NOTE: This review originally ran on March 7th, but to reflect the stabilization of Maxis’s servers, the review and score have been updated.
SimCity is a game I’ve long dreamt of. In 1998, a screenshot of a fully 3D SimCity game leaked out, featuring individual Sims driving in individual cars while bank robbers got into gunfights with the police. It was crude-looking, but it was a very exciting promise at best, one that would take Maxis another fifteen years to fulfill. There’s a reason why many contemporary journalists reflect so fondly on the twenty year-old SimCity 2000: it’s the last game in the franchise that brought new ideas to the table and pulled them off successfully. SimCity‘s problem is that it’s still ahead of its time. Having waited so long, would we have died to wait another five years for a perfect game? Is this sample of the future worth it?
Metropolis In A Shoebox
I’m going to spare you many of the details that you’ve probably read in every other article. (You’re welcome.) Like SimCity 4, you claim a lot from a region to build your city. Unlike that game, there are no varying sizes, you get the same square mile that everyone else does. These regions are pre-fabricated (think: StarCraft maps) with a varying number of city lots and Great Works areas where the plurality of cities can work together to build massive airports, space centers, or even a self-contained city called an arcology. When I wrote about this game as it was unveiled a year ago, I was excited at the idea of native cooperative multiplayer right out of the gate, but I was also pretty skeptical at the idea of the complexity of the simulation reining in city sizes, which is a massive bummer.
Regardless of which region you select, the city slices are spread out and hooked together through existing highway and rail lines to make for a more geographically realistic meta-city. (Ironically, such transport lines wouldn’t exist if the cities weren’t already there, but okay.) As you begin to play, you’ll realize that you’ll merely end up with a bunch of small squares that are loaded to the gills with player-developed cities. Previous SimCity games had this same problem: players were given the easy ability to level the entire play area – something that’s gone missing from this new game for a variety of believable reasons – and developing grey urban blobs that span from edge to edge. As a result, players like myself would develop a single self-sustaining mega city that, through the simplicity of the simulation, had schools and police departments on every corner and were min-maxed for maximum populations. Realistically, what would a win condition in a SimCity game be otherwise? What would an endgame look like? In 2000, it was arcologies. In later games, you simply moved on.
Maxis worked real hard to do something different and was hamstrung by the limitations of technology. Each city slice must ultimately be developed to serve another city. City A may be where you’ve placed all your power, City B may be where you produce all your water, and so forth. The region model allows you to then easily trade those goods between them, which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how the game will allow you to freely develop in a million different directions, but once you realize your role in the region, you’re spending too much of your time re-optimizing your city for it. SimCity wants you to develop boutique cities, but doesn’t give you the foresight to make those decisions. How easy would it have been to decide early on, through some deliberate gameplay choices, what you want your city to be, because it can’t be everything. Not even close. Furthermore, even when trying to keep tabs on the role of your city, the game constantly pushes you forward to make it bigger and bigger while adding specialty structures from different industries, whether it’s casinos or chip fabs. You can’t have little towns here, you’re always under pressure to expand and grow your infrastructure. (You also can’t build farm towns, but I guess that’s gotta be DLC at some point.)
This results in cities that are generally ‘handled’ in five to ten hours. The first half of your city-building session will be spent filling your shoebox of a space, the second half will consist of destroying large chunks of it to squeeze as many Sims into your burg as possible. SimCity‘s endgame feels like changing into a tuxedo in the backseat of a car. Even in our own FEZLand, playing amongst the staff, starting with a 3 city/1 Great Work region feels unfulfilling even as a test of the game. It seems paradoxical then, doesn’t it? Previous games had no end game and you played until you were bored, this game has an end game and the joy of building a city is sapped somewhat because of those looming goals. No, you don’t have to build Great Works, but why wouldn’t you? Likewise, this game is also relatively easy. You’ll have to work incredibly hard to bankrupt your city, but Maxis probably realized you wouldn’t have enough runway to recover even if you tried. If you have multiple cities in the same region, you can gift funds to assist in development, which may actually lead to some really cool city designs if you’re flipping the bird to proper city management.
