SimCity Review

18 Mar 2013  by   Paul Younger
Game Details
Developer: Maxis
Publisher: EA
Reviewed on: PC
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Before I get this review underway,  I need to have a super-quick recap of the SimCity launch. On Tuesday 5th March the game launched in the US. When the clock struck midnight the server fell over, players couldn’t play and all hell broke loose for EA and Maxis. Over the following few days there were calls for refunds, complaints about online only DRM, and general grumblings all over the Internet.

Was this to be expected? In a word, yes. Did EA learn anything after Activision Blizzard’s Diablo 3 launch? Apparently not. Ill-prepared and underestimating the popularity of their own franchise was a huge mistake, one they addressed by adding more servers over the launch week period. Sadly it was a little too slow to keep players happy.

Here’s my dilemma; did I experience any of the above? Smugly, I can say that when the game launched in the UK, the launch was perfect. Midnight arrived and I was up and running after a couple of patches. IncGamersville was born and the wild ride that is this SimCity review got underway.

SimCity

Seven days,  160 hours play time, five cities

SimCity is like an onion, you peel back the skin and discover there is layer upon layer. The plan was to get the review done for late last week, but as more layers of the onion were peeled back we discovered bits of the onion that looked like they had gone off.  So far myself and Elly have clocked up 160 hours in play time.

SimCity is essentially Maxis’ next instalment in the series utilising the much talked about GlassBox Engine which drives the game. If you played any of the more recent SimCity titles then the gameplay is essentially the same principle, zone your areas into industrial, residential or commercial (RCI) , lay down your streets and watch your city evolve and increase in population. If only it was that easy.

Starting out I made some rookie errors, not checking what lies beneath the map before even plonking down a street or building  was a big mistake. You see, under your zone there are resources and it’s essential to ascertain exactly what you can exploit to drive your city or export to other cities in the region. These resources can essentially shape the way you need to play a map right from the get-go. If you have oil, then refine it, use it to power the city and sell excess to other cities for profit. This may not appeal to everyone, but you can ignore it and take on the challenge of building your city with green resources such as wind or solar power.

These resources play a more important part to your success however. A pivotal component of this new SimCity is specialisation; get that sorted out at the start of a city and a whole world of pain can be avoided.  Plonk mines, wells or even casinos as soon as possible and start selling the commodities to raise more cash as you build. Do this later in a city’s life cycle and it becomes harder to keep the books balanced, mainly because of some of the weird issues the game currently throws up with regards to population movement in your city and between other cities in the region.

Train Spotting the game

After messing around with an initial city it was time to get serious and scrutinise the online features. Let’s not get into the DRM debate (I’ll discuss that later), but rather look at what Maxis are trying to achieve with the online features. Each region has 16 city zones and other players can either join in a “public” region or create their own to invite their friends or play alone. These regions create a trading network between players (or yourself). Player A can sell commodities to player B, player B can send cash to player C, or even share services such as garbage collection, police or education.

Maxis has stated many times that this SimCity was built from the ground up with this in mind so have they succeeded with this multiplayer mode? I would have to say that the region sharing is a great idea and it works now the servers have stabilised somewhat. It’s not perfect, it can take considerable time for resources, services or money to arrive at the intended destination. Earlier this week some money wasn’t arriving at all; it was a really good way to lose your hard earned cash. As of Thursday last week the process was still a bit hit or miss.

I’ll go back to comments made by Ocean Quigley when he talked to IncGamers before launch. He stated that it could take a few minutes for information between cities to be updated. Now either the servers are really, really, slow or that was a huge exaggeration.

SimCity

Give me more land

The potential size of a city can cause issues early on for the less proficient player.  Immediately you want to whack down streets and spread out but it’s not until you see some of the more essential building sizes that it’s really not the way to go. With no terraforming in this SimCity, you have to work with what’s available on the map, there’s no easy get-out by flattening land then not giving a toss what happens in the rest of your city. There is a basic form of terraforming when dragging roads around but it’s nothing you have a great deal of control over.

There’s some real micromanagement and actual city planning required, more so than I can remember in the previous games  but that’s due to land constraints more than anything else. The city zone sizes are too small, especially if you attempt to create your city on a zone with surrounding water or islands which makes it even harder as the available building land is reduced even further.

Let’s also not forget some of the building sizes which are large in comparison to the space you have to build in. Start plopping down modules on existing buildings and the space issue starts to get worse.  These modular buildings are new to this SimCity and it’s a nice way to present an upgrade system, it’s just a shame most of them take up so much room. Universities can take up huge spaces what with their extra student accommodation and new departments to unlock better technology.

