SimCity screenshot

SimCity review: After the rubble clears, it’s still SimCity

An online requirement coupled with insufficient servers to meet demand all but killed SimCity’s launch. So with server issues now addressed and its disastrous launch behind it, is SimCity still worth playing?

For the most part, I’d say ‘yes’—but it’s unfortunate that I have to say that with some qualifications.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to review SimCityobjectively in the wake of the very loud, very public grumblings that rippled through the Internet after it launched. But it’s also probably a good thing that I was at least able to review the game ‘as intended’. Otherwise I likely would have written this when I significantly grumpier, which usually leads to very snarky reviews.

Taking the fun out of fundamental
On the whole I do like SimCity, but it’s not as good as it could have or should have been. Part of the problem as I see it is rooted in the ‘fundamental vision’ for the game as described by Maxis General Manager Lucy Bradshaw in her blog. She states:

SimCity retains all the charm and most of the mechanics that made its predecessors endearing -- but not everything.

“Always-Connected is a big change from SimCities of the past. It didn’t come down as an order from corporate and it isn’t a clandestine strategy to control players. It’s fundamental to the vision we had for this SimCity. From the ground up, we designed this game with multiplayer in mind – using new technology to realize a vision of players connected in regions to create a SimCity that captured the dynamism of the world we live in; a global, ever-changing, social world.”

There’s nothing wrong with adding online multiplayer to a traditionally single player game. But the standard single-player game—despite how unfashionable it is to play games by yourself and save games on a hard disk instead of the cloud these days—should not have been (nor needed to be) sacrificed to make it happen.

The ‘fundamental vision’ for SimCity was fundamentally short sighted in this regard.

But it’s still SimCity
I was genuinely excited for SimCity at E3 2012, and I’ve long been a big fan of the franchise. It’s a seminal title for the PC and one of the few that is still solely ‘ours’ as PC gamers. And many of the game mechanics are much like I remember. Build some roads, zone your city (residential, commercial, industrial), manage taxes, and build utilities and services to meet the needs of the people. (And then maybe unleash a giant monster or natural disaster now and again.)

There are also plenty of new enhancements to the old formula, and some improvements to the game mechanics. One simplification I like is that you don’t have to manually lay water pipe and power lines anymore—just build (or ‘plop’ to use the game term) some water towers and power stations, and then make sure your output keeps up with the demands of the city. (Be careful not to place water towers near highly polluted areas or you’ll start making your ‘simizens’ sick.)

I also like the ability to add onto and expand buildings with new modules and improvements. For example, you can add a larger patient wing to your Health Clinic to handle increased demand. Need more fire men? Add more garages to your fire station. And if your power grid needs some extra juice, you can add more wind turbines or solar cells (I like green power) to your power plants.

Virtually all major buildings (schools, police, fire, hospitals, power, water, sewage treatment, and others) have multiple add-ons you can unlock and build to improve them. There are also specialized expansions for your city hall that unlock as your population grows, which in turn serve to help you specialize your city and unlock new structures. Adding a new module to City Hall unlocks new structures and services.

For example: Add the Office of Tourism to your City Hall and unlock various tourist attractions, including a sports stadium, expo hall, theatre, and many more. Some of these buildings in turn give you the ability to schedule revenue-generating events —so long as you can build the necessary infrastructure to ensure a healthy supply of tourists. Other tourist attractions simply help draw tourists—and their hard-earned simoleans—into your city to help your businesses thrive.

If there’s one fundamental change that I’m not particularly fond of, it’s that zoning is reduced to 3 zones and their respective densities are governed by the roads they are built near. If you want a small housing area to grow into a downtown skyscraper full of condominiums, for example, you have to upgrade the roads. In older versions of SimCity (as I recall) you could zone the type (residential, commercial, or industrial) and the specific density (low, medium, high) that you wanted.

Taking the fun out of fundamental
Co-operative play—the ‘fundamental vision’ for this version of the game—is a perfectly fine idea. Selling services to other cities, trading, and collaborating on mutually beneficial projects like massive International Airports add a lot of neat opportunities for those that are interested in them.

And you don’t have to play with others if you don’t want to. You can start a new game and keep it private—and even build all of the cities in a region (the server ‘instance’ if you will) yourself, creating your own co-operative multi-city utopia.

But experimentation is fundamental to any simulation/strategy title, and when experiments fail we need a fallback. Or maybe you just want to vent some real-world frustrations on your virtual city via meteor strikes and giant monsters. Regardless of what you want, it’s good to be able to calmly restore a saved game before everything went awry.

But you can’t. The persistent online nature of the game means that if you screw up—or a gamble doesn’t pay off—you’re stuck with your mistake. I experienced this first hand when I hastily (and accidentally) bulldozed my elementary school, which is a very expensive structure.

Yes, I hastily ‘clicked before I looked’ when the game prompted me to confirm, which is on me. But there is no ‘undo’ button in the game. I just had to suck it up, tax the crap out of my citizens, and then wait for the money to accrue so I could rebuild. This hampered my plans for my city—but more importantly it hampered my enjoyment of the game. It’s a lot like failing a mission in a game that’s really stingy with automated checkpoints, and then having to replay the last 15 minutes—again. And again. And maybe again.

Size makes a difference
Another issue is the size of the cities you can create, which might be fine for multiplayer but just seems too small for single player. As a single player, I want to be able to build anything and everything. But again, you can’t. Even if you have the funds, you’ll never have the space, forcing you to either build more than one city, or to (once again) force you into specializing or compromising your dream city.

I managed to pretty much exhaust my geography within 10-20 hours. And once you reach this point you’re forced to continually re-work your city. Sometimes this is fun (min-maxing your space), but sometimes it’s an annoying, slow process requiring you to knock down buildings, re-create roads, and wait for your tax coffers to re-fill so you can pay for your renovations.

I also don’t like that the game basically forces you to seek constant density improvements—in other words, skyscrapers. This is all well and good (it is called SimCity, after all, not SimSuburb), but sometimes I like to make a few nice, low-density neighborhoods for visual appeal if nothing else.

The ‘Sandbox’ mode of the game addresses some of these issues. Sandbox mode gives you a million simoleans and unlocks every single building from the beginning of the game. A million simoleans is a lot of money to start with, and it gives you plenty of leeway to spend your little heart out (and screw up and rebuild if you need to).

Unfortunately, Sandbox mode is also like playing the game in ‘easy mode’—and it still doesn’t address the limitation on the size of your city. Although it’s still casually entertaining, it’s not much of a challenge either. The ability to create custom scenarios—and a terrain editor perhaps—would have made good additions to the game. Maybe we can hope for an update to add them.

As much criticism as I’ve heaped upon SimCity, don’t get the idea that I don’t enjoy it. I like its visual upgrades, many of the new elements, and its streamlined gameplay. It still has the same charm as its predecessors too. And the mechanics that have always made SimCity fun are still largely present and accounted for.

I don’t dislike the social co-operative element, I only dislike that it’s thrust upon us with no alternative for simple, good old-fashioned single player play—a fact that limits the game and can dampen the enjoyment of it.

I still enjoy the game, but I’d enjoy it more—and recommend it more strongly—if its limitations were addressed.

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