SimCity DS
| SimCity DS

We'd all like to fancy ourselves amateur civil engineers, cocking a snook at ill-advised construction projects, complicated rezoning ordinances, and downright maddening tax laws. After all, who doesn't think they could manage a city better than those suits at City Hall?

And that's the audience EA hopes to stroke up a touch with SimCity DS, its first portable version of the long-running SimCity brand that's sold millions of PC games, and launched the careers of countless wannabee social architects.

As you'd expect, SimCity DS finds you elected as mayor of a fictitious city, charged with planning its growth from the ground up. Equally predictable (and welcome) are the intuitive touch controls, and the ability to exchange unlocked buildings with other players across a local wireless connection.

But you'll first need to unlock them, by bringing in cash and citizens via the Build-A-City mode, which serves as the game's main attraction. It's akin to a sandbox city simulation where you build a city to your own design.

The core city building elements from the PC games are intact in SimCity DS, but much of the complexity has been left behind. Clearly this has been done in order to tailor the experience to a more mainstream audience who have smaller pockets of time to kill, but it also refreshes the game by ridding it of needless elements.

Gone then are water pipes and sewers, as well as power lines, for the most part; you can still lay lines to conduct electricity to remote regions of a city, but power automatically flows to adjacent buildings.

Since you won't have to bother with the tedium of assembling the resource infrastructure, much of your time can be spent zoning land for residential, commercial, or industrial use. Helpfully, a demand gauge on the touchscreen lets you know what your citizens want. In addition, advisers frequently pop up with suggestions to increase denizen satisfaction. Doling out their advice with inane dialogue, they're rather annoying, however. You're better off ignoring their prompts and charting your own course.

What makes SimCity DS more appealing is how it utilises the touchscreen for city building. The ability to place buildings and denote zones is intuitive and fun. Other aspects of the interface can be problematic – such as the limited zoom and a cluttered heads-up display – but the touch controls really succeed in freshening up the city-building mechanic.

If the touch controls are a bright spot, then the saving system is a black hole. Aside from the absurd amount of time it takes to save a game (on average half a minute), you can only save one city to the cartridge. Part of what always made the PC games so much fun was the ability to create a bunch of different cities and toy with them at will. Without the ability to build more than one metropolis, the game feels limited and too serious.

Elsewhere, eight objective-based scenarios expand the game beyond Build-A-City mode, tasking you with saving fictional cities from various disasters and economic crises. For example, tackling the North Amiland scenario (quite the clever pseudonym for North America, don't you think?), you're told to grow a city's population from 20,000 to 120,000 in ten years while dealing with the aftermath of a huge earthquake. Other scenarios involve fixing poor transportation planning in a metropolis crippled by traffic, quieting rioters on a little island west of Europe, and even repelling an alien attack.

These scenarios are sorely needed as an alternative to the game's sandbox city building mode, but they don't all together satisfy that need.

Firstly, eight scenarios don't amount to much when compared to the near limitless value of Build-A-City mode, and they lack any replay value – complete a scenario once and you'll have experienced all that's worthwhile.

Secondly, the scenarios must be finished in one sitting, since saving isn't allowed while in the middle of a game. Not only is this counter-intuitive to the portable nature of the platform, but it also makes finishing the scenarios a lengthy affair.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the level of difficulty is much too intense. Within each scenario you're not allowed to modify the city's budget in any form. Since you start in the red, generating a steady cash flow for city planning is difficult. Presumably the intent is to focus activity purely on city planning skills, but placing arbitrary restrictions on finances doesn't do anything but make the game unnecessarily hard.

While these shortcomings all taint the experience of playing SimCity DS, they don't totally destroy the fun. Middling presentation, annoying advisers, and issues with saving aside, the touch controls are enjoyable and the core simulation mechanics works as well as it ever did. Ultimately, SimCity DS ends up being an average game that best serves those willing to put up with its flaws. Much like your common-or-garden builder.

SimCity DS

So-so graphics, a poor saving capability and too few modes make SimCity DS a distinctly average version of what should have been a much more enjoyable experience
Tracy Erickson
Tracy Erickson
Manning our editorial outpost in America, Tracy comes with years of expertise at mashing a keyboard. When he's not out painting the town red, he jets across the home of the brave, covering press events under the Pocket Gamer banner.