Game Review: SimCity
Pros:Most realistic and detailed city simulation so far; addictive gameplay; beautiful landscapes; great regional collaboration; superb soundtrack
Cons:VERY small maps; streamlined features; sometimes you depend too much on the regional aspects; always-Online DRM; lack of documentation
What’s left to be said about the infamous game that invoked the wrath of the gaming community? Well, only that it’s bloody good. Claudio reviews SimCity.
It’s been about a week since EA released the fifth instalment of the SimCity series in Europe. It’d be irresponsible of us to review the game without at least mentioning the catastrophic failure of its launch, especially in America. Lots of customers weren’t able to play the game for hours at a time over the course of several days, and this earned SimCity a rating of 1 star on Amazon and a 1.7 user score in Metacritic. Ouch.
SimCity’s overwhelmingly negative reception has been an interesting phenomenon. Most of the reviews are negative not because the gameplay is bad, but because people weren’t able to enjoy any gameplay in the first place. They couldn’t access a product they paid for and, quite rightly, they responded en masse with boycotts, protests and petitions.
What was EA’s intention?
For starters, let me point out that despite making some of the highest ranking games of recent years, EA is a company with a history of attracting a fan base that’s both passionate and antagonistic. EA is infamous because it is perceived as one of gaming’s greediest companies. This is partly true, and partly the price you pay when you have such an intense audience as gamers. Announcing that the new SimCity was going to have always-online DRM - meaning that players had to remain online to play the game - didn’t help matters. But there’s no escaping the fact that SimCity is an online game. You create your city in small regions that are shared with a limited number of other players; this is a crucial part of the game. The question of whether EA are using this feature as an excuse to force always-online DRM remains, but still, this is how the game was advertised.
So what went wrong? Apparently, EA underestimated the amount of players SimCity would have at launch, and because they got the numbers wrong they didn’t have enough servers to cope with it. So people had to queue to get in, or got kicked out of the servers, or just gave up. And so, all hell break loose.
Fortunately, when we got to play the game here in Europe, the worst part was almost over. I got to play the game on the second day of launch, and on the third day was able to play with a friend, so I was able to get a smooth impression of the mechanics.
First impressions? SimCity is beautiful. The screenshots don’t do it any justice. There is just something about the subtle animation of the trees, the soothing movement of the clouds, the way the camera glides swiftly when you pan or transition between different elements with a magnificent depth of field.
There is decidedly a more ‘cartoony’ or stylized look to it, and once you see your first sims it’s evident the developers tried to unify the look of the game with that of The Sims 3. There are also many elements in the UI that reference the The Sims series, and the superb soundtrack will remind you of some of its best songs. It’s unobtrusive and relaxing, something you will appreciate since you’ll be spending a LOT of hours in your cities (I haven’t yet gotten the impulse to turn it off; that says a lot). The style also favors the game performance. Even on the highest settings it runs smoothly on my computer, and I’m pleased to say I haven’t encountered any kind of lag despite how complex the simulation can get.
The basic mechanics are the same throughout the series. To summarize briefly how it works: you decide how your city is distributed by placing residential, commercial, and industrial zones, which at the beginning are literally green, blue and yellow squares that you stretch along the terrain. The city then starts building up on top of the zones, and you add additional buildings for city management or special purposes, from police stations and electrical plants, to universities and schools. The rest is tinkering and balancing a lot of elements and attributes to keep your sims happy and produce money at the same time, and as your city grows this proves to be very difficult. Taxes, traffic, education, crime, fire, pollution… those are just some of the factors you’ll have to deal with.
In SimCity, as soon as you start placing roads, you’ll find out you have some additional flexibility in building your city in comparison to previous installments. For the first time you can build curved roads, which is pretty awesome (although a bit advanced for city planning) and you’ll be surprised the big difference it makes in design terms. This is counterbalanced by many features which have been streamlined. For example, you don’t lay out a pipe network for water distribution anymore; this is done automatically by your water plants, depending on where you place them and your roads. You don’t zone airports either; airports have become just another building. This makes things easier, and allows you to focus on other management aspects that are already very complex, but hardcore fans of the series may find this change disappointing.
Several sections of the interface have been unified under the same categories to simplify it. You’ll be using the same 15 buttons in your toolbar for different purposes depending on the context. You no longer have a different panel for your advisers; instead, they’ll pop up whenever you need to build or tweak something from their respective areas. They’ll also advise you whenever you go to your Regional View, which is the most important new feature in the game.
