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EGM Review: SimCity



My favorite frustration

In more than two decades of reviewing games, I have never had a more difficult and frustrating experience than my time with SimCity.

Sure, there have been plenty of bad, frustrating games, but playing SimCity has been at once joyous and exasperating. Underneath a nearly unforgivably buggy exterior lies one of the most addictive simulation games I’ve ever played. The whole thing is like eating your favorite ice cream while someone pokes you with a sharp stick.

The latest iteration of the legendary city-planning series will go down as one of the worst launches in game history. Anyone remotely interested in the game has likely heard all about the server issues that caused game crashes, lost information, and the disabling of certain game features including leaderboards, achievements, and, worst of all, “Cheetah Speed.” More on that later.

For better or for worse, EA and Maxis have stated that this game was designed to have a constant Internet connection. Many disgruntled fans have begged for an offline mode, but both companies insist it would be nigh-on impossible to provide one. So, SimCity remains an online-only game, even in single-player. Embrace this reality—and, if this is a dealbreaker for you, avoid the game.

In the decade since the last iteration caused all-night gaming sessions, spontaneous sick days, and not a few missed classes, Maxis has rethought and streamlined the process. For one, cities are now smaller. Instead of the huge, sprawling metropolises of games past, these cities are now focused on specialization. Mining, education, entertainment, and culture are just a few of the choices you’ll have when designing your perfect metropolis. Though somewhat limiting, cities exist in a region with other players’ creations, all of them interconnected by highways. Cities in the same region can share resources, services, and finances, giving sims in the region access to everything they could desire.

This design injects multiplayer into the traditionally single-player series—and while the concept is sound, it’ll take veteran players some time to get used to. That’s not to say you can’t play this as a single-player game. When starting a game, you can just choose to keep your region private. This allows you to control all of the cities yourself or only invite people you really want to play with. It’s a simple, effective way to give players more options for their regions. Region sizes vary from two cities to 16, allowing for a nice variety of experiences. Though I haven’t quite warmed up to the multiplayer aspects of the game, I had no problem juggling multiple cities in my own region.

My problem with multiplayer goes back to the small city size. When controlling a single city in a large region filled with other players, you feel more like a cog than a god. Specialization is key, so there are piles of options you’ll never use. There’s always plenty to do, but to me, the limited concentration induced boredom. A few hours in, I had little desire to keep paying attention to my city, and I went back to my single-player region.

This leads to another problem with the multiplayer paradigm: If someone claims one of the cities and leaves in the early stages of its development, your region is negatively impacted. Should this be a city rich in natural resources, the impact could be great. The original owner can abandon the city, but if he or she doesn’t do so, the region will be stuck with a ghost town.

Like many other problems here, it’s possible this will be addressed in the future. This also leads to my biggest complaint about the game: It seems half-baked (OK, maybe 80-percent baked—but definitely not done).

In addition to these inherent multiplayer flaws, the unforgivably broken launch (seriously, EA—four servers?), and the arguably too-small city size, SimCity suffers from some truly terrible AI issues. At first this won’t be too noticeable, but as your city grows, you’ll notice traffic following some wonky paths, favoring lower-density streets over higher ones based on some hidden pathfinding glitches.

Additionally, the game doesn’t always recognize the problems and/or opportunities in other cities in the region. When my initial city of Experiment 626 needed more workers to fill out the booming industrial demands, and my Sims were being painfully slow upgrading their residences for higher densities, I started an educationally based city in the region. There I waited for the population—which complained greatly about not having jobs—to commute to Experiment 626, which desperately needed workers. Alas, this never happened the way I intended, and I’m still struggling with both shortages even as both cities continue to grow.

Adjustments need to be made streamline this process, particularly between cities claimed by a common player. The whole point of this design is to encourage cities to work together. Right now that isn’t happening nearly enough. It also should be noted that the flow of many resources can be controlled between cites, but not workers. Workers need to figure out commuting between themselves; you can only monitor the progress.

The thing is, despite all of these problems, I really, really like playing SimCity. The game holds your hand just enough to point you in the right direction as you furiously try to make decisions. The level of detail is nothing short of astounding, and people aren’t afraid to tell you what’s on their minds, frequently setting you off on missions to improve your city.

You can click on a single Sim or vehicle and follow it as it makes its way through the day. When you think about it, there’s really an amazing number of computations taking place at any one time. Even in its buggy current form, the game is an impressive piece of engineering. (It’s not a perfect AI simulation, though—Sims will simply head home to the nearest empty house at the end of the workday, for example.) Gameplay is fast and fun, and the experience will suck hours out of your life. It’s far too easy to get lost in your city and suddenly discover it’s 3 am—and that the next day is gonna suck. Again, this is despite all of the problems.

That’s why it’s been so terribly difficult to both review and score this game. EA and Maxis are working tirelessly to fix all of the server issues, AI problems, and more. But it’s been more than a week since the game’s launch, and one of the “non-essential” features disabled in the launch debacle, Cheetah Speed, is still gone. This seemingly simple feature, which allows players to speed up the passage of time, is essential to strategy and enjoyment while playing. While its absence will be temporary, I can’t really recommend the game until it’s reinstated.

As this—and other problems—are fixed, there’s every chance that SimCity will become one of the most enjoyable games of the year. But I’m not reviewing that hypothetical incarnation. I’m reviewing the version of SimCity that launched as a pile of rubble worthy of the game’s bulldozer. It’s already getting much better, but it’ll be some time before all of the problems are fixed.

The question is, once the game reaches its full potential, will any players still care? I certainly hope so.

Developer: Maxis • Publisher: EA • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and older • Release Date: 03.05.2013
5.0 The latest version of the Maxis’ venerable city-building simulator is like an archeological dig. Somewhere under the dirt lies the broken pieces of a fantastic game. EA and Maxis are working furiously to put Humpty Dumpty together again, but in the meantime, we have a game that’s equal parts entertaining and frustrating. Sporting a fantastic user interface, great graphics, and an interesting concept, SimCity has an astounding level of potential. But in its current state, I can’t recommend it to any but the staunchest series fans. Keep an eye out on the forums and official announcements, and wait for an indication that the problems are fixed—and then give SimCity a try. Someday, it will be a great game.
The Good The same addictive quality fans have come to expect.
The Bad The sheer number of bugs, launch problems, and limitations make it seem half-baked.
The Ugly What’s a guy gotta do to get some zombie love? Every other disaster, sure—but I haven’t seen a single zombie!
SimCity is a PC exclusive.


About Marc Camron

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Marc somehow survived E3. The crowds were big, the games were loud and somehow he managed to get a sunburn on the top of his big, bald melon. Yet, despite all of this, he had a blast, seeing people he only sees once a year, playing all of the new games, and staying up way past his bedtime. Next year he might even have a beer. Find him on Twitter @RkyMtnGmr