Giant Bomb Review

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SimCity Review

3
  • PC

SimCity offers up myriad tantalizing delights for the would-be city-builder, but encases them in an infrastructure that feels at odds with itself.

To talk of this game is to tell a tale of two SimCities. On one side of the border is a brilliant, vibrantly realized reboot of Maxis' classic SimCity franchise. After a 10-year break, here is a game that presents the modern city builder with nearly every possible tool one could hope for to build the bustling metropolis of their dreams. It is gorgeous to look at when properly taken advantage of with the latest PC hardware, artfully designed for minimal user interface turmoil, and just exquisitely charming across the board. Across the border, however, is another SimCity entirely. This one is a stricter game than the one franchise fans have come to know over the years, one more dedicated to a single-minded way of cooperative thinking. In this SimCity, a single city cannot survive without another nearby to pick up the slack. Multiplayer is heavily encouraged, to the point of insistence, and yet the safeguards that aim to prevent problematic behavior on the part of others are minimal, and frankly unreliable. Which is to say nothing of its overall, online-always infrastructure, one which has, at times already, hamstrung the entirety of this new SimCity's lush, yet disappointingly underutilized region.

You start off with a nice patch of land, but you'll be surprised how quickly that space fills.

Understand, SimCity is extremely capable of being the grand reboot of the series it aims to be, at least in spurts. The core act of city-building, which has been using most of the same basic ideas since its inception nearly 25 years ago, has rarely been more elegantly realized. The tools to build with are numerous and overwhelming. Of course you will start out your new city by laying down zones for residential, commercial, and industrial, perhaps by building a couple of city services, plopping down (to use the game's parlance) a power plant, and then a water tower, and then a garbage dump, and it just goes on. Every building option you have comes with option upon option underneath. Do you spend the money now on a single police station, or do you save up for the bigger, more all-encompassing precinct? Do you want a simple BBQ pit park, or a giant fountain sculpture to really boost land value? Is your hospital running out of room for sick patients? Why not just build another row of patient rooms on what you've already got?

Half the fun of SimCity is just trying to figure out the best, most efficient ways to build everything. And this SimCity often scratches that itch wonderfully. It even offers tremendous flexibility in the design of your city, both from a geographical standpoint, and in terms of economy. To the former, roads can now be curved, built in circles, perfect blocks, really whatever you like. Roads are upgradable too, so a small avenue can become a large commercial one later on.

More interesting are the city specialties, special economic focuses that allow you to build, say, an oil pump or two if your land is rich in fossil fuels. Or perhaps tourism, if your interest pertains to building famous landmarks (some of which can be bought via the game's DLC store). Or, if you just like making money, there's always the gambling route. These specialties provide an extra layer of challenge, in that you kind of have to build your city around them, as opposed to just deciding on them later. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of time bulldozing and rezoning things as you try to figure out how to squeeze an ore mine into a residential neighborhood.

Maybe I'm alone on this one, but one of my favorite things about the old SimCity games were the stupid charts you could look at to see where crime was prolific, how property values varied across my city, who was happy or displeased with my mayoral performance, and such. Even if you don't understand me, this SimCity does. There are graphs upon charts upon data screens to play with, all giving ample information on every aspect of how my city is running. It's beautiful stuff, though it's also occasionally bogged down by sloppy data reporting. Often times fixing problems within my city, like sewage outflow issues or power outages, would result in continued displeasure from my citizens for quite some time. This can sometimes make it difficult to judge whether you've actually solved the issue or not.

Coordinating city specializations is key, lest you end up with a region full of industrial polluters.

Far more problematic than any of that, however, is really the other half of SimCity. It is the multiplayer, the skeletal structure in which the city building meat of the game has been somewhat awkwardly stuffed into. At the outset of every game, you are asked to pick a region. Right from the get-go, you can choose to join an already existing region, which has been started by another online player, or create your own. Once in a region, you can choose to be the mayor of as many of the city plots as you please, but there are always multiple plots, and to leave a whole region unused puts a burden on your city that the game isn't designed to alleviate through single-player play.

Essentially, SimCity doesn't really want you to have one city that has all available services and resources. As with the city specialties, there is significant financial and strategic benefit to having one city that's, say, more apt to house polluting industrial factories, or garbage dumps. Such a city might not have a huge residential population, nor much potential for high land value items, but it can make money by housing jobs that citizens in other cities can commute to, and even by housing other cities' garbage.

