For the past week, I’ve been on a roller coaster. On one hand, I really wanted to enjoy SimCity. On the other hand, the game was practically forcing me to hate it. Maxis is really trying to rewrite the book on city simulation with this latest version, but is it successful? The answer is that it should be fantastic, but at times seems obsessed with snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The most obvious difference in SimCity compared to previous entries is that this is fundamentally an online experience. Up until now, players built a metropolis in a walled garden, limited only by their imagination. In the present, SimCity requires a constant server connection and encourages multiplayer cooperation. It sounds great on paper: play with your friends, trade resources, manage multiple cities, what’s not to like?
For one, the game is completely and utterly dependent on the server – much like an MMO. If the servers are down or busy, you’re plum out of luck. Your city is also stored on the server rather than locally, so you’ll need to stick to a single server to keep your progress. This fact is annoying when the servers are packed and you just want to build your empire. SimCity’s launch issues have been well documented and server conditions have improved some, but as of this writing many features remain disabled to reduce server load. Most don’t affect gameplay, but the removal of Cheetah speed (the fastest simulation speed) is crippling. Cities make money with each passing simulated hour, and without the ability to speed things up substantially the game moves at a glacial pace. There were lots of times that I was forced to wait around for 15 or 20 minutes so I could build more roads, and it makes playing the game a much less practical use of time. I wouldn’t be as upset if there was a legitimate single player mode included – instead you are practically forced to play multiplayer. I hate to say it but the game ought to be called SimCity Online.
Fortunately, SimCity plays well on a functional level once the logistics are out of the way. Players select from 8 pre-fab regions (sorry, no region editing or random terrain generator) and select a city site to build on. Series veterans will recognize most of the options immediately – roads, rails, zones, services, disasters, etc are present, but the implementation of almost everything has changed. Zone density is now dependent on the size of the road out front, roads can go in freeform directions, services like police stations can be upgraded to serve increased areas, and most importantly you can unleash a fire breathing monster and a zombie attack on your town. Service delivery has been mercifully streamlined too, as power and water are integrated into roadways. Like a proper simulation, you’re also able to view an endless number of charts, density maps, resource maps, etc., which lets you cater services to your region and sim-citizens. Each of the regions also houses 1 or more “Great Works” sites, where various cities in the region contribute to a giant, region-defining project like a space center or a huge solar energy plant.
For the first 10 hours of the game, I was in love. Everything felt great. I relished in designing an organic feeling city with concentric ring roads, well thought out zones, and lots of charm. The game seemed to be simulating reasonably well, with residents requesting services in a logical manner. Gradually, things started to get crowded. Really crowded. Citizens were asking for services that I didn’t have room for. That’s when I noticed how ridiculously small the city plot I was working on was. As it turns out, all the plots are the same size – ¼ of the area in SimCity 4’s large cities. Maxis has said that city size was kept small as a performance tradeoff – trying to strike a balance between detail, system requirements, and size. It’s a valid design decision, but I wasn’t ready to move on and build a new city. Alas, Plains Harbour had hit its ceiling (pop. 40000) and so I decided to try and build the densest city possible. After building a perfect grid based on the recommended grid size (there are guides available in game), I ran into the exact same problem. There still wasn’t enough room to build all the available services.
Of course, this is designed to be a cooperative game, so I retooled things to share services between the two cities. One city specialized in health care and police, while the other had lots of education and fire capacity. I built a solid transportation system between the two towns, and figured everything should play out well. The game frequently acknowledged that services were being shared, but this didn’t seem to work at all. I had one city full of sick criminals, and another that was an uneducated firestorm. As a real slap in the face, both cities continued to ask for services that didn’t have brick and mortar locations there. I couldn’t really tell where this issue was coming from, but it seems to me that this shouldn’t happen based on how the game wants you to play.
That last statement sums up my biggest problem with SimCity – it desperately wants you to play in a singular way – coop. It’s not feasible to build a single city that includes all necessary services and has the economic capacity to reach the endgame features like Great Works. Thus, the player is forced to play online with others, or manage multiple cities. Both of these things are problematic to me. Playing online is in theory a cooperative experience, but it relies on a ridiculous amount of coordination between players, and in practice people don’t often do what they say they’re going to. Playing with friends could make this less of a problem, but I think you’d end up waiting ad infinitum for your one flaky friend to fix his/her water treatment plant. For me, managing more than one city was the solution, but starting over multiple times quickly becomes tiresome. All I wanted was to build a huge, singular metropolis, and that simply isn’t possible in this game. You can build a dense city OR a creative city, but not both. A creative city doesn’t generate enough revenue to reach end game financially, and a profitable city is totally devoid of personality. I understand the performance argument, but SimCity stopped being as fun for me beyond 10 or so hours. I felt like I had seen everything, and being forced to play a certain way didn’t really interest me anymore.
I encountered a large number of bugs during my time with SimCity too. On one occasion, I gifted 250000 sim bucks between two cities to build a huge power plant. The money left City A, and never reached City B, resulting in a number of profane words. More profanity spouted from me on the many occasions that my cities refused to synchronize. More often than not, I would make changes in City A (building service capacity, regional unlocks such as bus terminals) and not have those changes reflected in City B. Then, when going back to City A, the changes didn’t show there either. This is a seriously annoying issue, especially when there isn’t an option to save in the game. If things are supposed to save themselves, they had better save themselves. Period. I also get the sense that the populations the game reports are fabricated. In one city my population nearly doubled with almost no new buildings being constructed (perhaps 1 or 2 apartment buildings).
Visually, SimCity looks passable when the field of view is zoomed out. There are a decent variety of buildings, and there are often a huge number of things onscreen at once, but zooming in reveals some rough edges. You can see individual sims, but they shuffle around awkwardly and don’t really add to the experience. The same can be said for the music and sound effects – they both exist, but you definitely won’t be humming any of the tunes at work.
I can give Maxis a pass on some of the issues they’ve had with SimCity’s launch, and I imagine most of these issues will eventually be corrected, but the game just isn’t what I wanted. SimCity has a solid foundation, and has potential to become much better through updates. The core mechanics have heaps of potential, but I was disappointed with the overall package. Server issues persist, the game has numerous bugs, and isn’t as open ended as one might expect. I definitely encourage potential players to do a little research about SimCity before diving in – you may or may not like what it has to offer.