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SimCity Review

By Jeff Buckland, 3/9/2013

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When EA and Maxis announced that they were resurrecting SimCity, the franchise that put Maxis on the map so many years ago, people were understandably skeptical at the potential pitfalls of such a big-name reboot. It's been a decade since the last game in the series, and so much has changed in the game industry in that time. Could a game that's true to the series' roots survive in a world filled with DLC, DRM, and the need for games to go multiplatform in order to be big-budget successes? Maxis' strategy seems to have been to simply embrace many of these iffy technologies and trends, and while they did decide to stick with PC-only for the release, they brought online-only features and integration to a series that previously never had it. The game itself looks and plays wonderfully, but over the last several days of launch, it's been nearly crippled by side effects from the developers' attempts to maintain control over how it's played. All of those potential issues have turned into actual ones, and the nightmare scenario of even solo play proving to be unplayable for some days after its launch came true. As of this writing, the game's perfectly playable now with Maxis shutting off a few features to handle the load, but is what's left enough?

SimCity is a great game with some innovative new features, but it also has severe launch problems that highlight the pitfalls of the games-as-a-service model. As someone who survived weeks of problems shortly after the World of Warcraft launch to eventually get years of lag-free and mostly issue-free play, I don't want to miss the big picture, but damn, it's difficult seeing people spend their hard-earned money on a game that's under-delivering on its infrastructure and preventing people from playing. Server congestion won't matter in the long run, and I don't want to use words that are too severe in a vain effort to warn of a sky-is-falling future with regards to games crumbling under the weight of their own DRM. I do think there's a place to deal with this issue, but it needs its own debates and articles, and I don't feel that war should be waged in the footnotes of game reviews. But at the very least, these launch issues have pretty much ruined what should have been an excellent first impression.

For a while, let's talk about the game as it does work, and as of this writing, it's mostly working for most people most of the time. We'll get back to the issues afterwards.

For fans of the classics, SimCity will be a fine, if not completely satisfying, return to form that challenges players to juggle several, if not dozens, of challenges at once as they build their city and try to keep their citizens happy, diverse, and safe. City management fans will enjoy handling all of this at once, and for the players that are more into The Sims, this game pulls you out of the house and asks you to look at a bigger picture - and while the motivations and challenges won't be immediately satisfying for dedicated Sims fans, I think they'll get there eventually. What is nice is that so many little things that Sims do when they're out in the world are now simulated on a massive scale in this game, which breathes some much-needed life into a city's residents.

SimCity starts with a region that has anywhere from 2 to 16 city plots on it, with at least one Great Works plot made for multiple cities to contribute towards. Each city plot isn't exactly massive, nor is there a terraforming option for leveling out land, but the challenge of dealing with vast city sizes of past games has been replaced with difficulty that goes to different depths, even if the magnitude of these depths isn't exactly larger. You'll quickly find that you can't explore every route of success all at once, and that you can't possibly have tourism, manufacturing, resource generation, and a bustling service industry all in one city.

The tutorial features a city that's already laid out as it teaches you a few things about the needs of its citizens and asks you to get the hang of the controls, interface with its dozens of little buttons, and access to metrics and data to help you subdivide big problems into smaller ones. When you start your first real session, the game drops you in a completely blank sandbox, letting you make mistakes and employing tooltips and pop-up alerts as you go. If you haven't played a city management game before, I recommend taking it slow, and soaking up the information from the tips that pop up to get you building roads, zoning for the three main land types (residential, commercial, industrial), and then building support structures like power, water, and emergency services to support your growing town. Before long, you'll be tweaking tax rates, improving property values, and reducing pollution, and a number of overlays and easy-to-understand displays help you quickly identify problem areas.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you'll learn everything you need to know in your first city play-through, as there are quite a few things you'll learn as you go that you can't realistically improve on until you try again. Everything from road spacing to optimal placement of police, clinics, parks, and schools can prove to be prohibitively expensive to fix since you have to completely demolish and re-buy any of these things, and that will drain your bank account very quickly. Even in your second session, as you start working on more advanced buildings, you'll find even more challenges as the city density increases, your water supplies dry up, and the protesters start getting serious about environmental issues and the like. There are ways to moderately expand the functionality of your infrastructure, education, and emergency services by using building add-ons, and road upgrades can be done to a certain extent as well to ease congestion. Still, at least for your first few playthroughs, each city will come out much better than the last as you gain understanding of how the game works. None of this is really a big surprise to a city-management game veteran , but what I was surprised to find was that as my mistakes piled up and I learned all these little tidbits and keys to success, I got really excited at the prospect of starting over and doing things a little better the next time. To me, that's the true sign of a good management game.

SimCity can be played alone or together with a bunch of people in any combination with its always-online mode and public or private games you can set up with random people or your friends list. You can be a manager of anything from one town all the way up to sixteen in a region, or several people could run a few towns each. You can even stuff 16 people all into a region, each with their own single city, specializing or generalizing and helping each other by shipping off services, industry, or employment to other towns. The game's visuals are great, with a pretty vast diversity of homes, skyscrapers, apartment buildings, businesses, and manufacturing plants, and you can seamlessly zoom in to look at any particular resident and watch them drive, walk, work, and overall go about their daily lives.

