So, it’s been a rather interesting few weeks for EA, Maxis, and gamers around the world, hasn’t it? We’ve covered the launch and the frustrations it brought, and since then we’ve spent over a week in the city building simulation. Fans have flocked online to share their views via message boards, social media sites, and YouTube videos of varying quality and comprehension (and I’ve even rapped about it… no, really.) In fact the whole thing has been remarkably similar to the events of Diablo 3’s launch almost a year ago. However, although we held off for a few updates to see if things could be salvaged, we are at the point where we cannot wait any longer to pass judgment. We know some of you have waited patiently for our verdict… so I’m going to delay that by another paragraph with a quick anecdote, because I’m annoying like that.
Earlier this week, my editorial overlord Matt and I sat down to record this week’s podcast in the hopes of discussing the topic of the moment, SimCity, in great detail. We had hoped to go over our impressions of the game, discuss the impact of the always-online connectivity, and generally try to figure out what went wrong… but once we had completed said recording, we came to the realisation that what we had just recorded was a mess. A mostly vague, momentarily informative, but inconsistent mess overall. It was only when we spoke afterwards about how I was having a difficult time reviewing the game in its current state that the flow of the conversation and our opinions returned with a sense of purpose, because underneath all of the problems that currently exist we both knew there was a game worth spending time with, and one that had the capacity to provide an entertaining experience.
In a way, the end result of the podcast was a direct reflection of the game itself, but whereas we decided to shelve our recording, Maxis and EA decided to push on and publish their work prematurely… a move that has cost them dearly.
At its core, SimCity handles very similarly to its predecessors, and as someone who has invested several hundreds of hours into the series over the past 15 years or so, I was able to jump into the city planning with no problems. That said, the way Maxis presents the user interface to the player is so straight forward that even newcomers should find it an intuitive process to play, with a short tutorial sequence to guide players through the basics and some of the more complex mechanics explained as the game progresses - a commendable achievement on Maxis’ part. Everything from RCI zoning and building upgrades, to the icons turning red when a serious situation arises, is for the most part clearly labelled and described, and the layer of depth is there the further you get into a game. The various levels of wealth need accommodating, and finding a balance between them (as well as the taxes involved) make for an interesting balancing act.
Players need not worry about having to place multiple hospitals or police stations like they had to do in previous games to ensure all buildings were under their influence, with the game opting for upgrade system that feels natural and allows you to see the capacity of your services progress. Placing an extra garage allows for more frequent patrols or faster responses, adding a waiting room allows for larger capacity, and in the case of the power plants adding an extra turbine or reactor provides more power. Overall it allows players to save on space, something that ultimately all players must take into consideration no matter how they play.
This is because the land plots that players can choose from are just not big enough to attempt the sort of dream metropolis they could have done in previous instalments. It is almost impossible to separate different zones from each other to keep order, so industrial and residential zones will almost certainly need to mix together, for better or worse, because of the demand for workers to run the factories. Thinking about mining ore? You’ll need at least two or three mines, and then you’ll need trade depots to store those resources. What’s that? You want to smelt that ore to make alloys? You’ll need a Trade HQ or a Metal HQ along with the appropriate upgrades. All of these buildings require large amounts of space, and because you have pre-set areas where the ore needs mining up from (usually in the middle, annoying) you’re not only restricted in where you place buildings, but forced to mix RCI zones together. It ultimately means that you have two choices whilst playing SimCity – you either build a functional, profitable city, or try to build a good looking one.
And here’s the thing - SimCity has the ability to provide beautiful stylised visuals thanks to the robust nature of the Glassbox engine. Seeing buildings rise up further and further as your sims go for verticality is a pleasing sight, and viewing a series of skyscrapers of another city plot across the region is beautiful to behold, especially at night. Zooming down into the street level engages a pleasing Diorama Effect, making the city and its populous looking like miniatures. Even the little details, such as buildings using solar panels when you populous is educated, really add to the progression on your city as it grows. In fact, the aesthetics in general are expertly realised, with the music helping to put you at ease as well as subtly changing depending on what menus the player is accessing or the zoom level they are currently on. Is it perfect? Unfortunately no, as roads will clip into the ground when the camera is zoomed out, but it's not a game-breaking issue by any means, and overall it’s an incredibly inviting game that can suck the hours away from you if you’re not careful.
But beyond its charming appearance and welcoming smile you start to realise that there are issues, and while there might be a feeling of fun initially you’ll almost certainly begin to feel the frustration the more time you spend with it. For instance, adding just one or two services to your city can rip your hourly budget asunder, forcing you into expanding your city when you might not be ready to and at times came across as a little unfair. It doesn’t help that the RCI demand graphs, while easy to understand, often comes across as inaccurate, as I found my attempts to place down various new zones hardly affected matters at times.
The word “broken” has been thrown around a lot recently, and at times I have agreed, but others I have felt it is simply unbalanced, and others I’ve simply thought “perhaps I just don’t understand the advanced mechanics.” Regardless of whichever one may be true, it’s a failure on Maxis’ part as it ultimately makes SimCity feel like an unforgiving mistress in a number of ways. Besides the varying effectiveness of the disasters, the population will almost certainly find something to complain about, and even when the issue has clearly been dealt with they will continue to protest outside your City Hall. It got to the point where I actively began to ignore them, instead only caring once an advisor pops up with a warning, something I should have been punished for but never was.
