Review by Jaspertine

"Accept it for what it is, and this is a great port."

Game guru Will Wright stumbled upon a gold mine one day while working on a war game called Raid on Bungeling Bay. At some point during production, Will discovered that it was more fun to "play" the level editor than the game itself. This needs to be understood in order to grasp the phenomenon that is Sim City. Of course, there's not a lot that I really could say about this game that would have eluded you up until now. When this game was ported to the DS, it was cause for much fanfare among my family, mainly due to the fact that the DS is the only (working) game console that I currently own.

The main selling point of this version, however, is the fact that it is portable. Like most handheld ports, a few things needed to be scaled back, and it's not without it's flaws, but it nevertheless offers gamers that ever elusive chance to take their cities with them wherever they go. While this might be an obvious selling point for most handheld games, the ability to play while on the move isn't always as sweet an idea as it sounds. I'll get into this a bit later.

For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, Sim City is a game where you get to design your very own city, from the first mile of paved road, to the location of various civic buildings, like hospitals and fire stations. This is all done on a limited budget, with new money coming in either through tax dollars, bank loans, or by striking deals with neighbouring cities. You must build power plants and power lines to supply your city with electricity, police stations to prevent crime, and all sorts of other buildings which have a very direct impact on their surroundings, land value and your monthly expenses. As your city grows, you begin facing all kinds of other problems that result from a large, dense population.

The game is intended to be open ended, meaning that as long as you uphold your duties as mayor, everything else is entirely up to you. There is no actual objective to Sim City, though most hardcore gamers take pride in being able to build their cities up to the maximum possible size, often taking up the entire map. There usually exists a strategy that speeds up the process, and limits the risks.

This is where the game starts to run into some problems. While there are no rules or objectives keeping you from unleashing your creative vision, you do have to deal with your citizens, and might I remind you, their tax dollars are financing your vision. While it's entirely possible for you to build, say, the world's largest industrial park, or a mob town (no police stations anywhere), the plain fact is, your citizens will move away, and you'll be left with a beautiful ghost town. Tax dollars will dry up and everything will just continue to crumble until the game finally decides you've done a bad enough job that you get canned. For all intents and purposes, you'll be trying to strike a balance between your creative vision and what the citizens want. Put plainly, for a game with no objective, there sure are a lot of ways you can fail.

You start off by naming your city, then you choose a piece of land on which you'd like to build. The only real differences from one to the next is the amount of money you start off with, and the fact that some have more manageable coastlines than others. Your first move will likely be the building of a power plant, then a water tower or pump station, some power lines, roads and civic buildings. Finally, you get to the heart of your planning skills by creating different "zones." There are 3 fundamental types of zones (residential, commercial, and industrial), each with light, medium and heavy varieties.

Each zone has it's own necessary function. Residential create homes, industry provides jobs, and commercial provides goods and services. Once a zone is placed, the game decides what kind of buildings specifically will be built in each of these zones. Each type of zone has it's own tax rate, and it's own demand. Maintaining a balance between supply and demand of these zones is crucial.

If you've never played a SC game, this all probably sounds more like a boring office job than a fun game. It's hard to explain why city planning works as a game, though I imagine the fact that it isn't real might be a factor. The point I'm trying to make is that it's rather difficult to describe this game in a way that makes it sound as fun as it is. I might seem to gripe on the negatives a lot in this review, but keep in mind that I still play this game frequently, in spite of these things.

Now we've gone over the fundamentals, how does the DS title hold up? Well, there are some problems from the get go. You begin each game with an advisor, and he or she will proceed to talk your face off before you even get to start playing! They continue to offer far more advice than you ever asked for as the game goes on. While it's not a bad thing to get some advice from time to time (every SC game has this feature) these people pipe in with their opinions way too often. Worse still, they don't really pay attention to the big picture. They'll scold you for refusing to build some big, expensive building, but if you relent and build it, they scold you again for spending too much money. More often than not, you'll want to just go ahead and ignore whatever they say.

Along with your advisor, you we have to deal with an endless line of citizens who want one thing or another from you, or more to the point, the same one thing over and over again. Whether it's the old lady who wants yet another hospital, or the PTA head who wants yet another marina, these people are just plain obnoxious. They get very angry if you refuse (and your advisor will talk down to you again) but if you cave in and give them what they want, they just come back make more demands. You can refuse to visit them, but then you never know if you're missing out on a lucrative business deal. Your best course of action is to act like a real politician. Promise to give them whatever they want, then never get around to doing it.

