Developer: EA Maxis
Format: PC (Reviewed), Mac
Release Date: Out Now
Price: $59.99 (Available Here)
SimCity is the 2013 reboot of the original King of city-building simulations. Our review is a belated one due to many factors; one of them being few Oceanic servers and, considering all the controversy that has unfolded over the always-online requirements for the game, I think you can imagine the initial roadblocks. Among being swamped with other big time reviews, such as God of War: Ascension and Mass Effect 3: Citadel, as well as G.I. Joe: Retaliation press commitments, I was swamped, but also thought it fair to allow EA the time to do some damage control. Why? Because I wanted to review the game based on its own merits, however do not think I ignored the server-side issues that plague the game all together…they still reared their ugly head. Read on for my ultimate opinion on SimCity.
Let me preface this section by saying that I struggled to find a Region with vacant land. I could not seem to find one that I could claim for myself, so I had to start my own region of just two cities, set it to private and managed them concurrently. This is also the sort of game where, as a critic, you have to decide where to stop playing and where to begin the review process for yourself as it is potentially forever open-ended. There are so many things to try out and so many interactions to be had between players that no review can truly cover everything this game has to offer in those respects in a timely and complete manner. For instance, I did not get to collaborate on building a Great Work because my cities were floundering for a little while and I never built up the level of resources/money/population between them to initiate the build, even after dozens of hours of gameplay.
Nonetheless, I utilised as many mechanics as I could to gain as comprehensive an understanding of the game as I possibly could. And to be honest with you, I can’t wait to go back to it. I played 9 hours straight one day, taking small breaks for food and restroom stops, without even realising it was midnight by the time I looked at the clock and felt it was time to stop. Talk about a ‘state of flow’…game psychology 101 – true immersion. I was engrossed in managing these twin cities. And I think, to some degree, the very nature of the game demands it from you. You constantly have taxes to tweak, residential areas to zone, roads to upgrade, water towers to turn off after the source has been polluted…you can’t help but lose track of time. It’s like a busy, full time job. I do not envy the mayors of real life, although I believe they have it easier (though the consequences of failure are higher…)
You literally begin with nothing…not even a road from the highway; just a blank slate and a limited bank account. It’s at this early stage of city planning that you implement your grand, ideal design of how you think a city should be laid out, but later doubt whether you made the right decisions. The reasons for this boil down to not being familiar with certain systems and their effect on your city. Personally, my problem stemmed from pollution. I was plotting the land, segregating one area for industrial zoning, without even taking wind direction into consideration. Once I had zoned my residential areas, I had discovered that the smoke billowing from these factories was being blown towards the houses and settlements, making them sick. That same kind of carelessness, or mindlessness I should say, was perpetrated by myself when laying down the roadwork for the city without consulting the ‘water table’, ore and oil maps, effectively constructing over my most resource-rich sites.
There are a lot of things to balance to ensure your city thrives and grows at an exponential rate. Sewage, police, medical, garbage, education, the list goes on…and then you have the specialisations, which is where the aforementioned ore and oil mining fall under. Eventually, when you begin to make a profit, and accommodate potential citizens, your population grows and at certain levels, will enable you to upgrade your Town Hall and add a wing to it. These departments range from Education and Finance to Tourism, Transportation and Utilities. Only one can be added per upgrade with the advantage of enhanced and improved services becoming unlocked within each respective department. The nice part is that the departments’ benefits apply to the whole region, not just the city it is situated in. The first addition I made was the Department of Finance, which allows you to manage the tax rates per zone and wealth level.
As your city grows, buildings will develop into bigger complexes, requires more space to do so. If you have a neighbouring city in the region, you can trade resources such as power and water, or even fire trucks. In the case of the former, the gracious supplier will only sell you as much power as you need and not an excess. However, if that city itself gets low on the desired resource, you are given a notification that they will be running out soon and you will not be able to rely on them much longer. It’s a God-send for when you are in a tight spot and have neighbours who can afford to help. When it comes to a financial downturn, you may also take out bonds which have to be paid back. When playing with humans companions, you can send out requests via the Region Wall, which is basically like a chat interface situated on the top left corner of your screen. Overall, all of these aspects combine to form an intrinsic, deep experience for the player. Keeping track of statistics has never been this fun! That’s not even a joke…
But now, to the negatives – one subjective and one objective. First, the subjective: the play-space for each city is restricted to a fairly sizeable patch of land. Some would complain that this fact is limiting to their creativity and ability to build their dream city, but I understand its pros. Limiting the space actually breeds further creativity than usual. This is because you need to learn and adapt to the barrier in making sure your city continues to prosper amongst seemingly impossible and unreasonable expansion demands from your citizens (“zone more residential!”). If this weren’t the case, there would be a lot less challenge involved and it just wouldn’t feel as meaningful. Also, it implores you to starts new cities and play differently… don’t have the space to specialise in a new sector? Starts a new city in the region and enact that specialisation. Create a network, not just a sole mega-city and explore the relationship between them. It’s much more dynamic and in the end, gratifying.
