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Review: SimCity

by on March 23, 2013 2:00 PM 0

Ten years have passed since the release of of SimCity 4, while not many really consider SimCity Societies part of the franchise at all (for good reasons). Now SimCity has finally reached our PCs to bring the franchise yet in another direction. Change often brings problems and controversy, with some embracing it, and some pushing against it, and this is exactly the case.

But we’re here to talk about the game itself, and controversy will have to mostly wait for another article.

If you’ve lived under a rock for the last twenty four years, SimCity does exactly what it says on the lid: it prompts you to create and govern your own city, but this time it does so with a spin, placing your lovely little urban dream (or nightmare) into an online environment, enabling it to interact with cities run by other virtual mayors in several ways.

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This results in the fact that SimCity is by all means and purposes an online game. If you don’t have an internet connection you can read further just for the pleasure of reading, because unfortunately the game isn’t for you. It can be played as a single player game (while still connected to the game’s servers), by having a newly-created region set to private and creating your cities in it one by one, but it isn’t balanced for that purpose. So you may want to consider just embracing its nature and try collaborating with some neighbors. They don’ bite, at least not always.

Starting SimCity up for the first time it’s hard not to be charmed by its graphics and especially by its art direction. Models and textures are crisp and detailed, with a rather evident cartoonish look that makes cities appear more or less like those lovely model railway dioramas that some of us used to build when we were younger (and many still enjoy in their older days).

Personally I think that this kind of art style couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch and it definitely fits the theme of the miniature urban dream at your fingertips. Despite a few small glitches created by placing streets and buildings in positions and combinations that possibly weren’t predicted by the development team, SimCity can easily be described as a joy for the eyes.

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Another aspect I appreciated massively are the overlays that replace the usual graphs in showing what’s happening in your city. Most of them will apply a stylish white filter on the urban tissue and and display data over it in a way that really jumps to your eyes, creating an effect that is both aesthetically pleasing and practically effective.

Maxis even went as far as including a series of filters to let you alter the way in which colors are displayed, letting you turn to colder hues for a more realistic feel or transform your screen into a pseudo-film noir. Add to that a stunning and customizable tilt-shift camera and you get the best looking SimCity game of all times, no questions asked, as you can easily see in the flickr gallery below. 

The audio aspect is equally well crafted, with an extremely appropriate score by Fringe‘s composer Chris Tilton that has been fastened nicely to the game’s animation, creating an almost hypnotic effect of a city that is literally dancing to the music as traffic moves and buildings grow.

Spoken lines are rare and honestly irrelevant, unless you are, for some reason I could not fathom, a fan of the Simlish fictional language (personally I’d say that “gibberish” is a more appropriate definition) that has become a staple of the series. Personally I’m not, so I just tend to ignore it, and probably so will you.

Graphics and sound match in a really pleasing way, creating a game that cam be defined truly artful in its look and feel. I can’t say I didn’t spend a large amount of time just watching my cities grow and dance while my many sims went about their daily lives. But don’t get me wrong: SimCity is no sixty bucks screen saver, so let’s see how gameplay holds up.

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The first and foremost thing that differentiates SimCity from previous games of the franchise is that many functional elements are actually agents that dynamically move and act their part using your street network as a framework. Water and electricity actually travel in stylized chunks from pumps and plants to buildings, sewage moves to your outlets in much the same way, while trade goods or trash actually move on trucks from their origin to their destination.

This shift from cold numbers to actually dynamic elements traveling around your city creates a less predictable and more organic simulation. When your income is just a matter of subtracting upkeep costs from the numerical earnings automatically generated by your buildings things are rather cold and exact, but a real city isn’t like that. If your trucks get stuck in a traffic jam your products (or waste) may be slowed in reaching their destinations, increasing by quite a lot the number of factors that will influence the outcome of your actions.

I heard many complains about the game being unpredictable, but those are mostly generated by the habit of having to deal only with hard and oversimplified numbers and not with a dynamic environment where something can actually go wrong. Most of the times if something fails to be executed efficiently, the cause can be identified and corrected, making the game more challenging and interesting.

