SimCity Review

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A few roads here, a power plant there… and my little hamlet grows. At least, that’s how every other SimCity of my life has started. Indeed, that general feeling of growing something from nothing is echoed in the latest sequel of what is undoubtedly one of EA and Maxis’ longest running and most intensely beloved franchises. On closer inspection, however, all isn’t as it should be when you realise the city you’ve built is a crumbling house of cards built with inane AI and extremely poor mechanics and riddled with DRM. Additionally EA/Maxis’ unrepentant stubbornness in the face of overwhelming backlash and outright refusal to address consumer outcry come hell or high water make this SimCity one we’d all like to forget.

SimCity begins well enough for a part of the franchise. This is provided you can get past the deliberately crippling and totally unnecessary connection problems – but more on that later. Aesthetically, the game is gorgeous. Interfaces are clean and colourful, and everything has a sleek layer of polish.

Innovation comes in the form of data layers. Rather than numbers and line graphs, almost all information is fed to you visually. In fact, the only numbers you’ll ever look at are your budget and your population. Data layers allow the player to see problems as they arise. With the click of a button, the city itself becomes a 3D bar graph, expressing the happiness level of my residences with big green columns. Others show the water table, ground and air pollution and a host of other information essential to the upkeep of your city.

It’s not just expressed in data maps either. The status of your city is reflected in the general visual ambiance of the game world. In a polluted town, smog sweeps from the towering smokestacks of your power plants and begins to slowly swallow the skyline, while graffiti on the sides of buildings indicates a strong presence of crime in a casino-covered city.

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The launch of SimCity.

The familiar sounds of The Sims series’ grand orchestral theme plays you through the daily hustle and bustle of city life. What’s unique about it though is that it subtly changes depending on what you’re doing, what’s going on in your city and even how zoomed in or out you are. The variance of the soundtrack grows the same way your city does. Call it auditory progression; it’s a nice touch.

The technological progression of your city is reflected in the evolution of your City Hall. At increasing levels of population the City Hall is granted an upgrade, and each upgrade confers it the ability to support a new department. Departments somewhat dictate the direction your city is taking; a Department of Safety enables you to build large police stations to put the hurt on crime, while a Department of Education will unlock bigger and better schools for your burg. It makes for interesting strategy because you’re limited to one department upgrade per City Hall level, meaning it helps to pick the one which covers your city’s biggest shortcoming.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the good stuff ends and the bad stuff begins.

One of the largest and most often-made complaints about the game is the inexplicably tiny city size. Maximum city plot size is static at approximately 2km2, closer to a large city block than an actual city. The small size means you can’t redesign areas you’ve already developed, because anything short of a full city leaves your coffers empty and your budget crippled. This is further aggravated by the total lack of an undo button, meaning mistakes in building positioning can become extremely costly. The plots are sprinkled unnaturally around the region you’re playing in, each surrounded by enormous strips of empty land never to be built upon. Before you’ve even filled up your minuscule city plot however, the core mechanics start to fall apart completely.

The fabled “Glassbox” engine was supposed to have the ability to handle a high level of detail. Instead it’s a cacophony of stupidity. The pathing of “agents” (data units representing power, water, sewage and Sims themselves) is totally broken. Sims regularly get caught in infinite loops, walking back and forth across the same street forever. A fire station will dispatch literally every fire engine you own to put out a kitchen blaze in a one-bedroom bungalow while your whole industrial district burns to the ground. Meanwhile 10 police cars drive straight past a triple homicide taking place across the street and get caught in traffic trying to catch a purse-snatcher across town. I’d honestly send the paramedics to slap the purse-snatcher on the wrist but they don’t have two brain cells to rub together either.

It doesn’t stop there. Poor agent scripting renders intercity trade virtually defunct. Rarely do these transfers ever function as intended, because the AI to get the delivery trucks out of a perpetual traffic jam either doesn’t work or doesn’t exist. This means if you want a city that produces computers, say, you need to be either lucky enough to have oil, coal and ore under your city to extract and process. However, only active cities produce goods, meaning you’ll be tediously switching back and forth between them… or you’ll be finding a friend to play with. It all screams of forced multiplayer, and it seriously begs the question as to who at EA or Maxis thought would buy into that. SimCity Social players? Did they forget that SimCity has always been an offline single player game? Indeed, the always-online debacle has lead to an absolute train wreck that shows no sign of slowing.

The SimCity launch was nothing short of horrific, making Diablo 3′s look like a roaring success. The first few days featured a total inability to play the game due to server failure, thanks to the game’s always-online requirement. It got so bad that at one point players were queuing just to attempt to reconnect to the verification server. This wasn’t helped by an obscure lack of game data preloading and the fact that all game progress was and still is being totally wiped at random.

In an attempt to stem the tide of justified fury from the entire internet, additional servers were added to increase stability, but gameplay functions and features were removed from the game. Maxis stated they had “reduced game crashes by 92% from day one”, but this is most likely due to the loss of 92% of the player-base rather than their less than satisfactory damage control.

The worst of it is that most of these problems could’ve been solved with the addition of an offline mode. To add insult to injury Maxis outright lied about the necessity of these server interactions, citing vast amounts of simulation data processing as the reason. Just days later, following some very telling user investigation into the validity of these claims, an anonymous Maxis developer informed RPS that Maxis’ claims that game required online to function were blatantly false. In addition, Eurogamer reported that a user had modded the game to run totally offline and posted a video of himself editing the region outside of city boundaries.

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An example of data layers.

It begs the question: why lie about it? Simple really. To give players a ham-fisted explanation of the necessity of server integration to assuage the consumer concerns relating to pervasive DRM. To mask the true intention of “discouraging” piracy and shoehorning in multiplayer while simultaneously eliminating user modding and establishing programmed obsolescence. It means EA don’t want you playing SimCity forever, because that isn’t profitable. They want to dictate how you play it and when you play it and how long you play it for. When it stops being profitable, they pull the plug on current servers so they can sell you the next one.

There’s very little good that can be said about SimCity. It stands as an eminent example of how not to develop and release a game, especially when rebooting such a beloved franchise. After dealing with the unremitting befuddlement of server issues and the all-too-frequent complete inability to play, the first hour or two seems genuinely enjoyable. Very quickly though, it becomes apparent that bugs, glitches and outright poor and lazy design permeate every level of its infrastructure, explaining why the beta only lasted an hour. In truth, the game failed to deliver on almost everything it promised, making betas, previews and promotion of its “revolutionary” engine simply false advertising. The mechanics are so mangled and the AI so erratic that you don’t feel responsible for the development of your city, offering you no real sense of achievement.

SimCity has always been more of a toy than a game. There’s never been an end state except the goals you set yourself. It’s a world with rules and constraints that you use and learn and experiment with to create something; a sandbox. Except this time, the rules, constraints and limits (always-online DRM, miniscule city plots and forced multiplayer) placed upon your experience with the game bear no merit and consequently take all the fun out of the toy, as immensely broken as it is. And this time it’s a game you rent, never a game you own. Nothing you make ever feels like yours, because it only exists for as long as EA allows it to.

If SimCity was a real city, I’d nuke it from orbit and leave the remains as a reminder of such immense failure.

  • PC

The Verdict

Genuinely appalling. Pleasant visuals aside, SimCity is nothing but a lie, inside and out. Franchise die-hard or not: Do not buy this game. Don't support these development practices. You'll be doing the industry and your wallet an immense favour.
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