Objectively, we all know what’s coming…server issues. I was really hoping it wasn’t as detrimental as people were reporting, but even with the extra time, I did come across fairly infrequent intrusions. I was kicked a total of 3 times from gameplay because ‘my city was not processing properly‘…? What the heck does it even mean?! Once back in the main menu, you are prompted to either ‘roll back to a working state’ or abandon the city in question all together. Luckily, I did not have to redo much of my work in these occasions. I also received that initial message when attempting to swap play over to my Sister city, but was not allowed. A big nuisance to be sure, but not game-breaking (although I don’t doubt that others haven’t had MUCH worse times). Also, if I left the game for too long, I would come back to find myself back in the main menu and unable to instantly jump back into the city as it would have problems loading. I would then have to exit the game and restart it to continue; unmistakeably sour points on an otherwise brilliant game.
Visuals & Audio
It’s quite impressive the level of detail EA Maxis have been able to include in each and every object/building in SimCity. It’s cool to be able to zoom out and view your city operating with a clarity and visual quality that is usually greatly sacrificed. It must be taken into consideration that I played the game with all Graphics settings on the highest of options: Lighting, Textures, Shadows, Geometry and Animation Detail all set to Ultra where available. A particularly awesome moment to behold is when the day turns to night and you witness all of the city’s lights flicker on. And to actually see individual citizens going about their daily routine as air planes fly overhead and smog clouds accumulate (had a lot of those in my first city) really lent to the feeling that it’s a living, breathing, functioning city.
Most of what is noteworthy in the visuals department is the interface. The layout is clean and crisp, but initially, the numerous icons can be quite overwhelming. Keeping track of the 30 Data Maps (which isn’t entirely necessary all the time of course) can be daunting, especially in the early goings. But, over the hours, you begin to recognise each icon and what it represents without having to refer to it’s usage by hovering over it and waiting for an explanatory pop-up text bubble. I appreciated the inclusion of feedback from the citizens, as thought bubbles appear over their heads, coloured in shades of red to green to let you know what the nature of their thoughts are – concerned or encouraged. Hovering over them gives you the details, which are basically naturally communicated suggestions, e.g. “The bus is way too crowded” hinting for you to increase bus numbers.
Little objectives also pop up from time to time, and once engaged will be represented visually on the top-half of the right side of the screen. Scrolling over the icons will expand them to remind you of the mission requirements and your progress in completing them. Doing these is usually of benefit to the city, but will also grant you a cash reward. They are optional, for the most part, as very little is actually forced upon you or in-your-face, so to speak. On the uncommon occasion, tutorial cues will appear in the same space on the U.I. asking if you would like to learn about a certain element of the game. These show up only when you’ve reached certain milestones. For instance, I was asked if I wanted to learn about implementing Municipal Airports only after I had earned enough profit to afford one.
Interactions between cities is also visually represented in a simple manner. When you click on another city to offer to share specific resources, an arrow will materialise showing the flow of resources. When it comes down to managing your city at a more granular level, clicking on the Water, Power or any other number of tabs makes you appreciate the Glassbox engine that much more, as you not only see where your supply is reaching, but how much each individual building needs to survive. Audio wise, there is one main background/ambience piece of music that plays, but once you zoom in close, you begin to hear the hustle and bustle and sounds of the city. Click on the Transport tab and sounds of cars honking and buses passing by come to the fore; click on the Police tab and the sirens bear over everything else. The audio team did an amazing job in integrating each element in the soundscape without having them drown each other out.
EA’s servers have never had the reputation of being the most reliable or stable. And we all hate always-online DRM for the same reasons, and have been vocal about it for years now. But, publishers still insist upon it. In this instance, it came back to bite EA in the ass. However, I must give credit where credit is due; SimCity is an amazing, robust, deep and addictive city-building experience. Don’t get that twisted. I, as stated, experienced a few occurrences of server-related issues that forced me to essentially have to replay the last 15 minutes of my progress. And that was a true annoyance. Yet, it did not deter me; that’s how good a game SimCity is. EA is working to increase server numbers and stability, and the good news is that it’s working and alleviating existing problems.
It may not ever be guaranteed to be flawless, as internet connections are volatile – which is the main issue for me when trying to understand why such a requirement would be placed upon a consumer who has already paid their money to enjoy the game. Not everyone has a good internet connection to begin with. I am probably lucky in the number of obstructions to play that I encountered and am sure many others have had it way worse. But I can not lambaste the title to an extreme rate like so many others. I love the game itself. Hopefully you all can have a pleasant experience with it as I did and am (bar the rare interruptions). This review was very hard for me to finalise and my score may have dropped quite a bit, but I just didn’t want to go so far as to misguide people into thinking SimCity is a terrible game with a low rating. I just hope EA have learnt from this.