The downside to this system is that zooming all the way out to the Region view and into another city isn't quite as smooth. To work on another city on the same map or to visit another player's creation in a multiplayer session, you have to switch to Region view which is seamless, but then you have to sit through a loading screen when zooming in to a new city. It seems to be both a technical limitation and a multiplayer-oriented design philosophy that stops the game from simulating a whole region on one PC at a time. Any city in a region that's not loaded and being played or viewed by a person sits in a sort of dormant state, inactive and not eating up CPU cycles, with the exception that any forms of cooperation between cities that were previously set up will still run. If Maxis didn't do that, the CPU, GPU, and memory requirements would have had to be significantly higher (or the feature set much smaller), which was obviously unacceptable since this game is still intended to run acceptably on at least mid-range PCs. Still, I wish they'd found a way.

At first, you'll probably wonder how you'll ever get to hundreds of thousands of people in a city at once, but the key is the game's density function, which requires a number of factors, some of which you control directly (road size, proper zoning) and some are indirect (property values). Once you figure out how to manipulate this, you'll surprise yourself with the amount of people you can stuff into one city, and it turns out that getting one decent city running with a cluster of skyscrapers can actually be done in one evening once you know what you're doing. But there's plenty of room to grow once you start specializing multiple cities, and the amount of space taken up by all of your cities - especially in the 16-city regions when playing alone - is pretty huge and can support millions of residents when you add them all up. That might mean you dedicate a few cities to doing the heavy lifting of manufacturing or garbage dumping (which, if you're not careful, will adversely impact your other cities), while others offer big shopping or high-end tourist destinations.

If you're playing SimCity together with other players, I think there's some real innovation in its multiplayer features, including asynchronous play (where not everyone needs to be online at once and the region still functions) and a Facebook-style wall where everyone can talk and work together on the region - although if you make or join public games, you occasionally find people that try to make awful cities that screw up everyone else's experience with terrible pollution and the like. Admittedly, the whole game has kind of been designed around this sort of multiplayer-oriented system, and it works best when other players are active in the region, but there's nothing stopping the players who steadfastly insist on playing alone from working on each city in their own region separately and still building what they want. In function, the game essentially says you can't have a Houston-style metropolis, and you're instead limited to making something closer to a Dallas-Fort Worth-style metroplex (multiple smaller cities instead of one massive one) which may seem like a huge limitation on paper, especially with how any city you're not working on goes semi-dormant until you come back to it, but now that I've spent hours playing with this system, I honestly don't mind this limitation. If you're on the fence or if you refuse to look at SimCity because of it, what I can say is that there's still a ton of depth and plenty of real estate - it's just not all accessible at once on the same sweeping playfield.

There is an element of just goofy fun with this version of SimCity, as it's not all manufacturing, tax rates, and zoning. You can play around with the superhero and villain features, and just like with past games, purposely breaking your city when you're sick of it can be a lot of fun, too. And yes, there is an option to purposely unleash natural disasters, although they have to be unlocked through gameplay as you go. Finally, there's also a sandbox mode where some of the challenge has been removed, achievements are disabled, and cheats and player-started natural disasters are enabled.

Unfortunately, there are other features launched alongside the game that you'll have to buy to get access to, like the three Euro-style building themes that cost $10 each - and you can bet that there's a ton more paid DLC on the way. It's always a little frustrating to see that day-one DLC go up, and while the base version of SimCity is still loaded with content and offers weeks of constant fun, that DLC still kind of feels like a slap in the face.

Even if you don't mind the DLC, there's an even bigger problem looming. i>SimCity's imposed always-on connectivity has already caused gamers a lot of headaches, especially with the North American servers becoming overloaded during peak times, leaving many players unable to play - yes, even if they just want to play alone. As of this writing, it's been five full days since the US launch so far, and EA seems to have gotten most people playing without waits or lag, but achievements and other features are disabled. But what's most annoying is that the highest game speed setting has also been temporarily disabled in order to give EA's servers time to keep up, and that means you have to play everything slower - and that's not something most power gamers enjoy.

It'd be silly to think that these servers issues won't ever be worked out, but even once they do, you're still going to need a constant internet connection to play this game, as the game kicks you out after something like ten minutes of disconnection from the game servers. If you play games a lot while on the road, have a spotty wireless connection, or a really bad ISP, then SimCity will not likely turn out to be a very fun experience.

It sucks that EA's biggest PC-only game in quite a while has been plagued with so many problems at launch, especially because the core game is so good. Anyone staunchly refusing to play this game will surely point to the launch issues (and may continue to, long after they're gone) as well as to DRM or any comparison that makes this reboot technically smaller than previous SimCity games. But the reality is that Maxis' city-building revival is addictive and entertaining when it does work, with some impressive visuals, unique features, and an innovative multiplayer mode that allows players to mix and match online and solo play however they like. The launch has been pretty terrible, but if you're a fan of any city management game over the years, then I can't help but recommend SimCity despite all these problems. Just, wait for things to settle down and for EA to restore all game features before you jump in.

If the game worked like it should, this review would end in a score of 9. Unfortunately, we've got to review what's been released, and even after giving EA the benefit of five full days to handle things, we've decided to with what we have. The thing is,for the vast majority of the game's life, it'll run entirely as intended, which is to say that it'll work just fine (only with the odd hiccup or potential user-borne ISP or connection issue) until EA decides to shut off the servers, which they have a tendency to do in games whose player counts drop off severely. SimCity is a brilliant, accessible yet very deep game - at no point do we deny this conclusion. But for now, EA's infrastructure makes it a sometimes-broken, severely disappointing example of how good intentions with regards to DRM, monetization, and anti-piracy can backfire and create problems for gamers and publishers alike.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a final, retail version that was downloaded over Origin and provided by the publisher.

Overall: 7 out of 10



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