Who knew that something as boring as real estate management would make a good time management game? Hipsoft, the creators of the wildly successful Build-a-Lot series, did, and boy were they right! The latest installment in the series, Build-a-Lot 4: Power Source, has arrived, bringing with it the same balanced and challenging gameplay with a brand new theme: energy efficiency.
All of the Build-a-lot games are built on the same premise: to develop a neighborhood with homes, shops, services, etc. while keeping an eye on resources like time, labor, building materials, and money. This makes for an entertaining and occasionally frantic time management game, attempting to meet all the needs of the community within a certain timeframe. Build-a-Lot 4 continues the same idea but adds something new and timely — dealing with the crumbling infrastructure of an aging and near-capacity power grid.
Gameplay in Build-a-Lot 4 is easy: you receive instructions from a mayor (or other source) in what the community needs. Simply click on a colored empty lot, select a structure, make sure you have the resources, and build. It is up to you to figure out how to provide those needs within a certain time-limit and budget. Should you concentrate on infrastructure first? Or build homes to increase your income? The permutations multiply with each level you move up as the demands from the communities become increasingly complex. Each community is a small, self-contained challenge which is kept track of in your handy-dandy day-planner (recycled from the "passport" of Build-a-Lot 3). Play one small campaign at a time or spend hours plowing through the multiple and escalating challenges.
In Build-a-Lot 4, the first and most important thing you need to track is available energy. Before you build a single thing you must assess the available power structure and add to it if necessary. This adds a layer of complication to the basic Build-a-Lot dynamic due to the fact that if you add a house or business without taking into account power needs, the entire neighborhood will black out. And since you cannot collect rent or money from businesses during a blackout, you need to fix the situation, fast!
Modern, so-called "clean" energy facilities are available to build, but watch out, like all complicated technology they can break down, causing wide-spread blackouts. Houses can be improved with up to three levels of energy efficiency, reducing the strain on the grid. The bigger the structure, the more drain on your power plants. Wind farms produce the least amount of energy but have the smallest negative footprint. Nuclear plants will produce the most energy, but have a correspondingly massive negative impact on the community. Who wants to live next to Three Mile Island?
Analysis: HipSoft has wisely kept the same basic game structure as the first three games of the series. If it ain't broke, don't fix it! As always new houses, facilities, and shops have been added for variety. There's no appreciable difference in the backgrounds from the third in the series (perhaps the walking paths are an exception) but no matter. The core of the game is to develop, develop, develop. Also retained from the previous game are the weather patterns, which still affect gameplay. Rain slows down outdoor construction, such as building or painting, and if it rains a lot in your community, perhaps a solar power plant is not the way to go.
A few layers of complexity have been stripped from the series' ongoing formula, dropping some aspects introduced by Build-a-Lot 3 and leaving more basic dynamic from the first two games. This allows the complexity added by the challenges of the power grid to fit snugly in the game without destroying the casual gameplay we love so dearly. And what complexity it is! A new occupation has been added to the workforce: the energy technician. Only technicians can repair power plants, make homes energy efficient, or supercharge a plant. They need their own support structure — a Tech Center — for training. Now instead of managing one labor force (construction workers) you are managing two. Twice the fun! In a Union-approved sort of way, of course.
Build-a-Lot 4 is, like the previous games, is divided into a Main Campaign (with the tutorial blessedly broken out as a separate, skippable unit) and a Casual Campaign, with two new ones added: a Challenge and an Expert Campaign, definitely for folks who have first mastered the basic levels. Although you are on a deadline, the pacing is such that this is one of the more relaxed time-management games, at least in the early levels. Casual gameplay at it's finest.
All in all, Build-a-Lot 4 is a fast-paced, entertaining time management game. Never mind the collapsed real estate market, get out there and build!