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The fourth generation

The Sims’ age is starting to show, but fans don’t seem to mind.

Most gamers either love or hate “Sim City,” and the continued evolution of the series shows little hope of changing that fact. Each new installment offers innovations, but most of the changes are simple tweaks that are just different enough to warrant a second look. Yes, the visuals in “Sim City 4” are beautiful and as near to photo-realism as the series has ever looked, but it still feels and plays almost exactly like “Sim City 3000,” which played almost exactly like its two predecessors. And for some, that’s a good thing. A great game doesn’t need major overhauls, some would claim, and if every game’s sequels were as fun as “Sim City 4,” I’d be quick to agree that they’re right.

Any “Sim City” fan will be comfortable with the interface, but there is a brief, informative tutorial for newcomers. The core gameplay has remained the same: You build and maintain a city using zones from residential, industrial, or commercial foundations. As your city begins to grow, you’re forced to balance between bringing in a steady income and appeasing the demands of your population. “Sim City 4” offers more options for micromanagement than before, including guidance from a team of advisors, trade relations between neighboring towns, and tax control so multilayered that even IRS agents will be left scratching their heads. Losing money? Open up a toxic waste dump or legalize gambling to supplement your income. Or if you want to do further damage to your credibility as a mayor, send in an angry robot to terrorize your population, build a volcano in the town square, or choose any of the other disaster scenarios Maxis was kind enough to include.

One welcome feature is a world map on which you build your cities. Though the amount of land seems daunting at first, the field will quickly fill up as each of your cities goes bankrupt, and you start another from scratch, only to fight against entropy and financial ruin. Or at least that’s how it always seems to go for me.

The most noticeable enhancement is the improved graphics engine, which adds to the gameplay in subtle ways. Zoom the camera and you can actually see pedestrians in the sidewalks, and when a zone begins to decline in value, the once picturesque landscape slowly erodes into a slum. The beauty of the graphics comes with a price, however, as even high-end computers will stutter and slow down after a town has grown into a metropolis. If you want to keep things moving briskly, your only choice is to zoom farther out, which takes away from the detail of the graphics.

Though multiplayer capability is mentioned in the enclosed manual, at the time of this writing you can only play alone and offline straight out of the box. Even considering this omission, the deep, engrossing gameplay and graphical flourish make this product worth a look for long time fans and newcomers alike, and if Maxis ever makes good on the promise of Internet play, this will be remembered as one of the best games of the year.

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