SimCity is one of the most iconic game series in existence. It is understandable that after a 10 year hiatus, fans of the series were excited for the latest version that released in March. Unfortunately for early buyers of the game, they were met with server problems and features being turned off to allow people to connect to EA to play the game. Now that the dust has settled, is SimCity the game that everyone was expecting? You can see glimpses of what Maxis and EA want to do with the game that looks very promising, but it has not reached that point yet.
For those that have completely ignored the initial release of the game, SimCity uses always-on digital rights management, or DRM. This forces users to be connected to EA servers at all times to play the game. If you are not connected to the internet, you can not play SimCity. There is no offline mode, and if your internet is disconnected in the middle of you building a city, the game allows you to play for a few minutes before kicking you out. It is a design decision that has many people scratching their heads. Maxis has said the reasoning for this is that Glassbox, the new simulation engine used in SimCity, requires outside servers to process some of the simulation for your city. After the awful launch, Maxis then made a statement that they essentially made an MMO and that the game will be updated constantly, which requires it to always be connected.
This sounds like a good excuse to explain why a game was not finished when it was initially released, which is exactly what SimCity feels like. While I can look past the DRM issues now that the servers seem to be stable enough for users to play the game at anytime, it is hard to ignore some big flaws in the mechanics of the game.
To start SimCity, you select one region out of a number of predetermined locations. Each region has a different number of cities to found, ranging from two cities to 16. In the smaller regions, all the cities are connected via a highway or rail system. If you enter a larger region, some of the cities are not connected with others. For a game that relies on the cooperation of multiple cities in a region for survival or to complete projects, this is one design flaw that does not make sense.
After you claim a region, it is time to begin building your brand new city. The first thing that players will notice upon entering a city is that the area to build your city is pretty small. The official size of each city is 2 km by 2 km. This is around the same size as the medium sized maps in SimCity 4. Like SimCity 4, to get citizens to move into your city, you have to zone for residential areas. The new residents will need somewhere to shop and work, so commercial and industrial zones also need to be zoned in the city. But due to the limited city sizes, you only need to play a city for a few hours before you realize you have no more room to zone new areas. It can be a bit frustrating when there is high demand for people to move into your city, yet you have no where to plop new residential zones.
To help with this demand, your city will start to build upward instead of outward. This is by far the most exhilarating aspect of SimCity. To watch the city go from small trailer parks to apartment complexes to amazing skyscrapers is a very enjoyable sight. It should also be noted that the animation when large skyscrapers are being built is really fun to watch.
As your city grows in size and population, the city can became pretty crowded. This is where most of the frustration lies with SimCity. It seems like no matter what you do to improve traffic in your city, there are always traffic jams. This will lead to public service vehicles unable to navigate through the city, which in turn leads to more crime as police can not make it in time to crimes in progress, and fires will rage through the city as fire trucks can not get through traffic. Setting up an extensive bus system in your city does not seem to help with traffic problems, and you can upgrade the streets to increase the amount of traffic, but that seems to have a very minimal effect. One thing that is really missing from the game is a taxi depot. It would be nice to plop taxi depots next to airports and hotels for tourists to use as they seem to not know how to use the bus system. It should also be noted that there you can not build a subway system. You can build train stations that will take citizens between cities in your region.
Upgrading the roads in your city is not only important for allowing traffic to flow better, but it is necessary to build large skyscrapers in your city. There are two different types of roads you can upgrade, one for normal traffic, and one that can handle street cars. But once you upgrade to the highest density roads that do not have street car rails, that is it. There is no interchange between the two roads, meaning if you lay down roads in your city and decide in the future to set up a street car system, you have to demolish the roads you have built and start over. The avenues that allow for street cars are wider than the normal streets, but Maxis could have buildings around the street you upgrade to be rebuilt. There are new buildings going up all the time around the city, so why limit the streets you can upgrade?
For your cities to grow from small towns to large metropolises, you have to supply the necessities to the citizens. The nice thing about SimCity is all utilities are tied to roads. You can not build anything in SimCity that is not connected to a road. This means that when you place a sewage outflow pump, or a water tower, the streets are used to move these goods. You can enter a screen to see the simulation in work, which can be fun to watch for about 10 seconds.
There are times that some of your utilities stop working, and you have no reason why. The most advanced building for handling sewage is the sewage treatment plant. It can handle loads of sewage that the lesser buildings can not. But sometimes the pipes will be backed up, even when there is plenty of room at the treatment plant to process the sewage. And since the sewage pipes are built into the roads, it is not like you can add more pipes to handle the flow. You can add more processing tanks to handle more sewage, but when it the plant is at half capacity and the pipes are backed up, you have to wonder why this happens as the game gives you no indication.
Speaking of adding things to buildings, this is a new key feature of SimCity. As you progress, you will have to add to modules to buildings that you have built. These range from more bus garages, more classrooms at the school, to different departments at city hall. To build certain specialized buildings in your city, you’ll need specific departments to be built. For example, if you want to build a university, you have to build the department of education extension to city hall.
These specialized buildings are necessary to unlock certain Great Works projects. Great Works is a new addition to SimCity, and these are large projects that cities collaborate on in a designated area of your region. The great works projects range from an international airport, a space center, to an arcology. To build this Great Works projects, each city will need to send workers to the site, along with supplying certain types of resources. The benefit of building these sites is increased tourism, workers, education, and other things to benefit the cities in the region. It is a great addition to the game, even if it does take hours to get to a point where you can build a Great Work.
From a distance, SimCity looks great. You’ll be viewing the game most of the time from a distance, which is good because as you zoom in, some of the textures look kind of bland. The game also has this tilt-shift filter, that phenomena that has taken over the Internet. I think this helps with the visuals, but you can not turn off the effect. You can only change how intense the effect is, which may turn some people off from the graphics. People bustle around your city, car lights will illuminate the streets, and pollution fills the air around your industrial zones. One great effect in the game is when at night, if you look out to an area of the region that has another city, you can see it lit up in the distance.
SimCity is an ambitious game, and has a lot of content to it. It just does not seem to be put together well. It is annoying when you see a tourist say “I wish there was a hotel here for me to stay at,” when there is a hotel around the corner from where the tourist is at. Things like that do not make sense. It seems like two different pieces of content in the game are not communicating with each other. It is those little things that really confuse me. There are some fun parts to the game, and it is incredibly addicting. But until all the systems get fixed and working correctly, SimCity can be a frustrating game. If Maxis continues to patch the game and improve it, then it could be the game that everyone waited 10 years for. If they do not, then SimCity will go down as a basic, broken city simulation game.
SimCity was developed by Maxis and published by EA for the PC and a Mac version will be released June 11. A retail copy of the PC version was provided to us for reviewing purposes.