times dangerously fast, leaving you with an accidental road stretching miles out into green nothingness.
For all its faults, however, this is still a great game. The cosmetics of it all cease to be important when you’re dealing with fires or crime and attending to the wants and needs of thousands of people as they flood your residential zones, set up shop in your commercial zones and aid pollution in your industrial zones. Seeing your population swell as you go about creating a tiny electronic utopia is well worth the few let-downs packed onto the cart and this is one game that will see you spending hours poised over your creation with your stylus, just making sure the buses are on time.