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Unfortunately this also means that a few kinks of the simulation engine can impact performance negatively. For instance when the traffic AI fails (and it can happen, even if the problem has been partly addressed) creating massive jams, your city can be literally paralyzed, but this is rather endemic of a complex simulation. While the execution isn’t 100% perfect I can’t fault Maxis for going in this direction in the attempt to make things more interesting and less spreadsheet-dependent, especially in the light of the fact that they’re working exceptionally hard to perfect how it all works, having released a whopping eight patches in little more than two weeks.

When something you’re expecting fails to happen it’s actually a lot of fun to scan every little bend and crossing of your street system to find the failing point, and the graphical overlays normally do a good job in helping to this purpose. There are times in which fun can turn into frustration when you discover that failure is not due to bad planning but to a simple glitch, but those instances aren’t common enough to spoil the fun, unless you’re short on patience. And a game like SimCity is naturally ill-suited for people with lacking attention spans.

A large number of your city’s inhabitants is also made of agents that will walk or drive on the streets moving from housing to services in a dynamic way and contributing to your planning’s success or demise depending on your ability to cater to their needs. It has to be said that the simulation is simplified on this aspect, as only a percentage of your population is an actual agent, and its behavioral patterns are streamlined (for instance sims will find shelter every day in the closest available house they’ll find instead of remembering a persistent address), but this is honestly a justifiable simplification.

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The moment I’ll have a PC able to display and calculate the actions of 200,000 citizen all at the same time on the screen, I’m quite sure the trip to the uncanny valley will be complete, but with this level of technology I simply feel that an even higher level of complexity may simply not be possible. What is actually simulated provides plenty things to take care of, and already requires a very high level of micromanaging. Implementing more would probably be overkill even if it was feasible.

The actual size of the map of each city is considerably smaller than that of the game’s predecessors, forcing aspiring mayors to plan very carefully in order to optimize their use of available building space. This means that you won’t be able to create immense metropolises that can do everything by themselves, as you’re strongly encouraged to plan your urban specialization on a few efficient elements instead of trying to create a jack-of-all-trades but master of nothing.

While I agree that quality is more important than quantity, and the depth of the simulation justifies the smaller maps, while the requirement for careful planning and specialization actually enhances game play and longevity, I can’t say that I wouldn’t like to see the borders of each city expanded in future patches. Not by much, mind you, but having cities 1.2 to 1.5 times larger with borders of each one almost touching in the current region setup would probably be a realistically attainable goal, and would allow more flexibility in placing large and specialized elements like ports, airports and universities.

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One of the elements I most love of this new SimCity is how expansion of your “ploppable” buildings (those buildings that you can manually place instead of being automatically created according to your zoning) works. Almost all of them have several accessorial elements that can be added in order to customize their function and increase their effect. If your power plant isn’t enough to grant your city enough lifeblood you won’t immediately need to place another, but adding more chimneys may prove enough. Your police precinct is failing to fight crime effectively? Just add a few cars or a helicopter pad, or go the preemptive way with a Crime Prevention Center.

You can also customize a building’s purpose depending on your needs. For instance a smelting factory can have modules added to specialize in the production of metal or alloy, while you can plop several different additional schools to your university in order to unlock separate education bonuses and different research projects that will directly influence your city or your region. It’s all very flexible and adds a risk versus reward element in the planning of each major service (as accessorial elements take more space and cost more upkeep) that further increases the level of complexity and realism of the simulation.

Another rather lovely addition to the game’s framework is the ability to create curved streets that will pretty much fit any given terrain and need, while the option to upgrade them for capacity and density instead of having to demolish and rebuild them is a great quality of life improvement that the game very much needed. Considering that your street network also carries water, sewage and power, becoming the most critical element of your city planning, making it intuitive and customizable this way is definitely a great choice and a massive improvement to the franchise.

