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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.
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.
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.
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 CommentsRefresh

Avatar image for ross2075
Posted By ross2075

YAY...Good news!

http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2013/03/18/as-simcity-fires-burn-john-riccitello-steps-down-as-ea-ceo/

Probably not related, but in my mind...someone paid! Good by super rich guy!

Avatar image for dfective
Edited By dfective

Sad at how bad Simcity turned out. It had (and arguably still has) the potential of being a great game, but tiny cities (towns?) breaks the game.

Avatar image for zedo_mann
Edited By Zedo_Mann

So, I guess I'll be over here playing games from when EA was good... games like SimCity 4.

Avatar image for mihos
Posted By Mihos

You were far more generous with the score than I would have been. Everything about this game, from the flawed idea that Sim-City fans want a social media experience as the core of the game, to the idiotic in game store/DRM that basically guarantees mods will never be allowed, this feels more like a free to play iPad/facebook game. What the hell good are curved roads in a 2x2 cubed area? I won't even touch the DRM stuff, the always online has nothing to do with piracy and everything to do with protecting revenue streams they plan on with micro transactions. Paying $60+ dollars just to be taken to another store front is everything that is wrong with gaming today. It sucks that so many obviously talented people had to work on a game that is probably my most hated game of the year due to a crappy business model that most likely they don't like either.

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Posted By PosseOfOne

I just hope that this disaster of a game won't discourage anyone else from rebooting the franchise ]in the near future because I really want a new SimCity where a rich single player experience is there.

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Posted By Jay4321

What a fucking disaster.

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Posted By Spankmealotus

It's good to see an honest review of SimCity. Although I think it's pretty pathetic how many review outlets went ahead and put out their review based on their time in the specialized press only server environment. At least Polygon adjusted theirs accordingly and gave an explanation. HUGE props go to Kevin over at gamespot for giving a review based on the same experience the end user had rather than one setup for the ideal situation.

Avatar image for circlenine
Posted By CircleNine

@guilherme: Because they plan to sell you larger city sizes through DLC, despite knowing full well that everyone thought the city size was really small even during the beta.

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Posted By Will_M

I hope this sends a message to the rest of the industry about always on internet connections. Diablo 3 was the same story last year. There was an uproar about login queues and disconnects and afterwards everyone chewed through that game in less than 2 months and moved on. Sim City will be no different.

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Posted By Nezza

After having the wonderful experience of having to wait 6 weeks for a net connection to be switched back on after returning from travelling. Plus the experience of sampling many other countries internet connections; I've been very worried about the continuing moves towards an 'always on' connection or a straight 'download/streaming' only future.

Everything depends on infrastructure and right now the world is not in a position to cope with that.

This is just a single game and look at the mess. Now take this and scale it up to something like a download only console launch and tell me that is something you'd trust any of the publishers to get right?

I hope that they get these issues sorted quickly for those that have bought the game. I'll admit that I'm a little selfish in those hopes because I do intend to purchase the Mac version when it is released soon.

Avatar image for pj
Posted By PJ

I was super pumped for this new SimCity but after the QL, all the excitement faded away. The City size bumed me out so damn much that I'll wait till the game is sub $10 to check it out. I was totally ready to throw my wallet in EAs face and scream take everything while i was cheesin' it with a copy of the game. But no....

Avatar image for haggis
Edited By haggis

@cornbredx said:

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.

The only other review that seemed to actually touch on the same things this review did was the one by Kevin VanOrd over at Gamespot. The rest of the reviews seemed to gloss over these issues. Gamespot gave the game a disastrous 5.0. Definite pass from me.

Avatar image for haggis
Edited By haggis

Theoretically, I'm not opposed to requiring a constant connection. I understand the reasoning behind it. But if you're going to do that, you need to commit and provide the infrastructure. When you hear about the glitches--not just not being able to connect, but people losing progress because the cloud saves aren't working properly--that's a deal-breaker.