When you’re actually building your cities, though? SimCity is pretty fun. The promise of being able to track each individual Sim from their house, then to school or work and back again is here and alive. The fact that it’s able to do this for every single person that lives in your city is where all of the game’s technical limitations lie, but also all of its joys. Traffic jams are actually Sims caught in traffic. An Expo Center that fills up right before a rock concert is an actual model of virtual people going to see a rock concert. You get chills when you see them backed up when they leave, just like any place you’ve ever been to. Sims need education and go to school so your nuclear power plant doesn’t melt down. Sims become criminals through your negligence and can even terrorize neighboring cities. Adding parks and increasing land value sends your buildings high into the air and it feels organic, rather than something you painted onto the landscape. Everything in this game is actually happening and isn’t just an idea of something happening. At full tilt, it’s an amazing sight.
Cities are based around roads, meaning that all of your structures must be attached to one. This also facilitates all of your cities utilities, so rather than having to place power and water lines, they’re built into the roads. All you have to do is build the water towers, sewage plants and power stations that keep your city running. Like many things in SimCity, this is incredibly clever. What’s not quite as clever is how best to lay down the roads. At no point does the game give you a grid view to expertly plan your city, which is essential far too often to maximize building placement. I’m not even talking about min-maxing, I’m talking about letting far too much space go to waste because as sophisticated as the game is, the buildings are still of a fixed size and don’t change shape depending on placement. Just as I noted in the beta, when you place roads, you don’t know what final forms these buildings will take, leaving you with a ton of wasted space between roads, which is contrary to how things work in the real world, but would no doubt be an extra huge layer of simulation that the game couldn’t handle. Needless to say, trying to get pretty with a bunch of curvy roads squeezes away precious real estate. The game provides guidelines to assist you in laying the keel of your city, but they’re about 80% as effective as they need to be. Is it really so hard to draw a perfect quarter-circle? It is, apparently.
Oh, Those Problems
Aside from the game’s design issues, it’s an easy “No.” to a recommendation because of EA’s server issues alone. We’ve talked about it and we’ve talked about it and we’ve talked about it, so has everyone else, but it’s a fundamental flaw in the game. Maxis off-loaded many base functions of the game, including the city save files, off to their servers. What may have sounded rational now sounds like Microsoft’s complaints at their anti-trust trial when they claimed that Internet Explorer couldn’t be separated from Windows XP because it had been baked right into the OS (all previous and future editions, of course, it was merely an extra program). For the past 72 hours, trying to play SimCity has been an absolute disaster. When I do play, I wonder how much of my city will still be there when I drop after a server error kicks me out. Oh, I know EA is working around the clock to fix these issues, but they’ve had years to plan for this. They had Diablo III‘s disastrous launch to learn from and they still didn’t get it right. They’ve also turned off functionality like the game’s achievements and the Cheetah speed – the fastest way to pass the time – to try and get it somewhat working. It still isn’t. It is fucked up and EA knows it. The tragedy is that there will be publishers that will continue to fuck it up despite a grand fuck up like this.
While these issues will eventually be addressed, it will be hard to trust the game’s resiliency. This is a game from a company that had the nerve to offer limited edition content a year ago and chintzy DLC tilesets on day one. When the situation does improve and the mood in the room changes, I’ll be more than happy to revisit the game’s score. Until then, I hope Maxis gets to make the iteration of this game that fixes all of its issues and lets us build true megalopoli. EA, however, can melt into the ground.
Update, March 15th, 2013
It sounds a bit like cheating to re-review a game as it improves, but since we’re still within the critical launch window of the game and the technical situation has improved drastically, I’m granting the SimCity the higher score it deserves. Unfortunately, the design issues I discussed at length above still hold the game back from being the great title it could have been. Compounding that fact is how much the game relies on the efficiency of your city’s traffic, which is handled by AI that can’t devise alternate routes, rendering late-game city management even more painful as Sims can’t figure their way around. SimCity had a chance and they used it to get their act together, further improvements won’t be addressed.