As the times change, so does SimCity. While the fundamentals of Will Wright's city planning simulator haven't transformed much since its 1989 debut, in recent years, SimCity hasn't been afraid to adapt popular trends.
Back when everything about Grand Theft Auto still seemed fresh and wonderful, 2003's SimCity 4 saw the Rush Hour expansion, which added -- as outlandish as it may seem today -- vehicle-based missions that, through some miracle, somehow fit in alongside the core game's focus on meticulousness. Without GTA's prostitution and the rockin' jams of Cheap Trick, of course.
The 2013 SimCity reboot hasn't gone quite as far to fit in with the modern gamescape, but its newest Cities of Tomorrow expansion features something you've likely seen in 90% of the games released over the past generation: A binary choice between good and evil. While they aren't explicitly labeled as such, Cities of Tomorrow clearly splits its options between utopia and dystopia, with the outcomes you'd expect from each: Expensive, feel-good, earth-friendly improvements from the former, and corporatist, polluting, and extremely profitable short-term solutions from the latter.
According to Maxis, Cities of Tomorrow represents an honest look at the problems of city planning 50 to 75 years from now, and the emerging technologies that will arise to combat them. My hour-long demo with the game mainly focused on a brighter version of the future, ushered into being by a benevolent research building known as "The Academy," engineered to improve the lives of SimCitizens -- those with high incomes, at least.
Dumping money into various academy sponsored projects can improve your Sims' lives, but with a high price tag attached. Complicating matters is the addition of a new resource, called Control Net -- which all Academy related buildings rely on -- generated by affluent citizens living in one of Cities of Tomorrow's additions, Megatowers.
SimCity suffered quite a few complaints about the decrease in scope compared to past games, and Megatowers address this issue by allow you to build up, rather than out. Each Megatower built can have up to eight levels, and works like a simulation within a simulation: folks living in these enormous structures have their own needs to be met, which include shopping, education, and recreation.
Addressing these concerns involves researching the right addition -- say, a level entirely devoted to schooling sims -- and stacking it atop your Jenga of human beings. When happy, these citizens can generate a king's ransom of income for your city, but wooing them takes a lot of effort; wealthy Sims require an environment that reflects their lifetime of achievements, after all. Once your mega-towers reach their maximum potential, you can add a "crown" which imbues your city with a passive bonus, like a boost in tourism, power supply, or entertainment value -- to name a few.
If a more realistic depiction of the future is your thing, Cities of Tomorrow offers the chance to ally yourself with the ominous-sounding OmegaCo for a gradual, corporate takeover of the entire universe. (And yes, I'm sure Maxis understands they've been laboring under a company with similar goals for over 15 years now.) It all starts with the Omega Factory, which converts oil and coal into a mysterious element named Omega, which, when shipped to commercial and industrial buildings, absorbs them into the OmegaCo family, earning you money hand-over-fist. OmegaCo's tentacles even extend to residential zones; citizens can be enrolled as OmegaCo subscribers, which makes them house-bound corporate serfs that send officially mandated drones out to do their shopping, all while avoiding your city's roads, which can make a big impact on ongoing traffic problems.
Of course, with this easy influx of cash you'll also have to deal with crime, pollution, and a drain on your resources, as well as a sphere of influence that makes the surrounding areas look at lot more Blade Runner-y than the Academy's focus on a neat-and-tidy future full of clean, round shapes.
As expected, it's all-or-nothing with Cities of Tomorrow's good vs. evil approach; while you can have both Academy and OmegaCo-related districts in your city -- which, in turn, shape their surroundings -- not sticking with one side, at least within a single city, will work to your detriment. To be honest, it's hard to tell if these new additions will be worthwhile without to change to nurture a city from birth with this new content in mind, but Maxis is confident that the four new regions, new disaster (in giant robot form), and disaster-free option -- a long-demanded feature -- will be enough to sell this expansion at the premium price of $29.99.
I don't normally comment much on things this factor, but Cities of Tomorrow's MSRP implies that this expansion with be a transformative experience for those who've burned themselves out on seven months of SimCity. And until reviewers get more time to see how this new content affects cities in the making, it's unclear if Maxis' confidence will bear out.