LIFE AND TIMES
Sim City is generally regarded as one of the best products ever released on a 16-bit machine. On paper the game might sound deathly dull. I mean, the chance to build your own city from scratch, complete with roads, power cables and nuclear reactors doesn't sound very interesting, does it?! Maybe it would appeal to sad anorak cases, but who else? In practice, though, the game was a revelation and became an instant classic.
For the last three years, Maxis have been working on its successor. The finished game - Sim Earth - is so huge it encompasses the entire solar system and projects way out into the future. Your decisions can affect anything from a single life cell through to a complete planet. When it was released on the PC and Mac, the game received rave reviews in the computer press and now, finally, we have the finished Amiga version.
Maxis prefer to call Sim Earth a "software toy" rather than a game. A game, they state, has a preset beginning, a preset end and a specific train throughout. A toy, however, is something you can use in anyway you find possible. In this respect. Sim Earth definitely falls into the second category. The basic aim is to guide a planet through its evolutionary processes and keep things ticking over. The model runs around a theory created by James Lovelock called Gaia. Your task is to ensure that the planet stays in a condition suitable for its inhabitants. If your planet is largely water based, and you have a lot of different types of fish bobbing about, it wouldn't make much sense to increase the greenhouse effect and the sun's heat, effectively boiling away the oceans. This is a hell of a lot more complicated than it sounds.
In your disconnected position, you have complete control over almost everything in and on the planet. You can create life, destroy it, cause major tragedies, form new oceans, even change the way sentient and non-sentient beings behave and respond, all through a series of menus and slider bars.
Your overall objective varies depending on which of the eight scenarios you want to play. You can take on Earth in prehistoric times, just before the birth of mankind, and shape the planet through to its ultimate ending as the sun washes over it. Alternatively, you can try solving modern day problems, such as coping with nuclear fall out, reducing the greenhouse effect, removing starvation and generally returning the planet to the Garden of Eden. Should you find that a little heavy, you could try to colonise Mars or Venus, adding an atmosphere and essentially terraforming the planet to your own requirements. There is also the chance to completely design a planet from scratch, to give yourself various problems of your own making or to explore how different situations would evolve with different actions.
The first thing you'll notice when you open the box are the two Sim Earth game disks. One is for the standard user, where the game requires 1 Mb to play and runs in low resolution mode. The other is for more advanced machines, running in hi-res interlace and requiring 2Mbs. The latter is obviously faithful to the PC and Macintosh versions, but you only lose out on presentation if you don't have the high grade set-up.
On loading, you are presented with the opening menu. This shows you the eight different scenarios you can play on, as well as the difficulty level. Changing the level of difficulty doesn't actually change how the game runs, but it does affect the amount of energy you have for dealing with problems. There is also an 'experimental' mode, which gives you limitless energy, making life so much easier.
Energy is at the core of the game and is split into two parts. The first, your energy, is the total amount of control you have over the running of the planet. Creating life takes only small amounts, and you can plop animals down wherever you like most of the time. Doing something a little larger, however, such as causing an earthquake, eats up your energy in no time.
The other kind of energy belongs to the SimEarthlings, and although you inherit some of this, you can never have control over it. Essentially, as species develop and grow, you get more and more energy - rather like taxation in Sim City.
The game is essentially played out over three screens, although there are numerous windows that can be called up at any time. The first is the map screen. This gives a full, flat image of your planet along with a series of buttons at the bottom. By pressing on different buttons, you can find out about the temperature, air currents, amounts and position of life on the planet and various other things. A click on the 'Globe' option turns the map into a rotating ball, showing more precisely where everything is. Interestingly enough, the maps of Earth, Venus and Mars are very accurate. Most of the time this screen is used for reference, a way of seeing at a glance if there are any major problems that need fixing.
The main screen is the editor where all the action happens. The main part of the screen is taken up with a close-up view of part of the landscape. Marked on this map are all the different types of terrain and inhabitants. Obviously this view is simplified, but what more could you expect?
Down the left side of the screen are the main game options, and this is where you really start to interact. The first icon lets you place things on the planet, such as life-forms and different pieces of technology. If the time or climate are wrong, they will die out instantly. Nurture them, and they'll flourish. The final option is the Monolith. This large black shape - a la 2001, is used to promote intelligence within creatures, and before long the creature you use it on will become sentient. You can only have one sentient race at a time, and as this race passes through the different ages (industrial, technological, etc.) it finally reaches the space race, at which point all of the creatures of that ilk leave the planet in rockets to colonise other planets, and the game begins all over again.
Other options include the raising and lowering of land, changing the scenery and, to my mind the most interesting, adding natural disasters such as tidal waves and virulent plagues. Try to imagine the effect that a major volcano slap bang in the middle of England would have on the coast of France. Or have you ever wondered what a meteorite the size of a city would have on the global infrastructure? In this game you don't have to imagine as you can create a whole plethora of disasters one after another.
There are four different scientific models to play with, too, which allow you to alter general fundamental aspects of the planet. The Atmosphere model, for example, allows you to change the amount of rainfall, the power of the sun and the strength of the greenhouse effect, whereas the Civilisation model lets you change the sociological aspects of the sentient race, be they working in agriculture or the arts. And this is all done by selecting the relevant option and then sliding a bar.
There are almost limitless sources of information in the game, all of which have to be monitored at some point or another. There are a number of graphs detailing such items as the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere to how many wars there have been in the last hundred years. In fact, the amount of information is the most daunting thing of all. You really do have to watch your back in this game, as disaster can come from any angle.
The key thing about Sim Earth is its leaning toward realism. It becomes fascinating, even addictive after a while just exploring the possibilities available. In that respect it actually forms quite a good learning tool, as well as being a hell of a lot of fun to use.
It's going to take a very long time to become completely familiar with the package, probably far longer than the couple of weeks I've had with it, but I'm loving every minute. This game requires more brainpower than any other I have ever played, but if you really want a challenge, and are ready to see what a simulator is all about, then get this the second it hits the shelf. Simply incredible.
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