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SimCity: The legendary city simulator returns to its hardcore roots

Resource harvesting, real-time destruction physics, a complex economy, and... curved roads!

You'll notice there's no '5' in the title - that's because this is a fresh start for the city-building series. Over the last two years, Maxis have been working on a new simulation engine called GlassBox.

On the surface it's the same game as ever - build a city, keep the population happy, deal with disasters, manage your budget - but it's the machinery whirring in the background that makes it the most complex, sophisticated SimCity yet.

One of the most interesting new features is being able to give your city a 'specialisation'. Maybe you'll develop a wealthy gambling town like Las Vegas, with rows of neon-lit casinos. Or maybe a hard-working mining town that relies on coal to survive. Every city you build will have its own unique resource - be it lumber, coal, ore, or oil - and this will dictate your economic strategy.

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Like in SimCity 4, the new game has a regional view that allows you to create multiple cities on one huge map, and connect them with a transport infrastructure. Combined with the new resource system, this means you can create a vast, complicated trading network. You can even put your materials on the global market and sell them to other countries, or invite friends to build cities in your region and then trade with them. It's incredibly deep.

However, despite these changes, the game won't stray too far from the established SimCity gameplay that you know and love - but there have been a few notable tweaks. You can now build curved roads, which means your cities will no longer all be rigidly grid-based. Buildings can be upgraded, and a new physics engine means they can be destroyed in real-time during inevitable catastrophes like fires, floods, and tornadoes.

As well as the backstage number crunching, GlassBox also improves the simulation of your city in a physical way. If there's a traffic jam clogging up your streets, it's because the roads are too small, or there aren't enough of them.

It's then possible that the jam will stop a coal truck reaching a power station, and your city will lose electricity. This is just one tiny example; imagine this on the scale of a Tokyo-sized metropolis, and you'll get an overwhelming glimpse into how rich and intricate the new simulation engine is.

This complexity can also work against you. With so many interdependent systems running in your city at once, all it takes is one mistake to cause a disaster. One power cut, fire, traffic jam, or riot can grind your whole city to a halt. If you decide to buy electricity from a neighbouring town rather than generate your own, their increased pollution could end up drifting over to your city and making the population sick, which in turn will affect your own workers. Keeping everything running smoothly is a complicated juggling act, which is exactly what SimCity is all about.

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Visually, the game has been inspired by tilt-shift photography - a technique that makes real-world scenes look like plastic miniatures. It's a vibrant, colourful game, but with an astonishing amount of detail. Zoom down to street level and you'll see individual pedestrians - thousands of them - going about their business, as well as traffic, and emergency services responding in real-time to disasters and road accidents.

After the disappointing last game, and accusations that Maxis are increasingly appealing to casual gamers, it's reassuring to see just how deep and strategic the new SimCity is, and how much it reminds us of the series' glory days. The GlassBox engine is genuinely impressive, and we can't wait to get busy building our first metropolis, then watch it burn down because we used all of the fire department's budget to build a big gold statue of ourselves.

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