My first week with SimCity was marked by me unable to play the game. The game launched on Tuesday, March 5th. By the weekend, I still could not log onto a server. What a way to celebrate the release of one of my most anticipated games of all time, isn’t it?
Unlike the release of, say, Call of Duty, a new Halo game, or even the new Madden (where a server outage would just prompt me to fire up the single player), a server outage for SimCity is damn near disastrous. As most of you know by now, SimCity utilizes the ever unpopular “always online DRM” model that Diablo III used. That’s all fine and dandy for security and anti-piracy purposes, but it sure sucks when the server goes down and I can’t even play SimCity’s “single player.”
I can drink the Kool Aid and try to understand why companies feel the need to make a game permanently online. I really can, and I’m saying this with 100% sincerity. I always try my best to actually purchase movies, TV shows, books, music, etc. especially if it’s from something that I like and want to support. The same goes for video games. It’s just when the choice to whether or not play a game is dictated by server status and not my own choice, and a game that I purchased suddenly doesn’t work at certain times when it should, then I get a little frustrated. It’s like buying a movie on DVD and then not having it work when I want to watch it simply because my internet is down. Honestly, I don’t even know who I’m mad at; the companies or the bad apples that ruined it for everyone by forcing these companies to adopt this policy to prevent piracy in the first place.
Since the launch, SimCity has been embroiled in a storm of PR nightmares. I feel pretty bad for the developers at Maxis. They created this game for those of us who have been waiting nearly a decade for the next SimCity game, and then to have their hard work and dedication overshadowed by THIS; it’s just a shame.
But I digress.
How is SimCity? Coming from someone who first played SimCity on a SNES and has pretty much played every major release since then (with my personal favorite being SimCity 2000), I’d have to say this newest iteration is pretty darn good. There’s a quite a few changes in terms of streamlining gameplay that can be viewed as making the game too “easy,” but the more I played this game, the more I was impressed by its depth. For everything that Maxis simplified, they added a new feature that more than makes up for the loss. We’ll go more into this later.
The most obvious thing about SimCity for those who have played the game since the very beginning, is the fact that despite what EA is trying to say, it is inherently a single player game. Forget all the new multiplayer features that are being touted. As fun as it is to have another live player as the mayor of a neighboring city, SimCity is still a single player game (which makes the server issues even harder to swallow).
With that in mind, prepare yourselves to feel like a god. One of the things I have always liked about the SimCity series has been the ability to manipulate your city in whichever way you see fit. Talk about a power trip. Your decisions dictate the overall well-being of every single citizen in the city. Think about that for a second. A tiny decision like upgrading a small stretch of road can have far reaching effects later on in the game that you haven’t even considered yet.
As I mentioned before, this newest iteration of SimCity has a much more streamlined gameplay style. At first glance, it almost seems “easier,” like they took out a number of steps that appear to give the player more control. In fact, I even talked to a guy when SimCity was still in beta who was livid that the game was “dumbed down.”
It is not.
Sure, you no longer have to clear land to make way for building. You no longer have to setup a power plant and manually lay the power lines down each street. You no longer have to do the same with a water pump and manually lay the pipes underground. Now, all you do is plop a power plant down wherever you want, and it’ll power everything within its radius. Same with water, sewage, etc.
When building residential, commercial, and industrial areas, all you do now is drag along the edge of a street, and sit back and watch your buildings pop up. In a pretty big change. You can now only build structures if they are bordering a street. This makes things pretty easy, as what you’re doing really ends up amounting to tracing the outline of a city block; but on the flipside, you need to keep in mind that all structures that are built along a street are tied to that street. This means if you choose to bulldoze a particular stretch of road, you lose all structures touching that road. Not a big deal if you just have a row of houses or apartments, but what about that expensive hospital you placed right there? Or a university? Garbage dump?