This cooperation becomes crucial, as there really isn't enough money, nor space to allow one city to bear all the major burdens at once. That last point is a particularly stinging one. Regions are broken up into squared-off city areas within a larger area of land. In between the cities are vast zones of dead space that essentially just exist to make the region look more natural. While it certainly can take a while to fill up an entire plot of land--especially in areas rife with mountains or plateaus--you will eventually fill it up. The game goes out of its way to try and help you build using the most efficient layouts possible, even offering a road guide that shows you ideal places for streets and avenues. But even following the guides stringently, you'll eventually run out of room, leaving you to try and squeeze whatever zoning density you possibly can out of every little corner you own. There is probably a very good technical reason for why you can't use any of that extra land, but it is nonetheless a terrible tease.

Yes, it is entirely possible to play SimCity on your own, without any other players, but this is not really ideal. If you're managing multiple cities in a region, that turns an already intense time suck into a more stressful endeavor. I did not enjoy the act of trying to balance multiple cities in a region by myself. Don't get me wrong, I'm generally of the mindset that games like SimCity should be played in tomb-like isolation, but that isn't how this SimCity is meant to be played. It's meant to be played with friends. To try and fight against its multiplayer is to fight against the very nature of this game's design.

The thing of it is, if you can get a group of enthusiastic players together, the kind you know won't do dickish things, like polluting your region to death, or harboring scads of murderers in their dilapidated hellhole of a town, SimCity works. As weird and awkward as it seems at first, the more you play it under ideal conditions, the more clear Maxis' vision for this game becomes. It's almost like a kind of social experiment in cooperation, albeit one that is perhaps a bit too open to exploitation. While you can't just go in and wreck anyone's city wholesale, there are smaller, more insidious things players can do to royally screw up someone's region, and don't think there won't be those people. Of course, you can always set your game to private, making sure that only friends and likeminded individuals can join. But if my experience has been any indication, those safeguards aren't terribly reliable right now. I had one early region set to private, and then after a bit of server wonkiness, it had become infested with unfamiliars.

Insert metaphor for EA's online servers here.

Granted, that is an issue that may have just been the result of launch jitters on EA's servers, but this brings us to the biggest flaw in SimCity's design. SimCity is an always-online game, meaning if the servers are off, everybody's game is off. EA calls SimCity's multiplayer asynchronous, and that's partially correct. There's nothing that requires players to be on at the same time to play. However, we do all have to be able to connect to EA's servers to play. Yes, even if you just want to noodle around in your own city and don't care an iota what's going on in the larger region today, you can't load up your city data if the servers are down. And the servers have been down. Several times, in fact, since the game launched this past Tuesday. A week from now, these concerns might not even be justified. The servers could be back up and work flawlessly forever a minute after this is published. Regardless, this underlying philosophy, one that dictates that if everyone can't play, then no one shall play, is a troubling one.

It is therefore difficult to completely reconcile a game like SimCity. This is a game with startling clarity of vision, but that vision often feels narrow and intractable. It knows precisely what it wants to be, and in most key ways, executes on those ideas with precision. But in setting that course, it all but dismisses the way in which many played SimCity sequel after sequel. And while I expect many will fall head-over-heels in love with this SimCity's cooperative design, at its best, the game feels more like a really thoughtfully designed multiplayer mode for a larger, single-player capable game that, sadly, doesn't exist. Go in with the right expectations, and there's a good chance you'll enjoy your time with SimCity. Assuming, of course, EA's servers will let you play it in the first place.

Alex Navarro on Google+
223 Comments
Posted by DanTheGamer32

I'm not sure if I can personally count the always online DRM against the game. Steam runs the exact same way and nonetheless that service is given great praise but SimCity is doing the same and gets internet flames. The game is far from perfect and I agree with the 3 stars completely, but I don't agree that anything to do with server lag or issues is a negative on the game since all that will disappear soon enough.

The difference being that Steam can run in offline mode and doesn't force you in to multiplayer. It's not really an issue of DRM here.

Posted by Hassun

@finaldasa said:

I'm not sure if I can personally count the always online DRM against the game. Steam runs the exact same way and nonetheless that service is given great praise but SimCity is doing the same and gets internet flames.