The Sims don’t want to sim

We’ve been watching and analysing out city growth all this week and there are some weird anomalies such as traffic and population demands. There’s been many times where traffic is jammed for no reason and logical routes a sim would probably take are left empty. The same goes for demands from the sims, you can have two houses side by side with one loving the local shopping facilities and the one next door saying there isn’t enough. Look two doors down and there are commercial buildings going out of business due to lack of custom.

Now we know there are different grades of low, medium and high wealth citizens and shops but even when they match the sims moan. These ungrateful little gits are quite right to be upset because the engine that’s driving them is currently flawed. I’d be mad too.

During the IncGamers’ review sessions, both Elly and myself would discuss what was going wrong, we’d bulldoze half the city to test out a theory as to why something wasn’t working. Seven hours later we’d still be scratching our heads wondering why we finished a long play session with cities that were no better off than when we started.

We discovered it was up to us to try and find workarounds in city layouts to address some of the simulation and logic issues. Most are not completely game breaking but have caused frustration with trial and error often being the only way to get things to work. What was a fun first couple of days with the game suddenly became a bit of a chore by day three and four. By day five we both were getting used to having to put things in places they logically wouldn’t be in a city in relation to everything else around them or destroying a portion of jammed road to get the traffic moving and then relay it.

SimCity traffic pathing issues example

It’s being fixed in an upcoming patch

Click, rotate, select

Maxis has done are a reasonably good job with the game interface, there’s so much information the player needs to check to make sure the city is functioning. Graphs and charts are usually a couple of clicks away and they are presented well and are reasonably clear when it comes to the information that’s being fed back to you.

There are some really annoying things too, having a separate menu for the specialisation tools away from the normal building functions which means having to flip between the two screens, not being able to place building first then connect it with a road which would make planning easier around the map resources.

SimCity

The Untimely arrival of Lizards

Disasters in SimCity have always been fun, well fun for people that like seeing a game destroying hours of work in a city that was just getting on its feet.

The disasters are back and we’ve experienced some pretty nasty ones. The giant lizard that stomps across your city destroying everything in its path then chows down on garbage. Zombie infestations that kill off sims, UFO abductions, earthquakes, meteors and tornadoes.

These are fun to watch but they don’t half piss you off when you have been trying to battle against other game issues and your city has just started to recover after having to re-zone and re-road large sections to try and make it all work.

DRAMA!

Right let’s get this out the way, the online only and DRM drama around this game. For a long time it’s been known that SimCity was online only. Maxis told everyone that the servers were carrying out complex calculations so that load could be kept off your local machine, that is their reasoning at least, whether it’s true or untrue is largely irrelevant.

The game is online only, if you don’t like online only games then don’t buy them or even pre-order them, but please don’t moan about it when the game comes out and you had no intention of buying it anyway.  A single player mode would have been nice, it probably could have been done with more time, but that’s not what this SimCity is supposed to be about and I certainly think the online aspects of the game will enhance the series once they work 100%.

Here at IncGamers we are not in favour of DRM, and we have to assume that’s why SimCity is online only, but if you’re OK with it then enjoy the game as best you can at the moment.

SimCity

So Close

SimCity is not quite there as far as our expectations are concerned. The maps are too small and there are some irritating bugs. There are GlassBox Engine logic and calculations that will cause frustration and have you spending hours trying to figure out what the hell you are doing wrong. Usually nothing as it turns out, it will be a bug or something stupid with how the engine calculates things.

Strange bugs like this can be annoying

This could so nearly have been our first perfect game of 2013. It could actually be that perfect ten in six month’s time after some patching in the weeks and months ahead. It’s addictive but at the same time you want to punch it in the face.

There are not many games that keep me glued to a screen for 8 hours straight, but the problem with SimCity is the game starts to play you. You have to work around the strange path finding problems  and bugs. SimCity annoyingly  lures you back in each day, only to kick you in the nuts after hours of gameplay, sometimes you’ll end up with a city even worse than when you started the session because you’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on.

Maxis have the right idea with this new SimCity, it just needs more love from the development team and some proper testing with each patch. If you love SimCity, and I do, then wait a while, there‘s still work to be done on this game’s foundations. Right now it’s sitting in the IncGamersVille hospital waiting room but there’s a lack of ambulances and the ones Elly’s city supposedly sent over never showed up.

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Related to this story
6/10
Despite its shortcomings, SimCity is proving a compelling and absorbing city builder. Given a few months to implement community suggestions this could be everything we had hoped for from this beloved franchise.
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