To celebrate Earth Day (April 22), National Geographic has sponsored Plan It Green, a casual building sim in the style of Build-a-lot that joins the sparsely-populated ranks of "green" games (see Electrocity, Climate Challenge and even Boonka for more examples).
True to its name, Plan It Green focuses on boosting energy credits by designing green buildings and communities using four types of structures: residential, parks and recreation, commercial, and facilities such as power plants. Your goals are structured in a similar manner to most building sims where you must meet certain targets, such as "build a pre-fab home with five upgrades, supply three homes with recycle bins, research eco-industries, etc.". Once you meet the goals, it's on to a new district to make things a little bit greener.
There are just a few things you'll need to pay attention while playing the game, including building materials (which can be ordered via the menu at the bottom), cash flow, and most importantly, district happiness and overall environmental health. In addition to installing Earth-friendly devices in individual homes, you can also upgrade your district with improvements that affect the entire community. Installing a bike path, for example, helps you meet your goals and benefits every structure. You can also turn on a grid to show you which structures are performing the best and which need extra attention. If you demolish structures, you get some of the materials back, which does have economies of scale — the bigger and more valuable the property, the more materials you gain.
As you work through each scenario you unlock bigger, more elaborate ways to save on energy costs, reduce pollution, and make your district as environmentally friendly as possible. Plan It Green doesn't hit you over the head with its cause, opting instead to provide a casual building game with a strong green slant.
Analysis: As you'd hope in an environmental game, the visual setting in Plan It Green is lovely — not as gorgeous and charming as Wonderburg, but pretty in an oddly retro way. The cheaper pre-fab and eco-buildings reminded me of Daly City, the suburb that inspired Pete Seeger's song "Little Boxes". You can build things like soccer fields and swimming pools that don't generate income but help you meet your happiness goals and spruce up the place.
The gameplay is very, very fast — if the Build-a-lot series makes you grind your teeth in frustration ("FINISH THE FREAKIN' UPGRADE ALREADY!!!"), you are going to LOVE the snappy pace of Plan It Green. The speed and simplicity of it all does make Plan It Green fall on the easy side, however. There are no ultimate deadlines as in Build-a-lot (which is ironic given that environmental upgrades would surely be imperative, unlike purely aesthetic ones), and the bonus for meeting the five star rating is so unobtrusive I didn't notice it was there for several levels. The tutorial also continues on a bit beyond what is necessary — I found myself thinking "Yeah, just leave me alone to discover things already".
So how good is the environmental message? Plan-It-Green offers the chance to build "eco-businesses" such as a bike shop, co-op food store and organic coffee shop. Aside from whiffing slightly of exclusivity (surely if we're serious about being green, we need to ensure environmentally preferrable products are in big mainstream supermarkets?), there are tradeoffs involved — your Fair Trade coffee may assist small farmers overseas, which is great... but takes up a decent amount of energy to ship to your suburb. Similarly, the best residential structure you can build is called a Zero-Energy Home — a "three storey family home. 100% self-sustained. They do not use a city's municipal energy", which immediately made me think "Why does a single family need a three storey home???" The whole "reduce" part of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" slogan tends to get ignored by people for whom shopping fills the void, and I say that as someone who very much likes filling the void with a spot of Prada.
The biggest surprise for me is that the best environmental power facility you can get, after you've built wind farms, hydro plants and so on, is... a nuclear facility. I'm old enough to remember when that suggestion would get you hung from the nearest old-growth tree, and not necessarily by the obvious suspects. I trust the developers are already living next to a nuclear reactor, and have the usual amount of eyes.
It may fall short of presenting the ultimate in eco-friendly building, but Plan It Green does its part to raise awareness. Beyond its message, however, is a great-looking casual building sim that shaves off frustration and easily competes with the well-established franchises already on the market.