While the game plays best with the mouse, the DS's touch screen would seem like the next best thing. It's certainly an improvement over using the d-pad, but it has some serious problems that ought to have been addressed. Firstly, you touch the screen to plot where a building will go, or determine the dimensions of a zone, and you finalize this decision by taking the stylus off the touch screen. While this arrangement works fine with a mouse, it makes using the touch screen very awkward. If you lift the stylus off the screen the wrong way, all your planning will be for nothing, and you'll have to undo and try again. This might work when building, but the undo doesn't work with demolition. If you demolish a baseball stadium by mistake, it's gone, either pay for a new one or do without!

Also, sometimes, when placing a building, your cursor will run slightly off the edge of the screen. This was no big deal in other SC games, but in this one, the cursor just goes mad and flies halfway around the entire map, and it's impossible to get the damn thing back into position. If the stylus slips off the touch screen while this is going on, you could find yourself with a huge residential zone, or having accidentally demolished a significant portion of your city. It would have (in my opinion) been much wiser to incorporate the L and R buttons into this process, just to keep it from being too unpredictable.

While many features had to be scaled back in order to make the game playable on the DS, two stand out as particularly disappointing. Firstly, there is only one save slot. Meaning, for all intents and purposes, only one person can play at a time. This was a major problem in my house, where my sister and I consistently deleted each other's cities, or built cities we weren't allowed to save. Second, the disasters have been gutted of their true fun. In other SC games, there was nothing we loved more than to create the perfect city, save the game, then unleash a flurry of disasters in order to burn the whole thing to the ground. Sure, you can still cut all social spending and lower the tax to zero and watch your society crumble, but it's just not the same. "Save a city" has also been altered to take this into account, and is probably the least enjoyable part of the game.

Also, there are smaller issues. It's needlessly difficult to place power lines effectively, for instance, and while railroads might be more efficient than regular roads, the point is pretty much moot since citizens just don't use them. I could build two train stations for every kilometre of track, it just all goes to waste. Blowing into the microphone in order to put out the occasional fire is clever, but really only serves to eliminate any real strategy from dealing with fires, and tapping Santa Claus to make him drop presents is just plain odd.

There are other elements that are barely worth mentioning. Like unlocking various monuments, or communicating with other mayors online. I've been playing this game for months now, and have literally never bothered to glance twice at these features.

As for the graphics, I like them. They're colourful and lively, and rather adorable, I think. Visually, the game is more like a slightly updated version of the original SC than a scaled back version of one of the newer games. If you can accept this for what it is, you'll likely be a lot less shocked by what you see. Some gamers might ache for something a little more realistic, but in a strange way, realism isn't what this game is about. It's supposed to be fun (hence it being a game) and the visual aesthetic is much more light-hearted in reflection of that. Besides, how could you possibly get tired of wandering over an isometric map of a city that you designed?

The sound effects are also fairly cartoonish, and charming in their own way. I particularly like it when you build a library and get shushed. Personally, however, I thought the music on this title really stood out. It has qualities that are reminiscent of earlier SC titles, though sonically updated, and maintains a kind of rapid pulse, reinforcing the kind of faster paced lifestyle one grows accustomed to while living in the big city. For a game that's notorious for it's slow paced gameplay, a solid musical score that makes it feel like it's moving along is a must, and this title delivers.

Well, that should pretty well cover the game itself, which takes us to the issue of portability, which I believe is at the core of whether or not this game succeeds. The sheer idea of playing SC anywhere does seem appealing, but there are some serious roadblocks that must be dealt with. First of all, with the touch screen as awkward and sensitive as it is, you can pretty much rule out the option of playing a game on a bus, plane, cab, or any other form of transport, and the load/save time means that playing a quick round is somewhat tricky. However, if you, like me, find yourself spending a lot of time in hotel rooms, then this game is the perfect solution. Most people will find themselves between those two extremes, but I must say, once you make it past the main obstacles, it can be a real treat to be able to take your game with you to different places. It's not the best example of portable gameplay, but it's still a good one.

Overall, is this game worth it? I think it is, but in the end it depends on whether or not you can accept this game for what it is, and not what it isn't. This may be a step back for the Sim City, franchise, and if you don't move past that, you might find it hard to enjoy this game. Some of the features could have used a lot more tweaking, but the core of game is still completely intact.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/26/07

Game Release: SimCity DS (US, 06/19/07)

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