That is not the fundamental problem with the game, and Steam isn't even always-on DRM.

The problem with the game is as Alex mentioned:

the game feels more like a really thoughtfully designed multiplayer mode for a larger, single-player capable game that, sadly, doesn't exist.

Edited by SathingtonWaltz

@ravelle said:

@deathpooky said:

Finding out that this is basically SimCity Social instead of a proper SimCity sequel is probably going to make this the most disappointing game of the year for me. I guess we'll never know if it was EA pushing for a more social, facebook-ish, DRM-contingent game, or if they decided to go whole hog for multiplayer only. It's probably some combination. But regardless just terribly disappointing that we can't take the smart improvements they made and play a normal game of SimCity.

Have you not watched the PS4 event? Being social is all the new rage these days. ;)

To be fair the social features are completely optional as far as Sony has explained them. The way Sim City insists upon them and how the framework of the game is designed around that aspect is different.

Posted by Hassun

@hassun: cont.

They made a fundamental design decision to make this a multiplayer focused game. With the cities being interdependent like this they probably could not even add a single-player mode if they wanted to.

It's not a surprise that long-time SimCity fans are not liking this decision, it forces players on a narrow path of the designers' choice. It leaves a lot of people out in the cold.

Posted by OldManLight

@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

flagging this comment...as awesome

Posted by Dylabaloo

Damn, it's so sad to see how excited the Bomb Crew were for this game, it was infectious and got me wanting it. So close but so far.

Posted by SpicyRichter

I wanted a refund. After waiting in a chat queue for 2 hours, I was denied and told I have to call their hotline.

I called the hotline, and they were reporting a 1229 minute (20 hour) wait. I made it through in about 2 hours. I was again denied a refund.

Fuck you EA.

Edited by TreuloseTomate

I wasn't going to buy this because of DRM. Now I don't even have to feel bad about it.

Edited by BigD145

It's incredible. I went from being over-hyped for this game to not even buying it at launch.

Maybe some DLC will make it better.

Have I got a bridge to sell you!

Posted by Sooty

This game and EA can get fucked for their extortionate pricing anyway.

Edited by ThreeRoneC

I was kind of looking forward to this game but after watching the Quick Look and reading this review, I might just pick up an old simcity game and try that. [I never played a SimCity game before, but I have played The Sims games.]

Posted by ThreeRoneC

I was kind of looking forward to this game but after watching the Quick Look and reading this review, I might just pick up an old simcity game and try that. [I never played a SimCity game before, but I have played The Sims games.]

Edited by deerokus

I was kind of looking forward to this game but after watching the Quick Look and reading this review, I might just pick up an old simcity game and try that. [I never played a SimCity game before, but I have played The Sims games.]

Sim City 4 is your best bet. Lots of good mods available for it now too, and it still looks quite nice.

Apart from the original developer, The Sims has nothing to do with Sim City in any meaningful way. Well until this one, which seems to be more 'The Sims, on a City scale', rather than a Sim of a City.

Posted by snowballingblood

What makes me sad/pissed is I still see a SimCity that I still really want to play here... but I just can't bring myself to buy it with all this crap attached. They have a game that underneath wants to blossom and be the sequel all us fans of the series have waited for, then caged it and made it silly with all the social crap. Even forgetting DRM - Simcity has been a game I play alone when I want to feel in total control. I don't want anyone else in my region, and I want to be in control OF my whole region. SC4 allowed me this ten years ago and now that aspect has been trivialized to fit in with what EA seems to think is wUt dA GamerZ want or some crap their marketing drones thought up. I've always had a bad feeling about EA but now they've done it. This has gone too far and good riddance with them. Have fun paying for new buildings that were free mods in the past and updates that possibly make the region-play as good as SC4 had it. Hope your internet doesn't go out.

Edited by warmonked

I don't mind the always on-line requirements. The inability to have huge mega cities is a real bummer though :(

Posted by Lyreman

WTF EA?!

Posted by onan

An EA game that requires servers to run.

So about 700 days until this game is completely unplayable, then?

http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/ea-lists-new-server-shutdowns-including-online-pass-titles/092999

http://adultgamingenthusiasts.com/content.php?448-EA-s-Annual-Server-Shut-Down-List

Edited by onan
Edited by Grug

I know EA bashing is almost a cliche these days, but seriously, get f*cked EA. Another sacred franchise defiled on their watch.

