In general, then, this is SimCity just as you know it: put in residential, commercial and industrial zones, add roads to link them together, make sure they’re all supplied with electricity and water, add police stations, fire stations, schools and other civic facilities, balance the budgets and watch your city grow. Roughly two-thirds of the effort is just zoning, and the other half financial. Keeping taxes low encourages residential, commercial and industrial growth, but the lower the taxes the harder it is to maintain public spending without putting your city coffers into deficit.
However, there have been some simplifications. Most of us won’t be sorry to see the end of the water systems – laying pipes and maintaining a steady flow was always such a hassle – and the only thing to worry about now is adding water towers and pumping stations near zones as appropriate. The game is also a little more generous with the electricity supply: as long as you group zones together you don’t need to worry much about adding pylons and cables, and you seem to be able to run a huge chunk of city from a single coal power station. Even the traffic doesn’t seem as complex as in previous versions. While the game nags you to add railways and other systems, you can get away with road networks for a surprising amount of time.
But SimCity DS has a problem: it’s a vaguely absorbing way to spend your time, but it’s nowhere near as compulsive as any of the original PC games. I think a lot of this comes down to the visual presentation. While SimCity DS resembles SimCity 2000 most of the animated detail, including traffic, seems to have done a runner. As a result, the sense of a living, breathing city that you had from the PC editions has gone. For most of the game your city seems eerily lifeless. More seriously, you don’t get that instant feedback on where you face crime or traffic issues, meaning you have to root through the data sheets to see what’s going on where.
Other factors compound the problem. For some reason, the developers have chosen to pause the game while you’re building, budgeting and zoning. In a higher speed strategy game this wouldn’t be a bad idea, but in a game as relaxed as SimCity, it makes progress drag more than you might believe. In addition, you’re stuck starting the game at 1900, the initial line-up of buildings and facilities is fairly meagre, and the rate of technological progress is painfully slow, meaning that for long periods you’re stuck with a very limited set of items you can add to your city. Even disasters – always a rich source of entertainment – seem thin on the ground. As a result of all this, a once-compulsive game has been transformed into a vaguely absorbing one. With SimCity, is that really good enough?