It’s a shame this isn’t a video review really, because if it was, I’d probably start by doing a very long sigh. There’s little else that can surmise the exasperation I feel with SimCity and its diabolical launch so succinctly. The game is the latest iteration — and reboot of sorts — in the long running and incredibly popular city building series originally conceived by Will Wright way back in 1989. The original was something of a revelation in game design. It was a game that could neither be won nor lost, and so was not thought to be very marketable by the fledgling Maxis. Luckily, they took a gamble and decided to publish it, releasing SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, SimCity 4 and SimCity Societies in the intervening years up until 2007.
Until now, pretty much all of the SimCity games have adopted a more isometric viewpoint, focusing heavily on expanding individual cities in a single player environment. The revolutionary aspect — or so Maxis hopes — about the new SimCity is the idea of cities no longer being self-contained, choosing to focus on a multi-city approach that requires regions to share resources, amenities and public services. The net result is that this new iteration feels like a bit of an experiment in the same vein as 2007’s SimCity Societies. Except, now players must brave the social pitfalls of real world multiplayer servers, and not just the simulated ones of that game. If all of this sounds like a recipe for disaster that could alienate the series’ extensive fan base, we’ve barely scratched the surface of SimCity’s problems.
In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen the absolute landslide of bad press directed towards Maxis and EA of late, the game got off to a somewhat rocky launch. Gamers everywhere were up in arms after their reasonable expectations of being able to play a game they paid for were not met. Servers across the world simply couldn’t take the load imposed upon them by the paying public, and many people were forced to wait upwards of three hours to get into a game session.
This would have been at least somewhat more tolerable if there was actually an offline single-player component, but EA put a stop to that by making the game require a constant internet connection to support their heavy-handed DRM policy. Needless to say, this is unacceptable. It is reasonable to expect a completely online game such as an MMO, or even some popular multiplayer games to suffer heavy server loads during the launch window, but this is a problem even for private game sessions. What hurts most though are the flimsy lies that EA have fabricated in order to support their blatant disregard for customer satisfaction.
It’s a shame too, because if you manage to come to terms with EA’s terrible DRM model, there’s actually a lot to enjoy about SimCity. Upon first loading a private region of my own, I was greeted by an extensive set of helpful tutorials that helped me to connect my city to the highway, set up some basic public amenities like sewage and water, and start to zone my residential and commercial districts. Before I knew it, I was watching my city begin to materialise in front of my eyes, and the giddy thrill of city management that I had felt playing SimCity 2000 all those years ago came flooding back.
At the start of your career as mayor, you will only have a few thousand “simoleons” to tide you over. Deciding how exactly you spend these so that you can continue to generate more is an incredibly addictive pursuit that has been intrinsic to the experience of SimCity since its initial inception, and it is certainly prevalent here. Small populations will only require low density dirt roads and the occasional medium density avenue to function effectively, automatically populating themselves with small terraced residences and trailer parks until your city begins to attract more high income sims. Upgrading these roads as your city grows is as easy as clicking a mouse and watching wealthier sims move in to occupy the swanky new apartment blocks and penthouses, replenishing your coffers with their hard earned taxes in the process.
Attracting more people to your city can be achieved through the addition of more industrial districts that will generate more jobs and support your growing commercial regions, but you’d better be careful that this doesn’t come at the expense of higher pollution which will decrease land values. A good way to combat this is to introduce better and better educational facilities, public transport methods and emergency services. These are easily attainable and their availability can be tracked with the intuitive tutorial prompts that appear each time you upgrade your city hall or pass another landmark as mayor of your city. “Plopping” down a new advanced hospital building or university and watching waves of happy faces appear across a district is something that will never fail to raise a smile.
Managing the happiness of your sims, the toxicity of your water supply and the reservoirs of crude oil you’ve still got left to mine under your town can be a daunting prospect, but it’s one that SimCity makes easier with its brilliant statistical analysis tools. There’s a graph for just about everything you can think of in SimCity, and juggling between all of them is something that you’ll get used to in no time. The beautiful overlays that appear as bar charts hover above the various areas of your city and combine with the 3D “glassbox” engine to make the most visually striking and intuitive SimCity interface yet. You’ll be hard pressed to go back and play previous iterations of the series after enjoying such visual splendour, but I can’t help feeling that you may still find the simulation itself somewhat lacking in comparison.
It’s a hard fact to ignore, particularly considering the game’s numerous DRM problems, but the size of the plots allocated to cities in SimCity is just too darn small. On several occasions, I would start a city, reach a population cap of around 200,000 inside of about eight hours, leave the city because I was unable to expand and start a new plot just to do it all over again. It’s such a small thing from a design point of view, but I have to say that it borders on game breaking for me. Building and maintaining a single city is something that’s traditionally supposed to take upwards of 30 hours in a SimCity game, but instead that was about the time it took for me to get bored with the entire experience.
I know why Maxis has decided to make such small cities from a design point of view. They did it because they wanted players to care about regions as a whole instead of just their own city, but that’s something that I personally found very hard to achieve, particularly because most of the people I played online with were either resigned to messing around or just simply bailed on me mid game. It’s hard enough trying to manage the crime and pollution levels in your own city, but diverting your police cars to some ungrateful scrotum whilst you choke on the smog of their medieval power stations really takes the biscuit. The only real fun to be had on the multiplayer side of things is the shared contribution to a great work – a joint effort in a region such as a large solar power plant or NASA launch pad – but that is very short lived. It’s a far cry from the “revolutionary” experience that Maxis promised us, and it’s particularly irksome when you consider that it’s the sole cause behind many of the game’s design sacrifices.
The entire package as it stands just feels like an ode to what could have been. The actual core gameplay leading up to the city population cap of around 200,000 is some of the most fun I’ve had in a SimCity game. The tutorial system makes it easier than ever for new players to dive right in and make a profitable city, and the marriage of the Glassbox engine and the statistical data is amazing from a visual standpoint. Like a single piece of delicious chocolate in a deceptive packet of Revels, though, this is spoiled by a myriad of other things bogging it down. The server problems seem to be fixed which is good, but from what Maxis and EA say, it will always remain a constantly online game. Once you get past this rather disconcerting road block, much of it feels geared towards a lacklustre online mode, which comes at the expense of ridiculously small plots of land which feel at odds with what the series is known for. As it stands, SimCity is simply not a game that I would recommend people buy. Once the modding community manage to pry it away from EA’s Sauron-like gaze, maybe I will change my tune. Until then, there are simply many better sim games to play.