The Games That Never Were: Sim Gotham

Sequels, re-boots, stagnation - it's a pity that games rarely attempt the revolutionary, the never-before-seen, or even the impossible. The Games That Never Were is a series of thought-experiments: Games that never existed, and that may very well never come to be. This time, Mike Grace from Haywire Magazine premieres as the first contributor in English - and takes us to a familiar place that's feeling brand new. I'd play that.

Gotham, the city, is almost as famous as it's playboy billionaire/chiropteran-influenced-superhero. Up until now, only vague fragments of the city have been released. With the latest release, you can finally go into the infamous city itself, see how it ticks, and influence its development.

From the very start, you can tell that this is no ordinary city management simulation. Instead of being faced with a zoning quandary, you see the silhouetted skyline of the fledgling Gotham Town, but there's one thing missing; no Bat-Signal.

You see, as the newly encumbered Mayor of Gotham, there is no Batman/Bruce Wayne yet. This is the 1920's Gotham, where cars are just taking over the streets, and America is in the grip of Prohibition. Your first choice is where to get your starting money from. The Wayne Foundation will supply a solid core of money, but wants improvements to the city; while the Marconi family will pay you much more if you just look the other way. This isn't just a black and white choice though, as you can accept money from both - or talk to some of the other interested parties. I won't give away who these are, but there's already some familiar faces if you've up on your Bat-History. Plenty of parks gets you a lot of clout from a certain Doctor Islely.

From that point onwards, you're the one in control of the city; although not the people. In the first decade, you build up the Gotham that you want it to be, and each choice you make can dramatically alter the scope of the city. Payroll a cathedral, and you'll raise the religious element of the city. Build a bank and your income will increase. But what you're really looking for is CLOUT. This allows you to say exactly what happens, and it's usually in short supply. The city will grow and breathe without you but each year usually gives you enough clout to build something special. Wayne will push you towards helping, Marconi towards entertainments.

The first time I played it, I took up with the Wayne's, and my city grew tower-blocks, cathedrals and museums. At the end of the decade, you get to see how your skyline is altered, as you go to the roof of the Mayor's office. My Museum of Alcohol - funded by both sides - had grown to dominate the Gotham skyline. That's when the tutorial ends.

In 1930, a Superhero is born. Maybe a kid sees his parents gunned down, maybe a masked vigilante sees a child fed to dogs, or maybe a small meteor lands just outside town. However it happens, they will join you on the rooftop. I was joined by Flare, a young mutant whose parents had been gunned down in a speak easy. This first meeting determines how the superhero community view you, and Flare left knowing that I was prepared to come down hard on criminals. Each criminal caught was going to up my clout - and criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot that don't want to get burnt.

Every special building now produces a whole range of effects. The Cathedral, as I found out, is a target for demons and produces holy warriors. You can spend clout to call them, but there's always going to be some that get away. This didn't bother me that much as I was gaining clout from the speak easy that I'd not told anyone about, and it seemed a shame to close it down. It was supporting the Museum for a start, which allowed me to bus in lower heroes to deal with the outbreaks at Axis Chemicals. You see, there's never enough clout to do everything totally legally.

While dealing with the needs of the citizens, who are very vocal, you can see occasional flashes on the mini-map, clicking on these shows you a cut-away of the fight between Supers. Perhaps Flare is catching the bad-guys, or maybe Freon is robbing the bank. Whatever is happening, you can't affect it directly - but your policies will influence the background - as well as what happens afterwards. The Marconis are always willing to pay for an "accidental" warrant to appear on your hero; just make sure they don't find out.

1940 saw Flare back on the roof top talking with me about whether we should stop Prohibition. I agreed to her demands on the basis of her support in the up and coming Election, and sighed as one of my main incomes was burnt to the ground. As it was where she was created, it would have cost me too much clout to stop her. And re-election brings a lot of clout.

Then war broke out across Europe. Flare and a lot of the others were called into service, and suddenly I was on my own. That is until I received a message from someone calling themselves Freon. This time, the rooftop visit was with a scarred super-criminal who told me that Flare had been responsible for his condition, and if I knew what was good for me, I'd stay out of his way. At this point, I simply didn't have enough clout put away, so Freon took control of the Cathedral - running his own Mafia. I'd enough clout to place a Police Station nearby and hoped it would keep them under control.

When war finished, Flare returned - and I was suddenly pumping clout into damage control as Flare and Freon started battling for control of Gotham. A burning cathedral doesn't help the faith of all those religious supporters of mine; especially as they all wanted motorbikes and leathers now.

What Sim Gotham manages to do, that few other simulators have managed, is to tell a story. Set pieces, like the rooftop chatter, are rendered within the game engine rather than FMV. Blending Saints Row's characterisation and Left4Dead's artificial speech, each chat feels unique. Stealthy heroes appear in dark colours, talking gruffly; while characters like Flare have orange/yellow costumes and perky accents. And if you don't like certain parts, the in-game editor can always help you to tweak the little bits that you like.

Each decade also brings its own challenges, which you can alter according to your own style. The 1960's sees an increase in bright colours and crazier story-lines (Flare had to stop an invasion of Sentient Hammers), while the 70s sees each hero getting their own vehicle - transforming parts of the cities into dangerous slums. In the 80s, you're forced to give up to your son (who you first see in the 70s rooftop scene), giving a real feel that you're not immortal - even if you lasted this long without getting hung off the side of the Mayoral Tower.

Even siding with Thomas Wayne leaves you open to corruption in your own office. My own secretary turned out to be working for Freon - which I only found out when I tried to buy a stadium and was told that it'd been transferred into Freon's name. The Flare signal went out that night, as well as a few vigilantes that I'd given plea-bargains to. Which I then sent Flare after. 

Your clout is never enough to do everything. You can literally watch your city burn from losing control. Or see what happens when heroes find out you've been pay-rolling their villains. But each time you fail, you know that it's because YOU made the mistake - rather than the game cheating. Having the Chemical Factory next to the Docks is a combination you soon learn to avoid; but it's a mistake that you can see. One of the true learning experiences comes from the Museums, where it charts the change in certain areas. Rolling back my Gotham, I saw how bunching my valuable buildings around the police stations increased the resentment (fuelling villains) and the opulence (fuelling out of town villains). Each of these statistics is only visible in the playback though, so playing it normally - you won't even see the car-crash until it arrives.

While DLC can often be simple add-ons, Sim Gotham provides a framework for other cities as well. Metropolis (DC), Manhattan Island (MARVEL) and Arcadia (Dark Horse) are already in the offering, while Steam Modders already have produced Chicago, London and even Townsville. London doesn't have prohibition, but Townsville does have a triplet of super-powered girls.

Sim Gotham is a delight to play; with its decade-chapters giving a feeling of one-more-go, while allowing breathing space as you decide who to lie to next. You can play as pure as the driven snow - worrying whether the Puffin Corporation can be trusted; or devious as Machiavelli, playing factions off against each other; but often the best game is to be found somewhere in the shades of grey in between. Can Androids marry Demons? Is organised crime better than chaos? Is your utopia stacked on top of a dystopian nightmare? All of these choices are yours, and each will affect the Gotham you build.

Because one night, maybe you'll be joined by the Clown or the Bat - maybe you'll BE the Clown or the Bat. It's your choice.

 

 

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