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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 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

Edited by Jdiggity88

I wish i could comment on this review, but I have literally only been able to play for half an hour with out the servers being shut down or getting booted out of my game.

Posted by steamfitter

@iragequit: No, what we enjoyed was too complicated.

Edited by Bourbon_Warrior

I'll pick it up when the server issues die down, still a Sim City game and we don't really have many other options. I will just make a 16 city region to fill up myself over time.

Posted by slyspider

Really wish this game wasn't trash. Feel bad for those who preordered but... hope you learned your lesson at least! Dont preorder.

Posted by louiedog

Holy long review.

I have no interest in this game. I've enjoyed Sim City in the past, but if I'm going to go in again, I want it to be by myself, with the ability to create an enormous city, not having to rely on other people, and being able to go back to an earlier save if I royally screw something up. This game gets everything wrong that I suspect would make it more broadly appealing, which is especially odd considering that it's EA putting it out.

Exactly how I feel. This game seems like the opposite of the way that I like to play these games. I want to build a big sprawling self-sufficient city that looks cool. That's really all that I want.

Posted by Bourbon_Warrior

I think EA have set them self up to increase the city sizes, look how much empty space there is between each city.

Edited by Bourbon_Warrior

@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

HI-YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

inb4 kickstarter campaign for "facsimile metropolis": a return to old-school city management. buy the $100 package and you get the "key to the city" -made from GENUINE PEWTER.

I would pay $1000 if that person was Will Wright.

Edited by H8RAID

Bought it yesterday and have yet to connect to a server. You would think EA would have the resources and foresight to launch this game with the necessary resources to make for a successful launch. *sigh*

...so I ended up playing Heroes & Generals all night (a free to play multi-player game that actually works).

Edited by nothingreal

I honestly can't remember a game i was looking forward to more.. and, after seeing the quick look, have less interest in now. Too bad.. I was ready to throw down full retail price and then some (for add ons etc..) for this game.. but now i don't even want to mess with it.

Who would have thought that in 2013, SimCity would get smaller and dumber?

sad really.

I'm not prone to hating on a company.. but EA.. WTF? first you turn Real Racing into a nickel-pinching crap fest and now you've gone and messed up SimCity.. ughh.

Edited by veXedbulldog

I know that this has probably been stated numerously in this thread, but, why is this markedly better than SimCity 4, a game that I can play for a third of the price, on my own, when I want to, and build the massive metropolis I want? Because this one is better looking? We continue to get these game "services" that are supposed to replace the "games" that were developed years ago, and I really don't see the benefit of moving forward when the features the "service" offers are so ill-conceived and/or broken.

Posted by Dewar

@vexedbulldog: Simcity 4 wasn't a very good game. They went so far down the micromanage path that it just got annoying.

Posted by Christoffer

I was looking forward to this one but I think I will have to wait. EA will hopefully do something about the size issue, that just looks ridiculous. 12x12 blocks of buildings in the middle of the wasteland is not a city, it's a hamlet, or maybe a thorp.

Posted by darklighter009

So far I have been unable to play the game.... I wonder how long I will have to wait. I like the Idea of the multiplier aspect, but it should be optional, or even allow dedicated server. Also, with EA frequently retiring the server for older games, I wonder how long will the game be playable for? 3 years?

Edited by MachoFantastico

Part of me wonders how much 'EA' had to do with some of the decisions. You get the impression that EA have been having their say in a lot of the design-side of their games lately. It's a shame (and makes me sad) because Maxis is a talented studio, they can and have done better.

Edited by Kartana

More like SlimCity... oh Snap!

Edited by isomeri

The most honest and well-rounded review of the game I've seen so far.

Posted by ShotgunLincoln

As someone who bought this game and now has first-hand experience with it, MAN DO I FEEL LIKE A CHUMP.

Posted by Scotto

When I've been able to get in without issues, the game has been a lot of fun. Right now, my only complaint is the tiny city sizes -- Alex is right that the reliance on city-interconnectedness is frustrating sometimes, but could be easily alleviated if they simply let you make a bigger city.

At the same time, the city-size restriction causes you to have to think more about things like population density, instead of just creating an endless, inefficient sprawl. Upgrading to a larger police station suddenly becomes an agonizing decision, because the real estate is at such a premium.

All in all, I'd like to see them at least double the maximum city size, so people can choose to build a completely self-contained city, if they so desire. Things like the university are currently a pain the ass, because of how much precious room they take up.

But yeah - fix that, and this game is fantastic. I love the way the game presents demographics and statistics to you. I love how alive the city feels when you play. I actually like the idea behind the interconnectedness of a region - such as people able to commute to other cities to work, or to shop, and selling your goods to other, real cities.

Actually there is one more complaint - I really don't like the water system. The concept of sucking an area completely dry is just dumb - cities don't need to relocate their water treatment plants every three years. I thought SimCity 2K/3K handled it better, though I'm glad I don't have to manage underground water pipes any more.

I think 3/5 is too harsh.

Edited by MoonwalkSA

This is an excellent and excellently well-written review, Alex. Great work.

Edited by Hace

Has anyone tried playing the game alone with a mindset of Cities = Boroughs/Suburbs and Region = City?

If this actually a playable and more/less enjoyable way to play the game? Sure, you can only interact with one suburb at a time and the road between them are preset (and you can't change them) but is it actually playable that way as a Sim City -game?

