SimCity (2013) [Game Review]

Note: From time to time, I just do straight-up game reviews with some content info for parents and occasional critiques of religion in games. And, yes, I still owe a final review of Bioshock Infinite, which I finished a couple weeks ago. I’m still mulling it over.

SimCity (2013)
Format: PC: $40-$60 (OSX version due in June)
Rated: E10
Content Descriptors: Mild Violence
Rating Summary: This is a simulation game in which players create and expand fictional cities by managing resources and keeping their population content. From a birds-eye perspective, players build residences, factories, and civic structures to improve city conditions; certain actions (e.g. building a casino) may cause crime to increase in the city. Murder is sometimes referenced in the text (e.g., a news ticker displays “Shocking murder puts local police in the spotlight”); small figures can be seen robbing banks and engaging in shootouts with police. Players are also able to deploy natural and fantastical disasters on the city (e.g., tornadoes, flaming meteors, fires, giant monsters, destructive robots). Includes online features that may expose players to unrated user-generated content.
Parent Recommendation: The always online and massively multiplayer features may be a deal-breaker for parents on this one, since it’s difficult to play the game without the multiplayer. In terms of content, the most violent thing are various disasters that destroy cities.


Well, that was interesting.

When you aim high in game design, you can’t afford to be sloppy. In their newest entry in the SimCity series, EA/Maxis aimed very high indeed, and completely shook up the whole city-building genre with an entirely new way of playing. It’s dense, detailed, and complex. It also demands always-on internet connections and folds multiplayer support right into the heart of the game. In other words, it needed massive amounts of testing and a careful rollout.

What it got instead was a disaster that so enraged users they managed to get EA named the Worst Company in the Country in a poll conducted by The Consumerist with 78% of the total votes. It was the final straw in a long run of missteps that forced the resignation of EA CEO John Riccitiello.

Oddly enough, it was also one of the most successful recent EA launches, moving over 1 million copies in two weeks.

That very volume is probably what caused the system breakdown, since EA appears to have launched their massively multiplayer SimCity, complete with extremely unpopular digital rights management (DRM), with only four servers. EA claims the live internet connection was essential for handling the processing load needed to manage all those AI sims. That was, of course, a lie, but that’s okay: I never believed them anyway.

Adding to the issues were myriad bugs that continued to plague the game itself even after the long server waits and crashes began to be resolved. The huge, complex mechanisms of the game didn’t always mesh well, with weird problems in pathfinding and strange AI and economic behavior. Equally irritating was the disabling of “Cheetah Speed”—which enables players to speed up game time rather than having to move through each day slowly–at launch.

At this writing (three weeks after release) cities are still vanishing on occasion, and work remains to be done, but the game is starting to stabilize. We’re beginning to see the potential beneath the problems as one of the classic strategy games of all time moves in new direction.

Users will have to decide for themselves whether that direction is one that appeals to them or not. Let’s take the two major gameplay elements—city building and regional management—separately, since each requires a different kind of critique.

Inside the game itself, where you build your city, there are elements that are both welcome and unwelcome. The cities themselves are a sheer delight, both visually and functionally. The game zooms down to the smallest level, tracking each citizen as he goes about his business. (This doesn’t always work, mind you, and the AI can send sims to random houses or on the wrong paths.) Buildings have an astonishing level of detail, and the city is beautiful, dynamic, and alive, mixing sights, sounds, music, and events as you lay the bones for an entirely new place and watch it slowly come alive under your guidance.

It’s hard to fault the interface, which puts a great deal of power and data into a few clicks. Road building, zoning, and building placement all work just as they should, although railroads seem a little finicky. It’s possible to create wild, freeform road systems or tightly interlocking grids. Pipes and electricity run along the roads, simplifying one of the more tedious jobs from previous SimCity games.

But even with these boons, there will be long-time SimCity players who find themselves deprived of essential features. Terraforming is out. Cities are much, much smaller. And you can’t just create a sprawling, messy metropolis like you used to be able to. Cities are specialized now, with some regions better for ore production, some better for commerce, and so on.

These individual cities tie into regions, which brings us to the second level of the game. Regional management is where old-time Simmers will start to feel adrift. Each smaller city acts as a zone in a larger region. In order for cities to really function, they need to tie into other cities in order to trade goods and resources. It is possible to create a wholly single player game in which you create and manage the regions and the individual cities all by yourself, but that’s not how this new SimCity is designed.

The goal is to build in an online region where others are also building, tying your city to the cities of other, human players. I really can’t see what’s gained by this, and indeed much is lost. In fact, if someone simply stop managing a city, a region can be left with a malfunctioning ghost town, and I haven’t been able to tell just how the game will manage this as time goes on.

There are games where multiplayer is a good fit, and city building games are not among them. I don’t want to chat with other players, and I don’t want the health of my city dependent upon the play style and dedication of a stranger. It’s possible to create wholly private games, but that assumes you know enough people who want to mess about with cities in a game that’s not really giving people everything they want from a SimCity title.

And you know what? You can still get most of the good stuff from another game called … SimCity 4. Currently selling for under $20, it even has an offline regional management system. The interface and graphics, as well as some gameplay elements, are just better in the 2013 version, but SimCity 4 has the benefit of several years of patches, no online DRM, and no mandatory multiplayer. It’s just a good old fashioned SimCity game.

SimCity was always called a “software toy,” because it encouraged twiddling around. You could save a city, have Godzilla destroy it, respond to the destruction with emergency crews, and then reload the old city just as it was and do it again. That’s all gone now. The cities themselves are wonders to behold, and the interface has never been better, but the multiplayer is a poor fit, and unless EA continues to service, fix, and expand it, SimCity will continue to disappoint.

You can buy it here.