SimCity/Need For Speed Undercover Hands-On

SimCity is live on the App Store for $9.99. We’re presently editing several minutes of SimCity video we took at the Apple Store on Sunday, and should have it online later today.

We stopped into San Francisco’s Downtown Apple Store today to speak with Patrick Gunn, EA Mobile’s Director of Marketing, and Mike Pagano, the producer in charge of SimCity for the iPhone. We came away with some great new information about SimCity and Need For Speed Undercover, as well as exclusive gameplay footage–which is unfortunately still under embargo for now. But we can tell you one thing for sure: both games are looking great. From what we’ve seen and played today, we think that these titles are going to live up to their lofty pedigrees, and then some.

We’ll start with SimCity, which will be coming out first; the game will enter Apple’s review process tomorrow, and should be live on the App Store within the week for $9.99. Pagano explained that the iPhone version of SimCity is actually based on SimCity 3000 for the PC. “We wanted to take the best incarnation of SimCity and put it on steroids,” he told us, and EA Mobile’s production crew looks to have pulled out all the stops to squeeze the entire game into a 30 MB footprint.

Although a few elements from the PC classic are missing–like elevated terrain and subways–this looks to be a remarkably complete remake. Municipal buildings, disasters, city hall advisors, ordinances… it’s all here, and the clever touchscreen interface makes it very accessible. All of the game’s core functions seem to be no further than two button clicks away from the action. The graphics aren’t in full 3D, but Pagano felt that 2D would “do the game justice” without introducing run speed and battery drain issues.

We agree. There is a bit of blurriness to the buildings when you zoom all the way in, and all of the surface features disappear while you’re scrolling around the city to preserve frame rate, but make no mistake–the visuals are great, and they’re supplemented by a cool tribal and jazz soundtrack. We were also happy to see that some of the “living city” animations made it into the game, so that your budding metropolis has an organic feel to it. Planes take off from the city’s airport, cars circle the block, and boats sail around the harbor.

SimCity doesn’t have quite the same scenario-based structure as some of the earlier PC games. Instead, there are a number of “starter cities” you can jump right into, from tiny tutorial towns to sprawling metropoles like New Jack City (yes, really). From there, it’s really the user’s experience. There are occasional procedurally-generated goals to meet, such as when petitioners ask you to build a stadium by a certain date. However, as Pagano noted, SimCity was the first true “sandbox” game, where the player could set his or her own goals, or just enjoy blasting the suburbs to pieces with tornadoes, and this version is no different.

When we asked whether EA Mobile had plans to update the game with new features, Pagano demurred, saying only that the team has “lots of irons in the fire” at the moment. Demand for this game is likely to be huge, given the immense popularity of the series, so we imagine that the product will be evolving past its already very advanced state as time goes on.

We saw somewhat less of Need For Speed Undercover, which is not as far along as SimCity in the development process–the final feature set isn’t even locked down yet. Gunn told us that NFSU would be coming out “sometime after Christmas” at the same price point as SimCity, $9.99. We were somewhat surprised to hear this after witnessing NFSU’s state-of-the-art production values firsthand, and we asked Gunn if he felt that EA Mobile would ever sell an iPhone game for more than $10. He told us that “the market dynamics aren’t there right now” for more expensive games, given the volume of competition on the App Store and the current predominance of indie games.

Well, fine; we certainly won’t mind paying ten bucks for a game that looks as good as this. A lot of developers have paid lip service to the idea that the iDevices can put out graphics on a par with the PSP, or perhaps even better, but we’ve seen very little evidence of it so far–in truth, “PSP-like” graphics on the iPhone have been much more comparable to the Nintendo DS in quality. But when we say that NFSU looks like a PSP game, we absolutely mean it. This is the best-looking iPhone game we’ve ever seen. Nothing else is really even in the same zip code. Its polygonal models, environments, and lighting effects are peerless… and it still lays down a silky-smooth 30 FPS during races. The difference between this game and all the other iPhone racers we’ve played is akin to the jump between a late-era PS2 game and today’s PS3 games. It could really push expectations for big-budget iPhone games to an entirely new level.

NFSU takes advantage of this visual firepower to add some pretty amazing twists to the racing gameplay. In addition to a nitro boost button, which is standard-issue for all arcade racers these days, there’s also a “slow time” button that throws the race into extreme slow motion, which helps you make precise cornering and passing maneuvers. The effect is jaw-dropping in both cases; when boosting, all the lights on the screen leave trails as if you’re shifting into lightspeed, while slow time zooms in and refocuses the camera on your car, helping you concentrate.

We couldn’t get much additional information on the game’s structure, since many of those details are still in flux, but Gunn did tell us that the iPhone NFSU is “completely independent” from the console and portable versions of the game. Although the story is set in the same universe as the other versions, the game has its own tracks, vehicles, and FMV cutscenes. We also learned that the game has “some tuning features,” for fans of customization, as well as multiple cities to race through. EA Mobile “is looking into” multiplayer features, too, but nothing has been decided on that front yet.

As we said, we took substantial video of both of these games, which we are editing now. We’ll put it up as soon as EA Mobile gives us the go-ahead, which should be within a week for SimCity and another two or three weeks for NFSU.

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