...of course that's assuming that the server you build stays private and doesn't revert to public accidentally.

Edited by bwmcmaste

@hace: Well, they didn't really design the game with that in mind. If you're looking after a borough, then you're not the mayor, you're a city councillor. I suppose you could make the game into whatever you wanted it to be, but there's no denying that bigger and more self-sufficient cities would please many of the longtime SimCity fans out there.

Posted by selfconfessedcynic

@hace: Jeff did (as discussed on the bombcast this week) - in his opinion, it still ends up feeling much different to how he and other traditional sim city people would want it to.

Posted by probablytuna

If there wasn't an always-online component of the game I think I would be pretty into this game, even though I have not played a Sim City game in years.

Edited by ZZoMBiE13

@hace said:

Has anyone tried playing the game alone with a mindset of Cities = Boroughs/Suburbs and Region = City?

If this actually a playable and more/less enjoyable way to play the game? Sure, you can only interact with one suburb at a time and the road between them are preset (and you can't change them) but is it actually playable that way as a Sim City -game?

...of course that's assuming that the server you build stays private and doesn't revert to public accidentally.

You know, I live in the DFW Metroplex and this game feels a lot like that. The region we saw in the beta could easily be substituted for Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington. One big mass that each has something to provide.

I know a lot of people will want to build their giant New York style mega cities and it is a shame you cannot do that. But I wouldn't call it a game breaker. If anything, the limiting size forces you to think around problems rather than just expanding outward. It's a double edged sword to be sure, but what this game is, judged solely on those merits, is pretty darn good.

You know... when you can log in and actually play it I mean.

Edited by MedalOfMode

Waiting for Mac Release

Posted by MedalOfMode

Waiting for Mac Release

Posted by Merkaba

SC2K was my first 'proper' game and to see how far EA has messed up the series must be one of my saddest gaming memories.

Fool me once with Spore but I won't be fooled again. *insert The Who lyrics here*

Posted by blogpostnogood
Posted by desoda

Hm. Maybe also buying Tropico 4 wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Posted by sgjackson

@epsilon82: Tropico 4 is fantastic, I'd burn through that while they sort this game out then react accordingly.

Posted by NoUsernameAvailable

It's a shame they left out zone densities. I always had a lot of fun experimenting with light, medium and heavy zoning.

Edited by Vendetta

How disappointing.

Posted by AtomicEdge

In all honesty I read this review and it gets me pumped up for the game. While it seems like a big divergence from the "Create a perfect city" formula of the old games, it looks like a fun change in the fundamentals of the series.

Most new games that come out I play with a friend, and we are both looking forward to starting a big region just for the 2 of us, and slowly building it up and specializing the cities to fill different functions.

It seems like a lot of the criticism (apart from the legitimate server wonkyness gripes) for this game would have been mitigated if this game had been called "Sim City Online", and that would have given them the option to make an old school style city builder in the future that they could call "Sim City 5".

Anyway, I'm glad I know what to expect of this before I pick it up tomorrow (UK Release Date) and hopefully my modified expectations will really help how I approach the game!

Posted by diskos

Top notch review.

Enforced social play with smaller land plots are deal breakers for me, will be sticking with SimCity4.

Edited by djou

@Alex: Well-written and reasoned review, I almost wish it were even longer. Could you elaborate on the point "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." Personally I ran in major problems when my city hit 200k, crippling sickness, water shortages, etc. When my population dipped I started losing massive amounts of money, eventually making my city unprofitable. This was also timed with a zombie outbreak and leveled my downtown. I bring these up because the AI seemed to artificially put roadblocks in front of me. I went from having plenty of cash and resources at 180k to devastation at 200k. My map wasn't even filled in, I just ran out of options. I read in a few other reviews that said things go to shit at 170k+ did you experience these tipping points also?

Edited by ross2075

This sums up everything.

Well this and the Error messages for when you do actually get "in."

Posted by burjeffton--defunct

Stellar review. Well written and thoughtful.

Edited by FuriousJodo

Enjoying the game when I can play it, but it definitely feels hamstrung in a number of ways. I like the cooperative aspect a lot more than I thought I would but the server issues/etc are hampering my enjoyment for now. Once it stabilizes I expect I feel better about it.

Edited by Chtasm

MORE LIKE SLIM CITY!

Fuck. I'm too late, aren't I?

Posted by desoda

Well, at least it didn't cost us any money or anything...

Posted by JimmyPancakes

Will this score change as the server situation changes? Dynamic scores are the hot new thing!

Posted by guilherme

why, OH WHY, is the space for the city so small???

Posted by usgrovers

The size limitation makes me think this is more like SimHamlet.

Edited by itspizza

I know EA is "just a business" and a lot of people would lose their jobs if they went away, but part of me can't wait until they go down in flames.

Posted by Beomoose

If this game were the multiplayer component of a single player Sim City, and said core game was without the absurdly small city Zones, I'd be all over it.

Posted by PositivelyGreg

So far I've enjoyed the game - playing it entirely solo with my own little region. Every time I bounce back and forth between the cities I've learned more about how to use the mechanics so it's exciting to step in and improve on what I had done before.

There's a ton I haven't gotten to explore yet, and I really want to play more of it. But the servers don't seem to want me to play, and EA/Maxis hasn't really been very good with communicating. They'll sort it out eventually, but it's been a dry spell leading up to this and I was really looking forward to a new game that I wanted to play.

Edited by majinace

Good game bad service