The AI scripting often comes across as ludicrous, with traffic being the biggest culprit. Cars will occasionally take a longer route for no apparent reason, and public transport is a mixed bag in terms of effectiveness, causing traffic jams as the buses stretched themselves across each lane of the avenues I had placed down. In one instance, I had an entire stretch of road filled with moving vans that were going around the same stretch of road again and again, with my patience finally reaching its limit when I destroyed said road to send them on their merry way, ultimately cost me around 2000 Simoleons. It doesn't help that, in the case of industry, shipping freight will prove impossible for the AI despite the fact you've clearly placed either export options or shops for items to be sent to. Even resources such as ore appeared to bug out, causing storage to remain full for no reason.
Earlier I stated that you can either build a functional or a good looking city, and part of that is down to the inclusion of curved roads. In a number of ways it’s a welcome feature to have, and if we had bigger lands plots to create sweeping roads on hills it would absolutely be a killer feature, but it ultimately ends up feeling like redundant due to two reasons. Firstly, because RCI zoning is now firmly linked to roads (instead of dragging a box as you did in previous SC titles) and because the buildings are square, you end up wasting precious space, especially in the case of placeable buildings. Secondly, the tool for creating freeform roads is absolutely frustrating - the end result of my efforts usually looking like someone was shaking the desk as I drew them out. That’s not to say they isn’t a use for them, and curved roads have helped me in a number of moments, but it ultimately felt more of a hindrance and I stuck to drawing out city blocks. Again, it all boils down to space, or lack thereof.
Which is why the regional play, and linking up city plots, is so important in this instalment of SimCity. With eight regions to choose from, players can either open them up to anyone, only allow friends to join, or play on their lonesome. While the number of plots vary from 2 or 5 all the way to 16, I felt there was a real lack of differentiation in the actual plots, with many of them being recycled over the various maps. Each region also comes with a certain number of special areas for Great Works – projects where resources are combined to build a legacy for the region. These are naturally an expensive process to undertake and require a number of specialisations to complete, but at the time of writing I have never had the opportunity to complete one, and that is mainly down to perhaps the most talked about issue since launch – the servers.
Updates between the player and the server have been dreadful for the majority of my time playing SimCity, with shared resources and services taking from an hour to a few days to register with my friends playing in the region. Admittedly, things have improved since the March 16th update, with upgrades and gifting taking around 20 minutes to register for another player, but even that feels far too long for a game that is mean to be focused on connectivity. For instance, if another player’s town sudden has a meteor shower, setting buildings on fire in the process, if you have yet to allocate fire trucks to their region you will find that any help offered at that point will arrive too late. While I have faith that Maxis will improve the response time to more acceptable levels, at the moment it involves too much time “sitting on your hands”, as it were.
It doesn’t help that, at the time of writing, Cheetah Speed remains disabled, meaning players in need of income for that all important new building will spend a large amount of time waiting instead of playing.
It frustrates me greatly that I have to complain about all of this, because I can see that when the mechanics are working the game is addictive fun. In the region of New Dealspwnia, Matt’s focus on mining, wealth and education meant that I could focus on utilities, technology and transport, and once we started unlocking upgrades it opened up our options even more. The time delay in registering these was frustrating, but when everything began to finally sync with the server it gave us a sense of accomplishment. It was a taste of the dream Maxis had for this iteration of SimCity, which makes it all the more painful when things go wrong outside of our control.
Single player games are certainly possible, but will ultimately be the biggest time sink of them all, as cities do not continue to process when you switch to another plot. Thankfully, with the server syncing now improved thanks to the patch at the weekend, players can now attempt to create the specialised cities of their dreams (including the fabled “garbage town”) but even so, I have noticed that a city needs to have at least a small fire station, along with the other services, even if they are receiving assistance from a neighbour. It effectively means that players will need to create a jack-of-all-trades city, at least initially, to ensure success, which is surely not the point when you are supposed to share the load across the region.
Of course, if there was more space to spread out your various zones, this might not be an issue, and the lack of space is almost certainly why agricultural zones were omitted (something I’ve found I’m missing from SC4, weirdly enough) but once Maxis have fixed the balance issues, sorted out the AI, and improved the server response times, it could live up to the core mechanics that are, quite frankly, a an addictive joy to jump into. As it currently stands though, it’s almost impossible to recommend at full retail price.
- Intuitive and helpful UI.
- Aesthetically pleasing presentation across the board.
- When it’s working, the connectivity is brilliantly realised…
- … but the delay between server updates to regions is frustrating.
- The small city plot sizes are too restrictive to the gameplay.
- Broken / unbalanced scripting makes pleasing the populous an uphill struggle.
- Curved roads are (for the most part) bloody pointless.
The Short Version: The always-online connectivity wouldn’t have been an issue had the servers been more reliable, but even with the current patch (March 16th) there is still a lot to be desired, despite the improvements since launch. A truly additive and fun city building simulation is there, waiting to be realised, but Maxis have a lot of work ahead of them to get to the point where the full retail price is acceptable.
A Final Note: We absolutely plan on returning to SimCity further down the line to see if Maxis have been able to fix the problems that plague the game. Much like Diablo 3, the start of its life has been marred in controversy, but where as Blizzard arguably failed to meet the expectations, Maxis still have a chance to do so, because while it utterly deserves the score above in its current state, we can see it is capable of better.