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The streets of SimCity were once paved with gold, but that’s not the case for this disappointing new sequel. We do our best Boris Johnson impression and try to get under the hood of this troubled game in our full review.
SimCity is great. SimCity is bad. SimCity is intelligent. SimCity is dumb. SimCity is social. SimCity is antisocial.
SimCity is all of these things at once because SimCity is broken. I can’t think of any game recently that’s been just as able to fill me with joy as it has frustration which, as a reviewer, makes this a very tough game to critique.Carrying on in the tradition first laid down by 1989’s classic SimCity, the latest game puts you in charge of the construction and maintenance of a city. You’ll build roads, establish key infrastructure requirements like power and water supplies, balance taxes and encourage commercial, industrial and residential developments to thrive under your mayorship. You’ll eventually also set a specialisation for your city based on what it’s best established features are.
For the first few hours, it feels like everything a modern day SimCity should be. For starters, it’s one of the most inviting and clean user interfaces a simulation game has ever offered up. Navigating the many complex layers of infrastructure and construction is incredibly easy. Any button whose controls you are unsure of can be hovered over for tooltips, while every layer of micromanagement has beautiful visual identifiers that overlay on top of the game world, giving you a far clearer indiction any problems your city may be facing than any notification or finance sheet ever could in previous games. If there’s a water shortage, click the Water Map button to see fluids pumping along beneath your city streets and the best places to pop a water tower. If there’s a lack of high-wealth residential areas ready for development, click the Land Value Map to see city wealth displayed like a heat signature, and all the things positively and negatively affecting land value in your city. It’s clear and wonderfully executed.The work that’s clearly gone into the UI is seen in most other areas of the game’s presentation too. The toy-town tilt-shift camera effects are charming and good-looking, letting you zoom right up close on individual Sim inhabitants and follow them around on their daily routines, while a number of Instagram like filters can be applied to give your city a whole new feel. Music and sound effects are great too; as with all Sim games, it’s aspirational and inspirational, urging you to do right by you little virtual townsfolk.
That’s all great, but that’s if you can even get into your city. Here’s where the cracks begin to show; this review is going up a fair few days later than planned as SimCity requires a constant internet connection in order to play it. At first, the fault lay at my feet – my internet connection was down on launch day, preventing me from accessing the game’s servers. Once my personal net problem was fixed however, I then couldn’t get online due to the game’s servers being overloaded with players looking to play; you’d aim to log in, only to be hit with a “server full” message, requiring you to wait a full 20 minutes before being able to attempt to log in again. Should the server still be full after that countdown, the cycle begins anew. The server strain is lessened now, but still rears its head on occasion, booting you out of your city with little warning.My situation highlights my two first problems with the game. Firstly, without an offline mode, anyone without access to an internet connection will never be able to play SimCity. In this hyper-connected age, that’s not too much of a problem when at home, but it means SimCity is no longer the game to pop on a laptop to wile away a long train journey.
Secondly, and most importantly, it means your game is never safe; there’s no offline local save file for your city meaning you have to get online to access your progress. This is compounded by the fact that the game has a tendency to fail to sync your progress, meaning you can lose changes made to your city if there’s an error along the way. There are reports of players losing whole cities in this way. With no local saves, and the bizarre omission of an “Undo” button, there’s a permanence to every move you make in SimCity that also stifles experimentation. Where once you could trigger one of the game’s superb disasters knowing full well you can revert back to an older save, here disasters (or any such infrastructural mistake you may accidentally make) are irreversibly recorded for all time.
So why does SimCity require an online mode? Some say it’s an anti-piracy measure, or DRM. But EA and Maxis say that it’s because SimCity has (despite fan protestations) a focus on online multiplayer, which leads on to my next batch of problems.You see, SimCity towns this time around do not exist in isolation. Instead, each is a component of a larger Region hub of interconnected towns, numbering between three connected cities to upwards of a dozen. You can either chose to run all the cities in a region by yourself, or play online with other gamers, allowing for trade and resource sharing between each other’s cities, with the ultimate goal of joining forces to create a Great Works site. Great Works offer a steep challenge that acts as the endgame of region, requiring you to pool your resources to make a giant construction such as an Arcology, Space Centre or other such impressive buildings, each bringing massive benefits to your city.
While in theory, the idea of interconnected online cities sounds idyllic, in practice it is terrifying. If you thought encountering a “griefer” in Call of Duty was bad, imagine one who actively works to topple a city you may have spent tens of hours working on by cutting trade deals you’ve grown to rely on. There’s no bonus for regional dominance (this is SimCity, not Age of Empires) and yet you’ll regularly encounter scenarios where other gamers get a kick out of ruining your creations. Even when a harmless gamer decides to abandon a city in the region without any nasty motivations, the consequences for your town can be dire.Even if you have friends onboard for the ride, trustworthy mates who will co-operate for the good of the region, problems still arise. Resources and cash manage to disappear in transit to a city with worrying regularity, as do shared infrastructure elements such as ambulances or fire trucks. The best intentions can be scuppered by bugs.
After my first few rough experiences online I thought I’d be able to avoid the whole online region thing entirely by focussing on my main city. It was to be the pinnacle of (digital) human achievement, a metropolis established and maintained solely by me. But this proved impossible. Either a limitation of the new Glassbox engine or an underhand way to encourage multiplayer play, each plot of land on which to build a city is tiny in comparison to previous SimCity games. Within a few hours I’d built up my city to the limits of its boundaries, with the maximum density streets that I could manage, and yet still more Sims were looking to settle, and still more Sims were looking for new industrial and commercial developments to find jobs in. Add to that the fact that the majority of the vital resources my city needed to survive were not found on my own plot but on the outside regional city plots, and my grand plan was scuppered. I attempted to forge a number of new regional cities, but the complications of managing three different cities in harmony was too great, and made all the more difficult by trade sharing bugs that would see cash and resources disappear between cities.There are other bugs worth mentioning too; path finding for cars is regularly foul, leading to massive traffic jams, and there can be odd visual glitches like overlapping assets and textures. But none of these problems come close to the frustrations the online scenario creates, and the way the game seems determined to hamstring itself in order to accommodate a constantly connected experience.
SimCity will get better. It has to; the weight of criticism it’s facing from even its biggest fans has been pretty much unanimous and overwhelming, and many of the problems the game suffers from could be patched into oblivion, seemingly easily. But that’s really only half the problem; whether EA or Maxis is to blame is unclear, but the always-online requirements, despite fan protestations, display an arrogant disregard for the consumers that made SimCity such a valuable property to begin with. If we’re to believe we’re entering a time when games are seen as much as a “service” as an isolated product, SimCity’s first few weeks stand to show that the service has to be at least as good as the game mechanics it supports if you’re going to avoid a damaging backlash as a developer. There’s fun to be had in SimCity, that’s for certain, but its problems make it feel less enjoyable than previous entries into the series.
By Gerald Lynch | March 18th, 2013