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SimCity provides several mass transit options, from bus networks to airports, passing by street cars, ports and trains. The absence of subways, one-way streets and over/underpasses is a tad disappointing, especially since they would solve a lot of the traffic issues that plague our little commuters’ lives, but I guess we can expect something like that for an expansion. It’s sad that those elements aren’t present in the initial release, but the game is complex enough as it is, and considering that a mass transit expansion was released for SimCity 4 as well, this was pretty much to be expected.

The single element I seriously hate the most in the game is the completely random occurrence of natural disasters. While I understand that natural disasters happen randomly even in real life, they most certainly don’t happen as often as they do in SimCity. It can already be very challenging to keep the most complex specializations running efficiently, and a few meteors and Godzillas back to back (and it happens: while I had days in which absolutely nothing happened, I had one in which I saw one of my cities literally devastated by five fire-spitting lizards in two hours) can simply throw several hours of efforts and careful planning into the recycling bin. It’s not fun.

Natural disasters can be toggled off if you play in sandbox mode, but this also deactivates the whole progression and achievement systems of the game, making every building available from the start and simply reducing the depth of the whole endeavor rather massively, and in a way that I personally don’t find enjoyable. I can’t help but thinking that adding a toggle for natural disasters even in the normal game play mode would do wonders, as SimCity is a game that strives to exploit a player’s planning skill, and this kind of game play shouldn’t be influenced this much by a random number generator that can deal massive damage to one’s building efforts for no reason whatsoever.

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I apologize for mentioning something that is basically a cheat, but when a disaster appears you may be better off just killing the game’s process as fast as possible. If you’re quick enough this will either limit the disaster’s radius of influence considerably or prevent the game from registering it at all. I know, it’s bad, but the absence of a very much needed toggle simply prompted me to resort to extreme (but in my opinion justified) measures. When something is simply unfair I don’t feel guilty for bypassing the rules to get it out of the way of my enjoyment.

As mentioned in passing before, one of the most important factors in this SimCity is that your urban dream doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in a regional environment that can host between two and sixteen cities.

This can have several positive and negative effects on the growth of each city: population will dynamically move between them, allowing each urban area to complement each others strengths and weaknesses. If a city lacks workplaces but the neighboring ones has plenty, citizen will commute increasing synergy and efficiency. Resources and services can also be traded and shared to create symbiotic cities that can really thrive or die together.

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You can for instance have an industrial city that uses a lot of space for services like power generation, water pumping and waste management and provide those services to a neighboring tourism-focused city that enjoys saving that space for more attractions while returning a monetary benefit for the service provider and avoiding the otherwise inevitable pollution.

Of course neighborhood doesn’t only bring benefits, as negative elements like crime and pollution can seep from one city to the other, adding to the challenge and depth of the simulation and balancing out the advantages. Awareness on what’s happening around you will let you plan accordingly and maximize the perks while countering the problems.

While playing with strangers may very well increase the thrill of regional game play, I personally found that playing with friends willing to communicate and plan together is the best way to enjoy it (which is common to all multiplayer games, of course). Even if you don’t have available friends, it may be a good idea to claim two neighboring cities and play them in parallel. Not only this will increase the efficiency of both, but I found it’s also a lot more fun.

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The presence of cooperative great works like international airports and Arcologies further encourages collaboration between neighbors, and even adds a limited element of competition, as often different virtual mayors will race on who can afford starting the nearby great work first to select the one that best fits his own needs.

While I consider the current implementation of regions quite lovely and game play-enriching (and I’m sure some or the most reactionary among us will differ, but to each their own), there are a few kinks that I’d very much like to see addressed, and I feel that correcting those would probably help bringing many of those that resent the idea of online game play towards the opposite camp.

There’s a delay in sharing events between cities, so if you send resources or services to a neighbor it could take a few minutes for this to actually take effect in his own city. While this isn’t by any means game breaking, and the complexity of the simulation itself is partly at fault, I wonder if it can’t be shortened by further increasing the efficiency of the servers.