SimCity occupies such a cherished place in my gaming memories and I really thought that SimCity Societies was the mistake that had to be made in order to force a reassessment about what made this series great.

As such I was anxiously awaiting this release, believing that it would be a return to the fundamentals with a next-gen exterior. The screenshots looked everything like how I imagined a next-gen SimCity to look but now I find out that what lies beneath is just not what SimCity is about.

Heartbroken and deeply disappointed. Part of me wants to believe that the game will be patched into something resembling the true franchise, but we are talking about EA here... f*ck those guys, seriously.

EDIT: oh, and I can also preemptively get f*cked because I know I will cave in the next few days and buy this defiled corpse of a product and financially reward the corporation who committed this atrocity.

Posted by Sander

Thank goodness Alex forgot about the possibility of EA shuttering servers after 18 months or else the score would've been even worse.

Posted by scott1607

I don't get the reasoning behind making this a multi-player thing. Simcity is a "god" game where you control the fate of your city from high above the clouds... Gods are jealous and don't want to share with other gods. It's "You shall have no other God but me!!!" not "Yahweh gets you on Thursday and you can pray to me on Friday..."

Posted by crusader8463

I still love the idea of a co-op sim city, but the way it's made here is not fun to play and actively punishes those of us that just want to play alone or don't have friends to play with. I also really hate how the game basically forces you to make cities in tiny square grids and punishes you by trying to go outside that or try to make a cities layout attractive. Not to mention the tiny maps really limit building placement.

There's zero reason for this game to have always online as well. It's kept me from playing the game more then playing it thus far.

Posted by Adaptor

Anyone else notice the irony in the term 'always online'?

Posted by crimsonlordofwar

@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

booom!

Posted by Godzilla_Sushi

After spending even more time with it, I think I hate the lack of a save button more than even the miserable DRM and tiny plots of land. I worked for hours on something that didn't save properly because syncing to Origin is what syncing to the internet was in 1999.

Posted by BoG

@codefire said:

What a disappointment this game IS! It's so frustrating to love the UI design and feel of the game, only to have it be so narrow in scope. It's too small, too limited in abilities / services (such as subways, terrain editing, etc) So much potential, so close to being a classic. All they had to do was keep it open like Sim City 4, and have a proper single player mode (OFFLINE).

I'm with Deathpooky on the fact that this game will probably be the most disappointing game of the year, for me. This is Small Cube Town, not SimCity.

You've summed up my thoughts. The UI is fantastic. The scope is tiny. The #1 question the developers ought to have asked themselves is what people want when they play a game about building a city. Just about all of us want to create a giant, sprawling metropolis. I went in to the game thinking different regions would make up for the small size of an individual plot, but it doesn't. The regions aren't even contiguous, and I hate that. Finally, why did they think it was a good idea to make a game that has always been exclusively single-player, which is part of a single-player genre, and make it a multiplayer-focused title?

If they fix all of these things in an expansion, I'm down.

Posted by JoshS

It's incredible. I went from being over-hyped for this game to not even buying it at launch.

Maybe some DLC will make it better.

Same here. It's sad :(

Posted by prestonhedges
Posted by shinluis

@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

You, sir, make life worth living.

Posted by spraynardtatum

Thank you for waiting to review the game until after its release. If publishers insist on always online DRM herbaderp than the servers should be treated as the most pivotal part of the game.

Edited by multiman33

I had been looking forward to this game so much so that I built a PC that would run it on the highest settings. As a standard practice I don't preorder anything, and after reading this review and watching the quick look, I'm happy I didn't waste money on it. The size of the maps and seemingly insistence that you play online with others is really sad and a complete letdown for me. I wanted simcity 2013 and I got simcity block 2013. I get why the areas are so small because of all the underlying mechanics making the simulation happen, but I would gladly give up the ability to follow a car from home to work and back for a larger map.

Posted by Colourful_Hippie

Wow, great review Alex. It looked like you had a tough time writing out a review for this. It was crazy how fast I went from wanting to believe in the game to turning around on it after watching the quick look.

Posted by envane

the servers are fuuuucked right now , its error 37 all over again ... at least the journalists all got time to play it and bitch and moan about shit that seems completely cosmetic at this point :( i cant play it

Posted by Evilsbane

It's incredible. I went from being over-hyped for this game to not even buying it at launch.

