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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 Milkman

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

Edited by UberExplodey

I'm still waiting for my copy to show up :/ Kind of tempted to pick up the 4th game just see how it stacks against this, and my fondness for SimCity 2000.

Edited by Great__defunct__Northern

Super disappointing.

Posted by Hardtarget

I had a great time with it when it unlocked, played it from 10:30pm - 2am in a blink of an eye

Tried to play again yesterday, couldn't get into the game the entire evening. Real put a downer on that first evening's fun time

Edited by bombedyermom

I can't help but notice the increasing amount of franchises hampered by the letters E and A on their cover.

Edited by mellotronrules

@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.

Posted by Zuldim

@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

AWWWWWW YEEEEEAH *Fist bump*

Edited by DaMisterChief

Not Big enough

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

I'll be interested to see how the game is received when city size grows, the server stuff cleans up, and mods are supported. Out of a job at the moment means that I don't have money to throw around any more so I ended up not picking it up, and the only reason is the city size. Beyond that, it looks really cool. Everything else seems really well done, just the right amount of complexity (even if some things were simplified, others were enhanced and given added depth) and stuff, but the size is a real deal breaker. Bummer, but at least it's coming.

Posted by iragequit

I had that score pegged.

Posted by MeruFM

First full priced game bought since Skyrim. I don't even understand how EA does the stuff they do.

At least I will buy the next Fallout.

Posted by GalacticPunt

Edited by frankepooz

Based Alex telling it like it is

Posted by joshthebear
@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

SHUT IT DOWN

Edited by CrimsonJesus

Really don't know why people expected EA to let Maxis develop a good game rather than a profitable one.

Edited by Barrabas

That first image that shows the size of the plot of land you have really makes the game look more like SimNeighborhood than SimCity.

Online
Posted by Askherserenity

It really feels like EA is fucking every franchise up. Someone please stop them. Please.

Posted by ReCkLeSs_X

Disappointing to say the least.

Posted by nonekjr

I skipped buying it since I knew the server crap would happen and I was disappointed over the claustrophobic size of the maps. Might still pick it up because I'm a sucker.

Posted by Vitor

I never played much of the originals but Sim City 2000 still has a special place as one of the first games I ever owned. Was looking forward to seeing if I could get into this style of game but the limited city scope and always online DRM really killed my interest. Shame, it seems like they've done some incredibly smart things with the design here but have similarly handicapped it in other important ways.

Edited by GasparNolasco

@milkman said:

MORE LIKE SIM SHITTY

^This.

Posted by Dalai

Just don't go changing the score to 2 stars on Friday.

Posted by Deathpooky

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.

Posted by BatmanBatman

Ok

Edited by Cross

@mellotronrules: Civitas is already on Kickstarter, so it got there well before you.

Posted by fargofallout

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.

Edited by Brenderous

Totally understandable score. I had what sounds like a relatively positive experience with the game's servers, and I'm enjoying the region of smaller cities thing more than I thought I would. But when you factor in that server connectivity stuff, 3 stars makes sense.

But hey, maybe Alex will update the score to 4 stars in a few days?

Posted by jelekeloy

The server stuff is real BS, but since I have nothing to compare the gameplay to I've been enjoying it quite a bit.

Edited by arch4non

It's a shame about all the dressings around the game itself.

Posted by theveej

really good review alex! I was never big into simcity, so this might a nice reintroduction for me. The online play looks interesting if you are with friends or people who want to play the game the right way, but yah I know a lot of people that just want to play this game solo.

Posted by fisk0

I'll be interested to see how the game is received when city size grows, the server stuff cleans up, and mods are supported. Out of a job at the moment means that I don't have money to throw around any more so I ended up not picking it up, and the only reason is the city size. Beyond that, it looks really cool. Everything else seems really well done, just the right amount of complexity (even if some things were simplified, others were enhanced and given added depth) and stuff, but the size is a real deal breaker. Bummer, but at least it's coming.

Yeah, I'm kinda in the same boat. I'm a bit worried they'll go the Farmville route and charge for upgrading your city size. EA have said they want to incorporate microtransactions into every game after all, and that specific way of handling it isn't all too uncommon in games like this. Pretty sad, since I loved creating these massive cities in the previous games. Oh, well, SimCity 4 isn't too old, and while it has a similar region system to this one, you could reshape the terrain and had several different area sizes to choose from. Of course, SimCity 2000 is available on GOG too.

Edited by iragequit

With this, and some other games, I feel like us gamers of a certain age (who really aren't even that old, 25-35) are being pushed out. What we enjoyed isn't good enough or something.

Edited by Foggen

Hey look, the best SimCity review on the internet. And it only took one try!

Posted by bunkerbuster05

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.

Posted by NekuCTR

I'm still waiting for my copy to show up :/ Kind of tempted to pick up the 4th game just see how it stacks against this.

I would suggest Cities XL. Amazing game that differs just enough from the Sim City archetype to require a different skillsets. If 5 is already on the way, getting the context of previous games in the series may dampen your enjoyment. 5 is an elegantly constructed game, (albeit with a plethora of bugs), but it lacks just enough from the old games to bring you down if you can spot the omissions. Alex is totally right in everything he said, but if this is your first Sim City game it would probably be a less frustrating, and more enjoyable experience.

Posted by lumberingjackal

Sim City 2013 is a disappointment.

Posted by machinerebel

Not too surprised I guess. After playing the demo, I didn't have much hope for this. It seems like a good game, but to its core it's not the game I want, so I will not be buying it. EA doesn't seem interested in making games I want to play anymore, which is sad, because they have made some awesome games in the past.

Posted by Brenderous

@mordeaniischaos said:

I'll be interested to see how the game is received when city size grows...and mods are supported...."

Is that confirmed?

Edited by CornBREDX

I love you Alex.

You touched on everything I wanted to know, that no one else that reviewed it (that I read) did.

It sounds like a pass for me. I already figured that but was waiting for this review to be sure.

I'll stick with Sim City 4.

Edited by TekZero

Sim City seems like a game that shouldn't have been made. SC4 seems to be better in almost every aspect. Plus, it's on steam now for only $20.

I'm actually surprised it got such a high score.

I'm not getting it, only posting this based on what I've seen/read. But because of:

1.Multiplayer insistence

2. Always Online DRM

3. Server shit

4. Small city size

5. Still no reason to get this game over SimCity 4.

I'm not going to get it.

Posted by Epsilon82

Wow...didn't expect this. The glowing way the guys have been talking about this made me think it would be 4 stars at worst, but I guess Alex wasn't a part of those discussions. I was super-jazzed about this game when it was first announced, but the more details they unveiled made me progressively less interested until the point I'm at now which is pretty much total indifference. I understand why they'd try to do something like make this game multiplayer-focused, but between my solo tendencies and my aversion to always-on requirements and literally no offline play, I'm just going to skip this one at least until it's much cheaper. I still have Tropico 4 in my backlog, and I can always boot up SimCity 4 again if I have an itch for more traditional city-building.

Posted by selfconfessedcynic

<3 Alex.

I wish he could have been on the bombcast when they were discussing it. Or the quicklook.

Ah well.

Posted by CornBREDX

I love you Alex.

You touched on everything I wanted to know- that no one else that reviewed it (that I read) did.

It sounds like a pass for me. I already figured that but was waiting for this review to be sure.

I'll stick with Sim City 4.

Posted by WMWA

Good review, fair score

Posted by Ravelle

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. ;)

Edited by CodeFire

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.