The parade of news articles, commentary, and fan fury surrounding SimCity still rages on. Now that I had spent RPG-like hours growing my cities and losing one to a nuclear meltdown, I've finally experienced both sides of the story.
The disc-based game still needs EA's Origin service on your PC. Similar to Steam, it's EA's digital delivery app that serves as the storefront as well as requiring a login to play SimCity. After it verified my serial key, I was up and running in minutes, but if you don't like Origin at all, you can probably stop reading here — especially if you don't like the service telling you when you can and can't play your game because of issues normally associated with always-online services like MMOs. SimCity's multiple-personality conundrum doesn't seem to know what it wants.
Maxis envisioned the new SimCity connecting to other cities online and investing in social trends to create a cooperative or grief-oriented online empire. You can play in private regions with your own clutch of cities, but even that requires you to remain connected to the service if only to save your progress. There are no local saves, and picking a specific server to save your city for public play also has challenges that I'll cover later. If a disaster hits your city and trashes hours of work, you'll have to live with the consequences or try again with a whole new city. There's no way to toggle saves as a local or cloud-based option.
The "cities" in SimCity are now in full 3-D, with a modern makeover allowing players to spin and zoom all over their virtual diorama. On the other hand, the cities also feel like smaller chunks of the sprawling metropolitan wonderland in SimCity 4. A big reason for that is Maxis adding the concept of "specializations" for your city, whether it's focused on education, technology, or even a mini Las Vegas replete with gambling halls. It's not necessary to adhere to any concept; players are free to mix things up to build the city of their dreams, but the idea of a one-city catch-all isn't what SimCity promotes anymore. Even in private play, players may prefer to build a new city to fulfill what their other cities are lacking.
I dove into the game by searching for a region with public players and found an abandoned city named,너겟 플래토, which Google translated as "Nugget Plateau," a city slot in the Titan's Gorge region.
It was in dire straits and gave me a first-hand taste of what Maxis was aiming for. The city next to it looked like Stalingrad from WWII, and criminals were flooding into mine. Houses were burning, crime was rampant, and there were times I wanted to give up. After hours of play, I managed to rebuild things and save the city. I started off with a single police station and a fire station and upgraded to a police precinct as I got things under control. I zoned new houses, industry, and finally plopped down a university to research better solar panels to be environmentally conscientious. As it grew from a destitute cast-off, I was having a lot of fun figuring things out.
SimCity's tools make most things ridiculously easy to manage, although upgrading streets almost requires you to annihilate everything in their path. I also wish that there was a "bulldoze all" button for multiple buildings, since you essentially need to destroy them one by one. Sewage treatment plants, solar plants, and schools are relatively easy to drop in, as long as there's a road. It can also do some goofy things since everything is rendered in 3-D, making it hard to see what kind of room is needed for garages and add-ons. New buildings also unlock after you hit milestones for population and trade. Visual graphs "X-ray" the city to show you everything that's going on, from the most polluted spots to the best place for a water pump. A still-unavoidable tutorial launches every time you join a new server breaks down the basics.
You can speed up the clock to make things go faster, which was a huge relief in SimCity 4 but at the time of this review, "Cheetah speed" was globally disabled, leaving only "Llama" speed, which moves the clock one minute for every second that passes. Everything is accelerated in the game, though, so one "day" seems to equal a "month." The hours (days?) invested were mostly spent waiting to see the results, especially in the very late stages, so it left me with plenty to do. SimCity is a fun simulator, but some of the ideas take a more abstract view of your city than SimCity 4 did.
Roads now substitute for power and sewage lines, which run "beneath" them. Buildings crop up where you lay down colored borders to district housing, commerce, or industrial zones. Unlike the previous games, where you could color in blocks of space and watch the game automatically spawn what was needed, building is entirely street-driven. Placing that asphalt and ensuring that there's enough space for larger buildings to eventually grow into is something I had to get used to. Given how wonky some of the guide snaps can be, it can be challenging to eyeball how much space a particular place in your city might need.
Budgets are no longer a sprawling array of categories ranging around city ordinances, services, and budget categories that you can tweak. Players only need to concern themselves with tax rates and a list that shows the basic breakdown of where most of the money is going in your city. The new SimCity generalizes the micro-level stuff. If utilities are eating up most of your budget, it might be time to turn off a few of them or find alternatives instead of scaling their numbers with a slider. While it makes things "easier," I missed drilling into some of the details that I felt could have been fine-tuned to improve the city.
As an always-online title, SimCity has also opened a door on the historically single-player franchise. The city I claimed above was rife with crime, but while saving it, I discovered that the previous owner had struck deals with neighbors for ambulances, police support, and basic necessities like extra water. It's a thin reprieve, however, from the other problems surrounding the game, whether or not it has anything to do with the always-online requirement.