Maybe some DLC will make it better.

I installed Cities XL again, I was gonna get this yesterday morning but I knew the servers were gonna be busted surprise surprise! But yes I was hyped and then nothing.

Posted by Pronouncemyname

I've really been loving this game... When the servers aren't down :(

Posted by Gildermershina

So, if you look at large metropolises, you see a bunch of cities connected to one another. I live in North Vancouver which is part of Metro Vancouver, along with 12 other cities, and a bunch of villages and islands and such. Not to mention the San Francisco Bay Area.

If you want to capture the feel of large cities, but still have them segregated for reasons of processing power and "working together", why not use a metropolis model and have cities that are physically connected to one another? So when you reach the edge of one city, there's not miles and miles of weirdly untouched land before you get to the next city. So visually it's more like Sim City of old, but you manage it using the new paradigm. You would also be able to interconnect roads directly and more easily process the regional information.

And if you wanted to play on your own, you would more easily be able to manage these directly connected cities conceptually.

Sim City: Metropolis $20 DLC. Calling it.

Edited by Mumrik

@envane said:

the servers are fuuuucked right now , its error 37 all over again ... at least the journalists all got time to play it and bitch and moan about shit that seems completely cosmetic at this point :( i cant play it

I called this one in advance (not that it was much of an achievement) - very positive reviews overall because most journalists got in before the rush, and so few generally can be bothered to take these concerns seriously + monstrous user backlash for the online structure/DRM.

The added thing here is that this is EA doing always-online. Blizzard is at least known for supporting their games all the way. EA that is notorious for shutting down online services for games after a few years, or even faster if a sequel is released.

That's not just annoying. It's sort of scary. I hate this dilemma - I want to "support PC gaming", but I don't want to support this version of it.

Posted by therealminime

It shocks me to say it, because I was so excited for this game, but I think I am going to skip SimCity. Maybe in a couple of months if it gets cheaper or if they patch some things, but the core mechanics just don't sound appealing.

Posted by lordgodalming

Then keep playing and enjoy, regardless of what others think. I still play and enjoy the hell out of Final Fantasy XIII. ;)

Edited by Vigil80

Hey, something from Alex that doesn't make me want to drink myself into a despairing stupor.

(*sees twitter feed* Damn. That didn't last long.)

In all seriousness, a well done review. Anyone eyeing up Sim City should see it.

Posted by niyoko

@uberexplodey: I have to warn you to not set your expectations to high going into Sim City 4 if you are coming from Sim CIty 2000. Sim City 4 is a great game, but it's very different in a lot of little game play mechanics when compared to Sim City 2000. I went from Sim City 2000 to 3000 and while the RCI meter was preset, there were a lot of things different that I couldn't transfer all of what I learned in 2000 to 3000 or Sim City 4. 4 is a big refinement of 3000.

Posted by niyoko

@uberexplodey: I have to warn you to not set your expectations to high going into Sim City 4 if you are coming from Sim CIty 2000. Sim City 4 is a great game, but it's very different in a lot of little game play mechanics when compared to Sim City 2000. I went from Sim City 2000 to 3000 and while the RCI meter was preset, there were a lot of things different that I couldn't transfer all of what I learned in 2000 to 3000 or Sim City 4. 4 is a big refinement of 3000.

Posted by FirstBossCutman

This is just Spore all over again.

Posted by FrancisYorkMorgan

Just joined the site, this was an excellent review. I still want the game though.

Posted by MocBucket62

I honestly thought Alex would give this game a 4 out of 5 judging from one of this previous tweets. Guess he couldn't ignore the glaring issues of this game to warrant it a score higher than three stars. Bummer that the game turned out this way.

Posted by snowballingblood

@firstbosscutman: Spore was a great game to play with the girlfriend and didn't ruin a previous family tree of titles... I apologize for bitching... but had my fun with Spore. This I'm still in a 24-hour internal facepalm.

Edited by Nephrahim
Posted by envane

@mumrik: yeah i feel ashamed to have given them my money , got to play for a few hours just now but was booted back tot he title screen ventually because the server went down , wonder if it even saved my progress .. ohwell i was making mistakes and learning stuff anyways