You’re probably wondering when the hell our review is actually going to materialise – we promise it’s on its way, but with key features still disabled in the launch week it would be unfair of us to finalise our verdict at this stage. While Matt has already given his account of the launch (spoiler alert: he wasn’t happy) I’m here to present my initial feelings on the game and my approach to it all, although I should stress that I will be leaving the in-detail analysis for the actual review.
Ever since its announcement, I have designated SimCity as an MMO title and will be reviewing it as such. In a way, I feel a part (not all) of the problem has been with Maxis and EA’s simple omission of the word “Online” from the title, but I can understand the reason behind doing this – MMOs still have a certain stigma towards them, and when you’re a big player in this industry, sales are everything. Regardless of the name though, we have seen a launch weekend that has been somewhat similar to every single MMO launch for the past decade, and players not used to the fiasco, having stayed well clear of the genre in the past, are only just feeling their queue-based-rage boil over for the first time.
As for me? Hour-long launch queues from World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, SWTOR, and even Guild Wars 2 has mellowed me somewhat. These days I just go and play Jetpack Joyride for a bit… or make a sandwich.
Make no mistake though, even I find the server issues inexcusable. Switching between servers just so players can play the game (or, more importantly, with friends) is ridiculous, and the sooner the capacity issues are resolved, the better. Here’s where I buck the trend though – I still have faith SimCity will end up coming out of this with some level of dignity, because the latest interaction of SimCity has the capacity to be the most enjoyable and addictive entry the franchise has had… once a number of issues are addressed.
So, let’s get on with those first impressions, eh? The tutorial that welcomed me to the game is straightforward, but it only covers a handful of basic mechanics, leaving me to come across the rest while playing the game proper or, in the case of curved or freeform road placement, to learn by doing (which is both costly and annoying.) Perhaps even more frustrating is that the game forces you to replay the tutorial when you move to a different server (in MMO terms, you’re basically starting a new character) so instead of allowing me to get straight into the action I was forced to load up the tutorial level and exit out at the first convenience.
Thankfully though, once I finally managed to find my way into Matt’s region of Dealspwnia, everything started to feel fine and rather soothing. If there only thing I can say about SimCity, it’s that its production values in creating a welcoming ambiance, with its upbeat soundtrack and user friendly interface, meant that whatever I didn’t understand at first was either easily identifiable or came coupled with a brief (optional) mini-tutorial. In a way, the game slowly eased me into the various aspects I would need to deal with, and while my first attempt at a city was by no means an initial success, I at least knew what was going on.
At this point, Matt had disappeared thanks to the connection issues, leaving me to nurture my city of Mongoosehampton (and the region of Dealspwnia) on my lonesome, so once I got the ball rolling in my city I decided to found a second city, called Refuseville, where I would dump all of the region’s garbage. Long story short – it ran out of money, and thanks to a server restart the cash gift I sent from Mongoosehampton never arrived. Attempting to abandon the plot of land proved useless, with it still being unavailable at the time of writing while it is reprocessed, although weirdly enough its garbage trucks are still coming to my main city to keep the streets clear.
This highlights one of the big issues at the moment – syncing cities to the servers. Looking at the region view fails to provide accurate information on each region, and even visiting another player-run city fails to bring up the right info. City hall departments were slow to register in my latest multiplayer region game, forcing myself and the other players to wait for everything to catch up. Even job sharing between the various plots in a region doesn’t appear to really affect anything, and the actions of a player are not felt anywhere near quick enough. In one example on Sunday evening, a friend’s city was hit by meteors, with a shout over Skype of “Oh god, everything’s on fire.” I quickly rushed to send my spare fire trucks over, but the poor syncing to the servers meant that they never got there in time, and so I heard his screams as Saul’s Diner exploded. For a game that touts its focus of connectivity between its city plots, it leaves a lot to be desired at this point.
In short, it basically means that while players can occasionally help each other out, a city plot must have a little bit of everything to function properly on its own, so for the time being you can forget those pure residential or commercial dreams. Focusing on a particular works fine, but considering the limited city boundary sizes there is a limit to what a player can effectively do. I was able to focus on education and industry to bring in high-tech factories, but as I had to mine ore to fund these ventures I found myself running out of space incredibly fast.
The AI of the populous is also coming across as a frustrating mechanic, with their needs constantly getting out of control. While many of our regular posters have listed a number of examples, mine has been with germs. No matter how many clinics, hospitals, or ambulances are placed, and no matter how careful I am with water sources and pollution, they always end up complaining about being filthy. Funnily enough though, I found out that you can get away with almost anything as long as you place a park down every now and then. For example, one resident was complaining about high taxes, so I placed a swimming pool where his house was. Their neighbours were apparently all for the idea, forgetting about the taxes as they splashed around in the pool
The same tactic worked with the houses that surrounded the coal mine I built. Evil genius, I say.
The thing is though, no matter how much I’ve complained and criticised the game so far, I’m actually enjoying it when the servers are behaving. As I’ve previously stated, the interface is wonderfully intuitive, and watching your city grow is visually pleasing, especially when the first skyscrapers begin to loom over the streets below. There’s a simple charm to looking over the city with the camera creating a diorama effect as you zoom into the city with the game speed turned up (not to Cheetah speed though, that’s still disabled to give the servers a break, apparently.) There’s also a sick, twisted part of me that occasionally likes to see my Sims suffer, just to see what they’ll do. For instance, at one point I placed a sewerage overflow pipe right next to my train station, just to see what would happen.
The ground got very brown, but not much beyond that, sadly.
With Maxis stating that they are currently on target to solve the server issues (and then hopefully address the other problems that exist) I hope that by the time the review is on site I will have been able to fully test out everything SimCity was supposed to offer. Is the game unplayable in its current state? No at all, but although it could be a damn sight better. Let’s hope Maxis manage to turn this around, because the fun factor I’m experiencing (when everything works) might not hold for the long haul if the issues aren’t addressed.
Second Opinion - Matt Gardner
SimCity is a strange beast that's slowly being nurtured back to health after a near-miscarriage at birth. It's got a core of unbelievable potential, but some serious game time over the weekend has made me realise that this a game hamstrung by its own ambitions. The tragedy of the situation is that GlassBox is just as fantastic as we thought it would be. Carl's touched on this a little, but I'd go so far as to say that the separate tutorial level is completely superfluous. It's incredibly easy to get up and running with familiarising yourself with the user interface, and there are constant hints and tips and suggestions to help you out should you get stuck. One thing that is a little vexing perhaps is that hotkey shortcuts aren't revealed when hovering over buttons, but Maxis have larger features to re-install before dealing with something as small as that.
The process of building a city is as addictive and engrossing as it has always been, but instead of seeing a game optimised for an always-connected experience, so far I'm only seeing negative aspects to the multiplayer, mainly because it's only partially operational. It all feels so forced, particularly when you consider the disappointingly small city limits. That none of it really works properly yet (someone's already mentioned Sims not responding properly to regional aid) makes the whole thing feel rather reductive.
I'm addicted to the gameplay. Seriously, it's so damn good. But thus far, the dream Maxis spoke of of a globally connected SimCity experience has yet to be realised. I have no doubt that Maxis could have created an offline mode quite easily, and it would have been amazing, thanks to GlassBox. The game itself looks to be utterly fantastic. Equally, I believe that once this always-online master plan is finally finished, it could be magnificent. But it's not finished. We're treading water, and what we currently have is an unfinished product that no-one asked for.