This came around to bite me in the butt when I started my first city. Knowing that I was restricted to a set map size (all the maps are the same set size), I knew I had to plan my real estate wisely. Early on as I was building Toneville, I was helpfully informed that I needed to zone more residential areas to bring in more shoppers. Rather than set aside an additional plot of land for houses, I decided to take my existing residential area and pop some more streets in there, making each block smaller and narrower and therefore more densely packed. Further on down the road, I did the same with my commercial and industrial districts. Before I knew it, my whole city was a mess of tiny, cramped streets.
I was then informed that I should build a train station to bring in more tourists and commuters. Considering the citizens of Toneville were already peeved at the high taxes, I figured some more revenue coming from neighboring cities wouldn’t be a bad thing, so I grabbed a train station and went to plop it down near some tracks. Turns out, none of my city blocks were wide enough to accommodate a train station, much less the airport I was also thinking of building. Out came the bulldozer, and down went a bunch of parks, schools, sewage outflow pipes, etc.
So yes, you’re not laying pipes manually now, but don’t be fooled into thinking that SimCity turned into Farmville.
When I first started the game, I decided to create two cities: Toneville (a public game next to players with established cities), and Tonopolis (a private game with only myself). What I really wanted to find out is if I could play the game and have as enjoyable an experience by myself as I would with other players. I hate multiplayer. I dislike the fact that it’s often tacked onto great single player experiences where more resources could have been put towards making an even greater single player experience. I dislike the fact that at its core, competitive multiplayer is basically just an in-home version of playing quarter after quarter at the arcade. I dislike that it always ends up being so repetitive; just deathmatch after deathmatch. So naturally, I wasn’t thrilled to learn that SimCity was being developed with a renewed focus on multiplayer.
Unfortunately, unless you have a serious OCD issue, playing in a private game by yourself without other players just isn’t the same experience. One of the big features of SimCity is the ability to specialize in a particular sector, then sell off your “services” to neighboring players. In a perfect world, each city within a given region would have its own specialty and work hand and hand with other cities to create a huge, intertwined region, eventually all working together to build very expensive Great Works. To be fair, it probably will end up being like that vision one day; just now, it doesn’t really work, especially with the in-game chat being non-functional. Also, this early on in the game’s lifespan, it seems each player is currently more invested in building up their own city than anything else.
As a borderline control freak, doing all of this on my own seemed like a fun idea. I could see myself creating city after city and controlling the flow of resources down to the smallest detail, but unfortunately there was a glitch that prevented me from claiming any more cities in the region. Not cool.
There are a few other issues that plague the game, but the most annoying one for me, and the one that probably affects the gameplay more than anything else, is the fact that you are always being told that you need more of a certain zone or service even though it’s very clear that you have more than enough to serve your whole city. My city planner keeps telling me that I need more residential zones over and over. Looking at my map showed that my whole city was pretty much residential. I was also told that I needed more medium wealth shoppers and had to build more parks. I had a park on nearly every block, no joke. Factories needed more educated workers. I had two universities plus a bunch of grade schools, high schools, and a community college in a city the size of a small suburb. This is an issue.
Luckily, despite many of these bugs, SimCity LOOKS fantastic. It’s got a clean and streamlined UI that’s a breeze to navigate even if you never played a SimCity game before. The highly touted GlassBox engine does not disappoint, as zooming in to the closest setting reveals a gorgeously modeled, hustling and bustling city. Sims will go about their daily business, commuting to work, hanging around in parks, committing crimes, protesting in front of City Hall, what have you. If you have a PC powerful enough to handle it, pumping the settings all the way to max settings will truly show off some great looking detail. I’m playing mine on triple monitor setup, and while reaching all way from screen to screen is kind of a hassle, the game just looks WOW.
I hope now that the server mess is pretty much sorted out, more effort can be placed onto ironing out many of the above mentioned issues. Even with them, SimCity is a great deal of fun. Once I was able to log on, that’s pretty much all I did (other than taking care of my daughter, of course). I’ve invest hours into this game already, and I can see myself investing even more. As the game gets patched and becomes even more seamless between neighboring cities, I have visions of a grand microcosm on my computer screen. We’ll wait and see where the game goes from here, and hope that the server issues didn’t doom this game before it even had a chance to shine.