SimCity: Exclusive Hands-On With EA's Beautiful New World Builder

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In about six months time, legendary strategy game SimCity will be rebooted and released to a waiting army of desktop mayors, developers and city planners.

It's the first SimCity game in almost ten years - and the footage we've seen so far is pretty inspiring.

Ahead of the game's release, we managed to get a world first, half-hour hands-on with the game at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany.

So was it - will it be - any good when it hits PC and Mac in February 2013? Read on to find out...

The new SimCity is one of the most stunningly beautiful games we've ever seen.

No, it doesn't have absurdly high-resolution textures, lighting effects or landscapes - in fact all it has is an upscaled version of what you already know from previous games in the series: roads, office blocks, fields.. But oh wow, these are some stunning roads, office blocks and fields.

You see, the world of the new SimCity is a fully 3D toybox town, with the visual quality of a Pixar film, through which your camera swoops and glides like a swallow strapped to an iPhone running Instagram. You can move from close-ups so detailed you can pick out individual citizens, to a gods-eye view glazed with clouds and atmosphere. At night your city lights up like a Christmas Tree, and even when it's being attacked by meteors (more on that later) you'll smile at the cartoonish, bright, matte-finish delight of it all.

And, yes, when you zoom in close the game world is rendered with tilt-shift, an illusion of focus which makes everything feel smaller, but also tangible. It's the first city game to make you, the player, feel larger than the world at your control. It's quite a rush - we spent at least 10 minutes just zooming around and playing with the camera.

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Unfortunately the city we played with was a fairly standard SimCity set-up, with all the green fields, 'children's book' houses, industrial zones and busy-but-not-too-busy roads you've come to expect (and be a little bored by) from the series.

While Maxis has promised cities can evolve different personalities as they grow, there wasn't much on show in terms of design which seemed all that different to previous games. Even the 'British' and 'French' packs coming to the special edition appear from previous to look pretty much the same as the standard set up, just with the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben thrown in.

Yes - this was just an early demo, and Maxis assure us more is coming, but it would be a shame if the graphical beauty of the game engine is undermined by a lack of imagination when it comes to design.

As for how the game actually played, what we saw of the new SimCity is very promising.

It's a precise, carefully made world builder, that balances the cute 'thump' animations and sound effects that play as you go about placing buildings, with a feeling of substance and clarity.

And yes, you can make curvy roads - though oddly that was the one element which felt a bit undercooked at this point. Sometimes the roads curved as we wanted, other times they snapped back or didn't work altogether.

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The game as it stands now also suffers a little from the same problem as all other SimCities - especially for those of us with active imaginations - in that it promises a bit more than it delivers.

EA and Maxis have already sung the virtues of the new game's GlassBox engine, which is said to allow greater customisation, evolution and creativity in a game of this type than ever before - and they've also highlighted new online features, which allow you to compete and cooperate with friends in "regions" many cities in size, and take part in a global economy of prices and financial intrigue, but the reality so far is that the bulk of the game is pretty familiar.

If you listen to EA, the game looks so flexible it appears that could create almost anything. In the end, however, you're probably going to spend most of your time doing what you did before - building roads, zoning for houses and building powerplants close to local schools before setting Godzilla loose on the whole urban nightmare and watching it burn to the ground.

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Again, this is an early build - but we hope you'll be able to do more with your city than the usual 'zone, build road, zone, build road' gameplay we fell into after only 30 minutes.

All that said, the game is really good fun - and does look surprisingly polished even at this stage. When our city planning was interrupted by a sudden meteor shower, which destroyed the local hospital, sent Sims running for their lives and simultaneously signalled our time with the title was up, we were both amused and a bit gutted.

This is a game we want to play a whole lot more, and can't wait until we get the chance to do so. Even if, when the game finally comes out in February, we spend most of the time zooming in and out, over and over, until our eyes melt with happiness and the city itself falls apart into misery and economic disaster.