GAME NAME: SimCity
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts
RELEASE DATE(S): 8 March 2013
So. After a decade, the legion of SimCity fanboys out there have finally been treated to a new entry in the series (SimCity Societies doesn’t count, sorry). It’s not the much-anticipated SimCity 5, but rather a reboot of the franchise. Sounds great, right? Well, it would be, if not for a few problems…
Let’s get the main issue out of the way, right off the bat. The game requires a constant Internet connection and saved game data is stored on the cloud. Clearly EA didn’t learn from Blizzard’s own Diablo III fiasco and feels the need to annoy long-time fans and newcomers alike with bloated and unnecessary DRM. Upon installing and booting up the game in Origin, players will likely be subject to having to download a large update before they can even think about playing. From here, you are required to choose a server, even if you intended on playing solo. This is usually the point where players will encounter a myriad of issues, such as servers being down or filled to capacity. “No problem”, you may be thinking, “can’t I just choose another server?” Well. Saved data is dependent on which server you play as, so server-hopping will mean you have to start over again and again.
This isn’t a soapbox to preach against the principles of DRM though. It is an acceptable practice if it’s done properly, remains largely invisible and doesn’t hamper gameplay and user progress – SimCity, unfortunately, commits all of these heinous crimes. But now that we’ve addressed this point of contention, we can look at the game underneath the controversy. And it’s all the more shameful because it’s a delightful experience for both aficionados and the newer generation. Putting economics and corporate politics aside, it still has that old SimCity charm and is a good reminder of why we loved the series in the first place.
Unlike previous instalments, this game is more heavily focused on multiplayer. You may select to build your city on a number of regions which are controlled by other players, and you may offer to trade resources and materials with them, even going so far as to contribute to a “great works” project, benefiting the entire region. While in theory it sounds like a fabulous idea to offer this degree of collaboration, SimCity has always worked best as a single-player, personal affair.
Once a region has been selected, you begin laying down your roads which ultimately connect to a main highway leading to the outside world. Old-timers will notice that roads can now be bent and curved, which is a welcome improvement from previous entries in this series; cities and roadworks feel much more natural and organic. Fans will also note that roads form the lifeblood of your city and previously-featured constructs, like pipes and power lines, are absent. Whether this is for the better is up for debate, but it certainly streamlines the experience and makes it a tad more accessible.
The size of the cities this time is around is also considerably smaller. While it will no doubt be an issue with fans of SimCity 4, what with that game’s ability to build megalopolises, the smaller scale actually helps to keep gameplay more focused. A problem with the formula, since the first title, has been that it’s possible to stagnate; that is, reaching a point where your city runs too smoothly and it becomes somewhat boring. Like before, you can invoke a disaster to shake things up, and these are as enjoyable as ever.
The building staples are present and accounted for: industrial, residential and commercial which are organized into zones. Players still need to build power plants and water works, and once it all gets going, it takes on the feeling of constructing and observing an ant farm, along with the warm feeling of watching your creation develop, grow and tick like clockwork. Speaking of clockwork, players do not deal with time in terms of years and months as in the previous titles. Instead, taking a cue from The Sims, there is a day and night cycle. In some shameless self-promotion, the references to The Sims are plentiful, particularly with the “agents” system. What this entails is that your people – sorry, sims – are represented graphically, as well as the various other components that make your city function, such as cars and other resources. You can zoom in and watch them go about their daily business, which produces a feeling not unlike watching fish in an aquarium.
Unfortunately, the AI and pathfinding are, in a nutshell, abysmal. It’s not uncommon for resources to avoid their intended destination, or for a service vehicle such as a firetruck to completely miss their destination, even when it’s right in front of them. The game is plagued by smaller glitches as well, such as roads deforming and space not being allocated properly. Probably the most annoying bug of all, once again related to the cloud, is that sometimes the game will not save properly and you’ll have to roll back to an earlier version of the city you’ve spent so much time on. Argh.
Presentation-wise, SimCity is superb and the graphics are a particular advancement from the previous game. Little details make things stand out, and an optional tilt-shift effect gives everything the look and feel of a miniature construction set or model train. Little ambient effects like city sounds add to the immersion value. The music this time is lightweight orchestral, and while it doesn’t stand out, it’s very appropriate and sets just the right tone.
Despite the numerous flaws, there is a fun time to be had here. If bugs are addressed and EA eases off on some of the DRM issues, it would be a great game, perhaps even greater than its predecessors. Unfortunately, we have to judge this game on what it is, not on what it might be or will be. And right now, it’s a gold nuggest with a putrid outer coating. Wait a bit before you decide to get it.