SimCity's server list almost never seems to update. A number of servers continue to announce themselves as "FULL," with the exception of a few, including those where you already have a city. Unless you have friends on a server you want to hop on and they're online at the time that you want to play and can invite you, you might have to content yourself with setting up a private region or finding one that isn't full so you can play with others. Since the city you create is restricted to the chosen server, it's a burden to share your metropolitan wonder with friends on a different server — or with a room of strangers who have an opening in the region they're using.
Making matters worse is that you can be in a region that is eventually abandoned by everyone else. The problem is that players have to tell the game that they've actually abandoned their city. If they simply don't come back, it just sits there. If you've spent hours working on a city but find yourself alone in a region that no one else can jump into because every city is "occupied," you're left with one option if you want to find new co-op buddies: start a new city elsewhere. Even if you screw up a city in your own "private" region, the game clumsily omits the option to clear it out or delete the region, so you must create a new one if you want something fresh. It would be nice if you could export your city to a new copy of the region, re-opening all of those slots and allowing you to invite friends or wait for new players to trickle in. Like too many things in SimCity's online cloud, players are often left to accept things as they are.
For a game that relies on an online connection, community tools are poor. There's no easy way to search for specific regions; often, you have to rely on friends to invite you into a region they've made. There's no rhyme or reason to how they're listed; new and old regions are thrown into a window. There's also no way to quickly tell if a public region has reached capacity, leaving no cities open to claim — abandoned or new. The only clue is a series of icons that show players who have participated in a region. There is one neat thing about this, though. Players can enter any region and zoom in on anyone's city to see how they're doing, so they can get ideas about how to make theirs better. Or players can see how badly another city has gone downhill, as was the case for my Stalingrad-esque neighbor.
Other weirdness that had little to nothing to do with the "always online" environment cropped up many hours later. The idiotic traffic AI seemed to get worse as my city grew larger — and it wasn't only because of congestion. These were issues that had more to do with how the game ran than with whether I was being warned of a possible disconnection from the servers.
I'd watch in wonder as vehicles sometimes go down an entire length of road and do a U-turn at the very end, go back down it, U-turn again, and head back the same way. It also never wants to take roads less traveled to get to its destination, bottlenecking the most direct route. I'd even bulldozed buildings to add new roads, but the single-minded AI still didn't want to use them. In SimCity 4, I could send fire trucks to quash disasters and they'd slice through traffic. In the new SimCity, I've seen columns of fire trucks responding to one fire tied up in traffic while the opposing lane is empty. A recent patch alleviated this somewhat, but it left other problems.
In many instances, Sims build towering apartment buildings and only occupy the first few floors. They'll complain about missing school when there is a high school right across the street. I assumed that was what they wanted because they don't say what kind of education they're looking for. One nice thing is that the game remembers the upgrade status of most buildings, except for the Mayor's House, which started back at level 1 when I had to bulldoze it and build it somewhere else.
Police say that crime has the upper hand when no crimes have occurred that day and there's ample room in jail cells. Even setting up a new region created problems. My region sat on the coast, with a three-city cluster around a wonder site. Suddenly, clouds of pollution started sweeping in from ... somewhere. It wasn't from my industry in the city (I wiped it out in favor of experimenting with tourism, gambling, and commerce), but there it was. I can only assume that somewhere, somehow, the game carried over the pollution from my first city and into this new instance. That's some trick.
I built a wonder all by myself in a populated (and abandoned) region, though it also wasn't without issues. Getting one started takes forever, and once it's approved, it doesn't grow as much as it should. I geared my city to produce PCs and use them "locally," which I thought meant it would send them to the wonder site that needed them. Since the game doesn't drill down into the details, all I had to go on for numbers was in tracking how many PCs my factories were shipping out. By that count, I should have completed the wonder in fewer hours than it took to watch it grow.
Trade finally broke on my last two cities with product sitting in storage depots. Nothing I seemed to do got them to sell, which rang a death knell for a manufacturing city. I had even sent half my city of 140k Sims into the Stone Age by slashing the population in half, clearing land, and changing roads in an effort to see if traffic issues were causing it, only to see my product continue to sit there — and the same amount of traffic still roamed the streets. In my first city, trade worked like a charm, but that must've been a fluke. There has to be a better solution than starting an entirely new city from scratch.
SimCity asks a lot to enjoy its devil's bargain. We're looking at a half-finished and bug-infested system with assorted functional issues and global problems every time I logged in. There's a great game buried beneath all of this — I wouldn't have stuck with the game otherwise. In hindsight, I might have simply been lucky. Sometimes, I feel tempted to dive into SimCity's sandbox mode and go berserk with the cheats and hammer together whatever I want since playing by the rules balances patience with the nerve-wracking worry that something else will break — or if you can't backtrack after a random disaster because saves are determined by a server.
There's just something disturbing in seeing a game that is part of such a storied and influential franchise sacrifice so much to rush headlong into the social sphere. Perhaps the bugs and shortcomings will be resolved in a few weeks, but until then, SimCity's hidden requirement of additional patience still applies.
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