by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & SimCity Societies & r & Rated Everyone 10+; PC & r & 2 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & own with Capitalism! To hell with shopping districts and their early Christmases! It's time to ditch the division between commercial zoning and human housing! Throw out the coal-fueled power plants and low-income slums offsetting double-pane-windowed, well-lit decadence! SimCity Societies has arrived promising a dose of utopia.

Societies is the latest iteration of the venerable videogame franchise that has become a hobby for gamers and a teaching tool for urban planners. As the new Sim on the block, Societies has the bold idea of foregoing the series' previous trademarks of zoning and infrastructuring in favor of conceptual building. Go green. Create creative. Develop spiritually. Or dictate the law like a despot. Crank up production. Do whatever's necessary to drum information into the dumb asses on the streets.

I was thrilled when I didn't need to spend my first few hours laying down power lines and stretching out sewer pipes. Likewise jettisoned was mapping out high-end commercial and low-grade housing. What mayor ever said, "Put the slums here?" Instead, Societies offered me a range of individual buildings to choose from: trailer parks full of unhappy but industrious folk and monasteries housing hordes of monks.

I counterbalanced building with building. Money flowed into the treasury when people had more shops in which to waste their leisure time. Lucrative offices required a bedrock of citizens housed in luxurious dwellings. And quaint little commune structures required a heavy investment in spiritual-mindedness, making me build parochial schools just to gain quilters' circles. Instead of being a mayor, I became a social accountant, manipulating a graphic spreadsheet instead of a town.

My wind-powered commune couldn't attract a single yurt until I had built enough community gardens. (Despite the dearth of workers, the animated farms still showed gardeners tilling the ground.) When crime went on the rise, I was forced to build a police station full of overworked law enforcers who demanded more shops just to keep themselves happy. Before long, I was looking at a city full of people working hard so they could spend more money so they could be happy so that they could do their work. Utopia was just another town.

THE GOOD: As its title implies, SimCity Societies is much more focused on the mindsets and lifestyles of the virtual inhabitants than it is on the infrastructure of the city itself. Societies builds its burgs from concepts such as "Spirituality" and "Authority," which are examples of how people treat their waterworks and power supply. Given a modern mayor's development choices, it's a better reflection of the real world than the old nuts-and-bolts, blank-canvas approach.

THE BAD: Old SimCity games depicted a whole city growing. Clapboard shacks gave way to apartments which eventually were converted to high-rise condos. The changing city was a major part of the game's appeal. Its visible development was a measure of my success. In Societies, the town looks unchanged from the way I planned it -- a terrarium of virtual people instead of the face of a living city.

THE BOTTOM LINE: SimCity Societies focuses on the (tiny, graphically primitive) people, taking the fun out of watching the town.

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