SimCity Review – From the Ground Up

Having been a fan of the SimCity series since SimCity 2000, and having religiously played SimCity 4 decked out with mods, I was very eager to see the new take on the series with the release of Maxis’ latest title, simply called “SimCity”.  I participated in the last two betas and left with a positive impression, and was curious to see how the game held up without the time restrictions.

I managed to wrangle a couple of friends together and form a seven man region, with each of us coordinating specialties and attempting to create cities that would compensate for each others’ weaknesses and reinforce each other’s strengths.  Regions represent the collection of nearby cities, which, depending upon the map, are all connected by rail, sea, and car, though some cities are more accessible by different means to certain cities.

simcity screen 3
A view of cities growing in conjunction with one another, with my neighbors clearly visible. I noticed that there are some sacrifices in rendering quality when viewing other cities, though the effect is still great.

The first thing I noticed about the game is how simply amazing it is to look at.  Previous SimCity games had mixed records on creating aesthetically pleasing cities, but the newest SimCity absolutely hit the ball out of the park in this regard. Combined with greater customization of building placement and the ever sought after curved roads, cities simply look stunning, especially at night.

The game play itself is much more intuitive than its predecessors, making it considerably clearer as to what goals you may pursue, the general needs of your city, and the overall health of your development and economy.  There is an extensive tutorial that, some bugs aside, does a good job at going through each of the various functions you can perform, as well as outlining the strategies and costs behind each of the needs your city faces.  These include utilities (garbage, sewage, water, electricity) and services (health, fire, police), each of which are expensive but are much in demand from your citizens.  There are a vast array of overlays which allow you to view the composition of your population, identify trouble spots where particular utility or service coverage is lacking, show how wind and pollution levels are impacting your city, among other things, such that you have a strong grasp on the problems facing your city and impeding its further development.

simcity screen 4
Here you can see the distribution of your population, as well as why they’re in your city, where they come from, and what they’re doing.

Where the game truly becomes interesting is the multiplayer element, as smaller city sizes halt development considerably, and make you much more dependent on neighboring cities for assistance.  I have mixed feelings about the much maligned smaller city sizes, for while they do force you to specialize and make creating a super city much harder, they also cap your development rather quickly, and in but an hour or two you can find yourself out of room for future building placement.  This will typically force you to rezone or tear down a block or two of buildings, but fortunately, they automatically disappear under your placed buildings and the Sims and agents are rather good at adapting to these changes.

Instead of tearing down your housing or businesses, however, you can also purchase surplus utilities from your neighbors, or ask them to expand their service coverage to your own city, which in turn sends service vehicles to patrol your streets.  While this usually works well, the server instability makes recognition of available services in nearby cities a bit delayed and sometimes does not recognize them at all.  Worse, the fact that your city can only ever have one connection to the main regional highway, which is restricted to an off ramp of one lane, makes for a perpetual traffic jam of cars attempting to move into your city.  While public transit can ease this a fair bit for commuting traffic, moving trucks, freight, and service vehicles will still get caught in this choke point, meaning that neighboring cities’ fire trucks or police may not arrive until well after your buildings have burned down and your criminals have escaped.

simcity screen 2
This traffic jam of cars trying to enter my city was too long to even fit in the screenshot, stretching even further down screen, and also from the other direction. This is after every other mass transit option has been built.

These multiplayer troubles are, admittedly, rather minor, and the cooperative aspect of the game actually plays very well in execution.  I definitely got the feel that my cities were growing alongside my neighbors, while still preserving significant autonomy for my own city and not feeling too tied to their development.  I managed to play for a good number of hours before I grew bored of my city and decided to move onto developing another, and created another region in which I tried to develop three cities simultaneously to push the limits of city development.  This drive to create new cities is a strength and a weakness: for while the small city size and cooperation make for a more dynamic game in some regards, it is somewhat unsatisfying to leave your original cities after only a few hours of play.  Perhaps it is unfair to make comparisons to the previous SimCity games given the developers’ insistence that this is a whole new series, but I enjoyed the megacities with their distinct neighborhoods and character, and some may find this change disappointing.

While the mechanics of multiplayer are not perfect but work fairly well, the game suffers from one enormous flaw; its requirement for constant online play and DRM.  This might be forgivable were the servers more stable, but, predictably, the servers have been suffering from horrible instability and overcrowding since release, and the problem has only gotten worse since the decision not to allow pre-loading forced many to wait until the next day to be able to activate and play their game.  The implementation of DRM on a game that serves perfectly well as a single player game, and in conjunction with obvious neglect for the demands of a release this large, marks a huge flaw, and is ultimately unjustifiable.

While I’m certain that the server stability issue will be fixed within a few days, the avoidability of this problem, and the continued reliance on anti-piracy measures with minimal impact beyond angering the user base and disenfranchising those with unstable internet connections, is not encouraging.  Further, there are some reports (though it hasn’t happened to me) that players are losing cities due to the reliance on remote servers to store saved information… meaning your cities will be at the mercy of an already shaky system.

server busy
A screen most players will need to get used to over the next few days. Wanted to play single player to pass the time? Too bad.

Overall, this game represents a worthy addition to the SimCity series, and provides considerable entertainment and replay value while boosting the cooperative and multiplayer mechanic.  Server instability and unjustifiable DRM reliance force me to recommend users wait a few days to ensure the game remains playable once these issues are addressed, but if you are seeking a more accessible city developing game, and don’t mind the smaller city sizes, SimCity is a game well worth your time.

Do you like the new smaller city size and cooperative play? Let us know your thoughts on the game and this review in the comments below!

This review was based on a digital copy of the game for the PC provided by EA.

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