In the mid '90s famed SimCity developer Maxis released SimTower, a quirky sim that let players craft massive towers and fend off terrorist attacks. The game's director Yoot Saito created a beautiful simulation of vertical empire that gave players a lot of freedom. Want to recreate the Empire State Building? Go for it. Want three elevator shafts connecting hallways of garbage? Do it. Want to live the life of a slumlord? Awesome.
SimTower and it's successor, Yoot Tower, showed that Maxis-style simulations weren't limited to city planning and paved the way for weirder titles such as SimHealth, SimIsle and even The Sims. It's been 20 years since the release of SimTower and though some have tried (Tiny TowerI'm looking at you) no other game has captured the magic of the original.
Project Highrise almost pulls it off.
Project Highrise is a new PC and Mac game from developer Somasim out now on Steam and GOG for $20. It puts players in charge of constructing a building from the ground up. Like most modern sim games, the player worries about budgets and the demands of their tenants while building as high as possible and chasing goals such as famous tenants and fancy art for the lobby.
Like SimTower, Project Highrise allows players to click on the people occupying the tower to get a read on their mood and rename them. Like in SimTower, players can create architectural monstrosities more form than function. Like SimTower, the sound effects and music create a cocoon-like ambience that can draw a player into countless hours of clicking and constructing.
It's almost as if someone pulled SimTower into the modern era, updated the graphics and created new systems to play with. Almost.
Project Highrise is a fun game. It's systems work well and always left me chasing the next big reward. I wanted to litter my building's lobby with strange sculptures but to do that I had to hire an interior decorator but to hire one I needed to earn prestige and to raise that number I need more tenants and, amusingly, more artwork.
Building well and hitting certain goals such as high population numbers and office types increases prestige, buzz, and influence, which I could then use to open up new types of offices, apartments and support structures.
I can take out loans to inject cash into my building, pursue city contracts that act as quests, and renovate to improve existing portions of my tower. It's more of a game than a sim, which is fine, but not like SimTower.
SimTower was a simulation, full of chaos and charm. That's fine, Project Highrise is a great tower building game, but it lacks the personality and flexibility of its inspiration.
It alsolacks the strange spirit of early Maxis games. Its art style is functional and forgettable, its music is a pleasant yet plain mix of The Sims and Rhapsody in Blue.. But its systems limited my ability to perform the weird and wonderful feats of architectural madness that made SimTower a classic.
I wanted my first building to be an office park full of Mad Men style advertising firms, but it wasn't possible out of the box without some creative destruction. To unlock access to the larger creative firm floor plans, I need to jump through hoops by placing different kinds of restaurants and office spaces to fulfill goals to raise prestige and on and on.
To achieve my Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce dream I would have had to play the game to build up a tower, fill it with lawyers, doctors, apartments, restaurants and stores to meet the game's goals, then kick out the tenants I didn't want and replace them with creative firms. In SimTower, I could have just zoned what I wanted and walk away.
That doesn't mean Project Highrise is bad or even mediocre, just that it never quite reaches the same heights as its inspiration. Because it's a game, and not a simulation, players can't just build hallways full of garbage or remove the elevator from a floor of tax accountants, trapping them forever, without stalling progression. Too much garbage drives down property values, increases the stink level of the floor and drives out paying customers. Dead accountants can't pay rent.
Gone also are the random insect swarms, terrorist attacks and other chaotic horrors of SimTower that injected a bit of anarchy into the simulation. But then … Project Highrise is perfectly priced at $20 and it supports mods so the players have the power to turn the game into whatever they want. I, for one, would love a J.G. Ballard's High-Rise total conversion.