We’ve all done it. Sitting at a traffic light or navigating a particularly troublesome bit of road, we’ve all cursed the civil engineers that made things more difficult than they needed to be. We could have done it better; we would have gotten it right. It’s time to put up or shut up, armchair engineers. SimCity is coming back in early 2013, and it’s bringing new innovations, clever gameplay systems and, yes, excitement. I know, it sounds crazy that a game about creating and managing a city can get hearts pumping, but what we saw in our behind closed doors demo did just that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve built (and subsequently wreaked natural disaster upon) a city of my own creation, but what was on display in Los Angeles looked nothing like I remembered. The motto of Maxis‘ new game is “what you see is what we sim.” It’s catchy, sure, but it’s not until you see the game in action that you realize how apropos it is.

The first thing we noticed is how alive everything feels in the SimCity. Instead of just zoning a district and then seeing residential, commercial or industrial buildings magically appear, everything is animated. Sims will build new houses, moving trucks will come and unload and traffic will accurately flow around your simtropolis (even on curved roads for the very first time in the series). Using the Glassbox Simulation Engine, everything is modeled. There is an environmental impact of everything you do, every building you place and, more impressively, that influence flows back on the structures and plan of your city.

Maps are layered with natural resources, meaning that fuel source rich cities will be best suited for industry or power-generation. Every simulation unit (factories, power plants, public safety buildings) are all displayed with 1:1 animations. If you see something happening visually, it’s reflected in your statistics simultaneously. Likewise, every pedestrian, police officer, firefighter and factory worker is an individually modeled and tracked “agent.” The engine can handle tens of thousands at a time, and each is bound by the game’s simulation rules. This was evidenced during rush hour as a traffic jam backed up as agents commuted from one city to another.

That’s right, cities owned by different players operate as a living ecosystem, meaning that each metropolis need not be all things at once. In the demo, we were shown one player’s city that was low on power generation. Through the game’s asynchronous co-op, another player was able to offer low-cost electricity. When the offer was accepted, we were able to see lights turn on and productivity increase. Again, the visual representation of people going to work and factories packaging goods is in direct alignment with the statistics that the game tracks.

Cities can be geared to commerce, industry, tourism and more. In the example we were shown, three cities were working together to create an airport. This is one of the game’s “Great Works.” These are large, collaborative projects that multiple players can be invited to assist with. Each participating city will benefit, and the more involved, the smoother the construction process. Upon completion, a huge celebration took place in game with flyovers, fireworks and more. For the tourism-based player, there was also a sigh of relief. With a big sporting event days away, an influx of travelers meant more money.

Of course, it wouldn’t be SimCity without problems to solve. We were shown that graffiti was starting to dot the industrial town. This is a visual indication that crime is on the rise. For those that prefer a more statistical view, there are a number of heat maps that will also graphically display key facts. Commerce and trade aren’t the only things that flow between player-linked cities. Criminal agents from the crime-ridden area crossed jurisdictional lines to rob a bank. The police were nearby, but occupied (at a donut shop) and did not respond in time. If crimes go unpunished, it has a negative impact, so making sure you don’t put “distractions” too close to ripe targets is important.

SimCity has always been a series about possibility. It pioneered the sandbox gameplay style and, with the new Glassbox Simulation Engine, it will redefine that term for a new generation. You’ll be able to start constructing the city of your dreams on PC in February 2013.