Additionally, I wasn't too put off by the idea of having multiple cities to deal with varying needs for a region. It's all in the implementation--and everything I've read so far about how the game demands that you play it is seriously off-putting. The idea of spending hours building a city just to handle dirty industry and garbage does not appeal. If I could have a variety of balanced cities each shouldering a burden, that would be fine. Everything I've seen indicates that approach is damned near impossible.

So, I'm back to playing SimCity 4. Which is fine, really, since it's still a decent game after all these years. But I can't help but be disappointed--I've been playing the series from the beginning and wanted to give the devs the benefit of the doubt on this. But these reviews, the early brokenness of the game, and the actual implementation of features just completely soured me on this game. Maybe they'll come to their senses and release a single-player version with online as an option, and then I can come back to it. What a wasted opportunity--so much of this game looks elegant and well-realized, but completely dragged down by a misguided vision of what the game should be.

Avatar image for fire_marshall_bill
Posted By Fire_Marshall_Bill

EA better seriously start worrying that the NFL may walk away from the next exclusive rights contract re-up. With critical game flaws (see Spore and Diablo 3) utter disappointments, (Mass Effect 3) and mild reviews for their past releases (Dead Space 3) coupled with poor revenues from lack of new IP the NFL may not see it in their interest to partner with EA.

Without Madden acting as a sales blockbuster, EA is dead man walking.

Avatar image for wmoyer83
Posted By WMoyer83

RIP Sim City

Avatar image for bmeason
Edited By bmeason

I need to know why a normal game isnt good enough. Micro machines is micro enough for me. 31

Avatar image for bybeach
Edited By bybeach

I feel a little backwards for not being into SimCity, though I do not question the review.. The multiplayer aspect honestly puts me off.. I will watch the QL all the way through this time around. I lost interest the last time, I am still a little sick. (Better)

Avatar image for driftspace
Edited By DriftSPace

@bombedyermom said:

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

Already? It's only been happening since the early 90's...

Avatar image for oldskooldeano
Posted By oldskooldeano

Good review Alex. You got balls.

Avatar image for sashimix
Posted By SashimiX

Not only did i not get a refund from EA, i got told that they would terminate my call if i asked for a supervisor.

here is a transcript from another person who got threatened to have their origin account banned if he sought a refund.

No Caption Provided

Avatar image for wewantsthering
Posted By wewantsthering

Once the servers are up, it will be great. Most complaints outside of the servers are just BS. The actual game/multiplayer is great... when it works. :-)

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Posted By gabha

Until someone pointed out here, I read the entire review thinking it was Jeff who wrote it.

Avatar image for scorched
Edited By Scorched

@nousernameavailable: They still have zone density, it's just based on the roads adjacent to the given zone. Higher density roads improve traffic flow, but also increase zone density.

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Edited By majinace

Good game bad service

Avatar image for positivelygreg
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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted By usgrovers

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

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Posted By guilherme

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

Avatar image for jimmypancakes
Posted By JimmyPancakes

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

Avatar image for desoda
Posted By desoda

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

Avatar image for chtasm
Edited By Chtasm

MORE LIKE SLIM CITY!

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

Avatar image for furiousjodo
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.

Avatar image for burjeffton--defunct
Posted By burjeffton--defunct

Stellar review. Well written and thoughtful.

Avatar image for ross2075
Edited By ross2075

This sums up everything.

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

Avatar image for djou
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?

Avatar image for diskos
Posted By diskos

Top notch review.

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

Avatar image for atomicedge
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!

Avatar image for vendetta
Edited By Vendetta

How disappointing.

Avatar image for nousernameavailable
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.

Avatar image for sgjackson
Posted By sgjackson

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

Avatar image for desoda
Posted By desoda

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

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Posted By blogpostnogood
Avatar image for deactivated-58344d4ddca47
Posted By deactivated-58344d4ddca47

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*

Avatar image for medalofmode
Posted By MedalOfMode

Waiting for Mac Release

Avatar image for medalofmode
Edited By MedalOfMode

Waiting for Mac Release

Avatar image for zzombie13
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.

Avatar image for probablytuna
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.

Avatar image for selfconfessedcynic
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.