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The ability to change a region from private to public at some point after its creation would also help in getting our friends situated in the same instance first and then letting strangers join in to fill the gaps, without having to go exclusively one way or the other, that isn’t really the most convenient solution.

A bit of tweaking of the regions themselves and of the way in which cities interact with the regions would also help massively. One of the biggest flaws, in my eyes, of the current region setup is that in each 16-cities map only clusters of four cities are actually linked by road. This considerably reduces the ability of cities that aren’t in the same cluster to collaborate and create synergies. Also, each cluster of four cities can only benefit from one great work.

Getting rid of this limitation by providing new maps in which all sixteen cities are linked by road and railroad and are granted access to all four great works slots would not only be a lot more realistic, but it would make regional game play considerably more enjoyable and dynamic, enhancing the feeling of playing in an actually sizable community instead of four smaller sub-regions loosely linked together.

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Another weakness in the game’s structure can be identified in how cities are linked to the region’s highway network. At the moment each city is granted only a single and unmovable access to the highway, and since every network is only as strong as its weakest link, this tends to create massive traffic jams located around that spot. Not only this isn’t really realistic (how many reasonably-sized cities access the surrounding highways in a single place only?), but it isn’t even practical.

Ideally the whole game would benefit massively from granting players the ability to manually create new highway links, and I don’t think it’d require much development effort. Let us draw a high density avenue to the edge of the map and have it automatically link to the current network. This would easily solve many of the entry traffic and commuting issues and it would be more realistic and enjoyable as well. Add toll booths and sizable upkeep costs for every link in order to balance it out and they’d turn what currently is undeniably a design flaw into a nice gameplay feature and a further element of depth.

Before I move to my final notes, I’d like to spend a word on the Digital Deluxe edition of the game. I rarely talk about this kind of things, but in this case I can’t help but issue a warning to my readers: those that spend twenty bucks more on this package get a few European-style ploppables that grant limited advantages (like slightly faster police cars for the French Gendarmerie), three more landmarks and the supposed ability to change the style of their city to reflect France, England and Germany.

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While this last element may seem to be the biggest selling point of the Digital Deluxe (or its DLC elements that can be purchased separately), it has a rather large kink that may lead to severe disappointment. You can’t manually give your city the aesthetic style you want. You will have to build one of the three provided national landmarks, and this will automatically change some of the buildings around them accordingly, giving you no real power on the overall look of the urban tissue. In addition to that the European buildings don’t really look all that hot compared to the normal ones.

As I was provided just the regular edition by Electronic Arts for the purpose of this review (I’m not complaining, I’m actually not that fond of smothering reviewers by providing the most pricey packages and perks), I actually went and purchased the additional integration out of pocket, and I can definitely say that, at least according to my personal parameters, this is no good way to spend twenty bucks, and the lack of an actual explanation on how it works makes things worse and slightly misleading.

In the end you’ll have to decide with your own taste and wallet if it’s worth it for you, but I thought it deserved to be mentioned to save you some possible frustration. Again, this could probably be addressed easily, as a simple manual toggle and the removal of the dependency from the landmarks would remove the problem, but at the moment the functionality is very far from ideal.

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SimCity is not the perfect game that some seemed to (maybe naively) expect. As a matter of fact no game in the franchise has ever been anywhere near to perfect out of the box, mostly due to the complexity that characterizes most of Maxis’ work, but it’s hard not to notice that the team is laboring at an exceptionally positive pace to provide players with improvements and to fix relevant hindrances to the enjoyment of the game.

That’s only one face of the coin, though, and the other side is much brighter. Ultimately SimCity is a very fun game, providing a ton of depth and complexity and an extremely addictive experience combined with first-class longevity and a lot of room for improvement. Add to this a set of absolutely exceptional production values and you get a game that is hard not to recommend to any fan of the genre.

It may at times be a bumpy ride, but it’s still a hell of a ride.

rated rating-8.0
Review: SimCity
  • SimCity
  • Windows
  • Maxis
  • Electronic Arts
  • March 5, 2013
  • $59.99
  • Review copy provided by the publisher.

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