Who'd have thought being a mayor could be so much fun?
The good people at Maxis have thrown the word 'Sim' around a lot over their careers. From SimEarth to SimAnt, to even the bold 'SimEverything' (the early name for Spore), and of course, The Sims. But I feel in practice that these games are more about giving the player some toys to mess around with than accurately simulating our world. However, none of these games earn the right to to call themselves a 'sim' more than SimCity 4 does.
The game strikes a nice balance between micro and macro management. Unlike games like Tropico where you're responsible for overseeing the construction of every building, in SimCity you'll spend most of your time 'zoning' areas of residential, commercial, and industrial (RCI) zones for the private sector to develop for you. This means that to get a cool city full of Canary Wharf style buildings, you'll spend most of your time trying to boost RCI demand, which is a surprisingly difficult task. High wealth commercial services/offices and high-tech industry are very finicky corners of the market, and they won't be slightly interested in building in your city unless your populace is at least well educated and healthy;
because of this, you'll probably want to think about health, education, and other services quite early on. You'll find that the game is actually a surprising exercise in restraint, since you constantly have to worry about finances. If your books don't balance, you'll find yourself kicked out of office pretty soon. This is a little jarring if you come from the likes of The Sims, and restraining yourself from adding essentials like water to your early city makes you feel like a complete cheapskate; but once you're in the correct mindset, you'll find yourself with enough income to fund plenty of public services before you know it.
You'll spend 99% of your time in 'Mayor mode', but it's worth addressing the other 2 'modes' as well. The interface is designed to be familiar to players of The Sims, which is not a great fit a lot of the time. Too much exposure is given to 'God mode' and 'Sim mode' (a clear shout to Build/Buy/Live mode from The Sims); whilst more important tools, such as roads, find themselves buried in menus within menus, and a lot of useful data finds itself hidden away too. I thought the UI was fine after I realised where the important stuff is, but I feel like I shouldn't have needed to figure that out.
'God mode' is for creative types who want to sculpt the landscape of their cities before they start building. God mode gives you a lot of neat tools to make the perfect land-mass for your Sims to inhabit, but they're sometimes a little too imprecise, and with no undo button, it's too easy to accidentally mess up a nice looking landscape when you're just trying to make some small touches. I also found I was punished for trying to make interesting landscapes, as the game doesn't let you build on 'rough terrain', and there's no way to check whether your terrain is 'rough' until after you've founded your city, at which point most the God mode tools are either disabled, or available for an extortionate price. Sim mode is the biggest gimmick you'll find in SimCity 4, but thankfully, it's easily ignored.
I could talk for hours about each individual aspect of Mayor mode, though. From how the simulation tracks all the things you'd expect: employment, crime, commute time etc., but also much deeper things, like assimilation and discard within zones, regions of wealth and poverty, and even a large amount of 'just for fun statistics', which reflects Maxis' sense of humour. For example, doing a query on a golf course will reveal the averages for the course. These statistics seem to amount to no more than some random numbers at work, but they provide a little humour in the right place. You'll also find yourself playing the game at all levels of scale, from deciding which of your city's streets should be upgraded to higher-capacity roads, to issuing city-wide edicts; from managing the funding of individual schools and hospitals, to adjusting the tax rates of all your sims. The game moves back and forth between micro and macro management in a perfectly natural way, and this is one of the most engaging aspects of play.
I should also give a shout-out to the music. Jerry Martin and his team of musicians have created a beautiful score that perfectly sums up the mood of the game. The soundtrack makes really intelligent use of a variety of classical instruments that just help you slip into that 'zen' state where you'll just wonder where the last couple of hours just went. The soundtrack even has appeal away from the game.
There's just so much stuff for you to do in SimCity 4. While the game can feel a little light on content at times, with not as many buildings or pre-made cities for you to play about with as I'd like, I found most of the fun was trying to see how the simulation would react to my experimentation, and then trying to fix some of the issues that arose from it. You'll find a challenge in trying to get the high wealth industries and services to move in, or if you get bored of that, you could try making a farm instead. The simulation is so deep that you'll have to play the game for many hours before you understand exactly how it works, and that mystery will continue to draw you back into the game for years to come.