Since SimCity came out in March, there have been eight patches for the troubled city building game. At times, the Cities of Tomorrow expansion feels like patch number nine. Its future-themed additions are smartly designed to counter the GlassBox engine's intractable problems.
Were you annoyed by the cramped quarters you were given to build within in the original game? Cities of Tomorrow doesn't make the space larger, but instead introduces MegaTowers. 'Build up, not out!' pleads one of your citizens.
Were you annoyed by the pathfinding, which left your highways neglected while cars piled up on small roads and sims failed to find the shops opposite their house? Those eight patches made progress on the issue, but Cities of Tomorrow introduces elevated railways, skyways to connect MegaTowers, and drones, and each help keep sims indoors and off the streets.
These futuristic additions are introduced via three new specialisations. The Academy is a research center for unlocking new technologies, like wave generators, air scrubbers and those skyways. The Academy also generates ControlNet, a new resource which is quantum (i.e., it doesn't have to simulate its flow along roads), created by attracting different classes of workers to the Academy, and which is used to power most of the new futuristic buildings.
The OmegaHQ is a new type of factory, which uses oil and ore to produce a mysterious new substance called "Omega", which everyone in your city loves. The effect is that a successful OmegaHQ will convert other industrial buildings to Omega franchises, and when you eventually start producing drones, residential and commercial buildings as well. It's a way of re-decorating your city with a futuristic sheen.
Lastly, there's the MegaTowers, Ballardian skyscrapers designed to contain everything a sim might need in a single vast, multi-tiered structure. You build them chunk by chunk, plopping down mall levels atop office levels atop mile high park levels.
That allows you to reach higher populations than in the base game, without using any more space. It also allows you to build cities which look radically different than before, or quickly give your existing successful cities a new look. If you aim for low and mid-wealth MegaTowers, your city will be marked by Blade Runner-esque black buildings and glowing neon. If you aim for high wealth and build Elite MegaTowers, your city will look like concept art for an as yet unbuilt smart city.
This makes up for a lot. There was a joy, even in the original, to watching your city tick over. That feeling is doubled when there are mag levs wooshing around amidst your skyscrapers, or drones floating amidst your factory's purple smoke. SimCity is more beautiful than ever, and as a fan of the main game in spite of its flaws, the changes in appearance were enough to draw me back and keep me playing for another ten hours.
Much like the base game though, you'll enjoy the process a lot more if you don't think about it too much. If you do, Cities of Tomorrow starts to crumble at its foundations.
These new specialisations radically alter the way your city looks, but they don't much alter the basic process of playing. You'll need to make sure your ControlNet supply expands, but the process of doing so is the same as anything else, accomplished by making sure your city attracts all the different classes of people.
You don't have to think about anything new, which is why your existing cities can push through the new content so quickly. The aesthetic changes, coupled with the boosts in scale to your likely population, money and resource output are all welcome, but I don't think there's enough that's really new here to justify the £25/$30 price.
As much as the patches have helped, there's still lots of frustration left in the simulation. Placing streets can still be a fiddly nightmare. Much like the street dwellers, MegaTower residents will still sometimes struggle to find the shops directly above their heads. Your city's buildings and utilities still sometimes act in erratic ways, either due to bugs or a lack of clarity. When my city is full of recyclables, and I have lots of recycling trucks, and I have a factory designed to turn those recyclables into different materials, why is it not collecting or producing anything? I have no idea.
On my aging rig - an overclocked AMD Phenom 2 with 4GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 5700 - Cities of Tomorrow ran exactly as well as the base game. That means that it hovered smoothly around the 30 frames per second mark, dropping occasionally to a still playable 20fps during particularly packed scenes.
More than likely, the technical limitation that's going to bother you is the final fault of the original game I still haven't mentioned. Were you annoyed by its demand for an internet connection, even if you wanted to play alone?
Then unfortunately, Cities of Tomorrow has nothing to offer you. The content it adds is beautiful, appealing to existing fans, and often successful as a brute force method of overcoming some of the game's original limitations. But for all the ways in which aims to take SimCity into the future, it remains tethered firmly to its past. Due to the peculiarities of its simulation, Origin's temperamental connection, and ultimately its own mechanical shallowness, Cities of Tomorrow is unlikely to make converts of those already driven out of town.
Written by Graham Smith.