When released on January 14, 2003, SimCity 4 had problems. Its massive cities, for one, would have gotten into even decent PCs, and its traffic simulation seemed completely out of whack.
Twenty years later – thanks to faster computers, the Rush Hour expansion and a huge modding community – SimCity 4 is the best of all the SimCity games. It is also the best city builder if you are interested in simulation, scale, variety and beauty of city expansion.
Fantasy and medieval variants aside, the template set by the SimCity series remains the expectation for most city builders. As the mayor of a fledgling city, you zone commercial, residential, and industrial districts, place amenities and services to satisfy residents, and try to balance the budget as your city begins to take on a life of its own. Then, when you build a sprawling metropolis and get tired, you trigger some natural (or unnatural) disaster and start over.
SimCity 4 did nothing to change this formula, but continued its logical progression. It has 3D terrain and crisp, clear sprite-art buildings, which is one of the reasons it still looks great today. This allows you to build huge cities and then exchange resources with the neighboring city you built earlier. It has a day/night cycle, so you can see your skyscrapers glow in the dark. You can place individual Sims in your town – The Sims 1, released in 2000 – and then follow their lives as they go about their gruesome jobs in your seedy suburbs, then move out of town or die.
Perhaps most importantly, SimCity 4 included BAT, the Building Architect Tool, which allowed moderators to create their own buildings and place them in the game. Custom buildings, maps, and mods have greatly extended the life of SimCity 4, and there are over 21,000 files at the time of writing. Available from the Simtropolis community siteincluding several new downloads in the last 24 hours.
Mods are what I am sure call SimCity 4 the best city builder of all time. More precisely, it is thanks to the Network Addon Mod. NAM started out in 2004 to fix SimCity 4’s traffic issues, and since its last update in September 2022, it’s expanded to include new UI tools, road types, light rail. and more. Given that every modern city planner inevitably tries to deal with road networks and reduce congestion, NAM is essential.
To address the skyscraper in the room: I love Cities: Skylines, and if you’re new to the genre, Paradox’s SimCity milkshake drinker is the place to start. If you’ve been playing Cities: Skylines and you’re tired of it, or you don’t want to cough up for the next piece of DLC, then you should switch to SimCity 4. SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition (including The Rush Hour expansion, also released in 2003). On Steam and GOG. Given that 2013’s SimCity bombed and that Maxis’ original studio in Emeryville closed in 2015, we may never see its like again.
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