When you open SimCity (after you’ve dealt with all the Origin launcher crap), you’ll be prompted to select a server. Then you must follow the tutorial, and after that you’re allowed to create a region (either public or private) or join one. Regions are maps where 3 to 15 cities subsist. Different players can be the mayor of the cities, or one player could be the mayor of several. So far, regions are not interchangeable between cities. Also, region filtering (when you’re searching for specific regions) has been disabled because of the launch problems, and both limitations have proved to be a pain in the ass.
The game has been balanced in such a way that trading and communication between cities in a region is essential for a city to survive. The main way the system forces you to rely on this is by the size of the city maps. They are ridiculously small. Say goodbye to your dream of presiding over a huge metropolis. This takes a lot from the experience when you’re further into the game, and you may well start to feel you’re playing in a small children’s sandbox and cannot escape from it. If you don’t trade intelligently with other cities for resources, you’ll be forced to bulldoze whole streets or even zones to squeeze in other buildings you’ve find your city is in dire need of. It’s something incredibly difficult to master. I appreciate the whole new world of possibilities that the region system enables, but it could’ve worked just as well with bigger maps. The size limitation just hasn’t paid off.
Cities share a ‘city wall’, which is a fancy name for a chat service to communicate with your fellows in the region. So when you’re in desperate need of ore, or need someone to start importing a resource, or you have to start begging for money (shame on you), you can communicate there. Another thing cities share are commuters. Your sims may go to other cities to study, shop, or work if they don’t find enough of each in your own. You probably can understand now how this is vital.
One of the coolest features is the ability to visit other cities as spectator. Loading times are not that long, and it gives you a chance to see how other cities are doing and how they’ve been laid out. Just remember, cities aren’t synchronized live. There is a delay between them. It isn’t clear how often the clusters sync, but in one particular session I was playing, a neighbour donated *ahem* a couple of thousand dollars, and I got them around 25 real-life minutes later. But this may be quicker in some cases.
As many modern game beasts, SimCity is packed up with achievements. This can include goals that are more likely to make you feel embarrassed but, whatever, gotta catch ‘em all! One particular achievement that is relevant to the new region features are Great Works. Every region has a zone that is designated to make an epic extraordinary building that benefits all the cities in different way. The requirements demand some teamwork, so it’s very rewarding to get it done. An example of a Great Work is the International Airport, which was a normal building in previous SimCity games.
Thanks to GlassBox, the game’s engine, the simulation feels very realistic. Unlike other city management games where a lot of the events are determined randomly or through statistics, there is a whole intricate system that simulates the little things (eachsim’s daily life for example) and let the rest of the mechanics emerge according to this. What this means is that, for example, your city fire trucks won’t provide statistical coverage to determine whether a fire is extinguished or not. The fire truck has to actually get there through the traffic, and you can see the whole tragedy unwrapping in front of you. If your fire brigade gets caught in a traffic jam, the building affected may be burned to ashes. And every pedestrian the fire truck passes by is going somewhere to do something that may be affected by other factors. I’m guessing that this is very system-intensive (probably another reason the maps’ size were limited) but I anticipate that we’ll see some amazing mods that will take use of it.
Except for the map limitation – SimCity’s biggest flaw – the rest of the game works pretty well. There are some bugs here and there, mostly related to some trading not working as it should and wonky road placement, but these will probably be solved quickly with patches.
So, what’s the problem? What’s up with all the hate?
It’s a problem of expectations. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not blaming the customers here. The fact of the matter is that fans of SimCity expected to be able to play their game offline, by themselves, whenever the hell they wanted (not when the servers let them). If this game was called SimCity Online, and, more importantly, if its servers worked as they should, the reaction would be totally different. We would be looking at 9 Metacritic game or a 4.5 star average on Amazon.
EA first changed the way a lot of the players preferred to enjoy the game, and then they didn’t deliver what they had advertised by providing a game that couldn’t be played. I must confess I’m not unsatisfied with the always-online DRM, but probably because I’m accepting SimCity as a different experience. I understand, though, why others are mad and how the online aspect of the game should be optional rather than enforced.
But while that can pass as a design decision, the servers not working is:
This is relevant because in the case of SimCity, EA proved that always-online DRM may backfire if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it, so we may not be quite there yet. And when it comes to a massive franchise such as this, it’s hard to conceive of how the publishers didn’t plan properly for their audience. One can understand how this is perceived as greed by a significant amount of gamers. In SimCity’s case, the publisher’s intent to prevent piracy did more harm than good. Maxis made an excellent game, only for EA to beat it into the ground with its giant DRM bat.
Here’s hoping that SimCity can recover from all of its bad press, and it’s recognised as the awesome simulation game it has the potential to be, because in this gamer’s opinion, it’s probably the best of the series.