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SimCity (PC) artwork

SimCity (PC) review

"Social features bring something different to the new SimCity formula, but you might wish Maxis had left things well enough alone."

When SimCity is working as its developers presumably intended, I canít seem to stop playing it. City building has never been so addictive and rewarding for me. Thatís true only when the game is working properly, though, and the sad reality is that it often isnít doing anything of the sort.

My first brush with SimCity came in the form of a weekend I spent enjoying the closed beta. That limited exposure allowed me to play through a helpful opening tutorial that walked me through gameplay mechanics in great detail. It left me confident that I would have a great time with the full retail version, even though some features were locked and no one who was enrolled in the beta got to work on building a city for more than an hour at a time.

Because I enjoyed the beta so much, I preordered a retail copy. It arrived a few weeks later, on the gameís official launch day, and thatís when my troubles began. Try as I might, I simply couldnít connect to a server. Thatís a problem because the code checks for a connection before it even allows you to advance beyond the opening menus (and then it checks again at regular intervals thereafter, when it wants to save your progress to the cloud). Often, I couldnít even load the tutorial. I tried to play during all hours of the day, including well into the night when there shouldnít have been an inordinate amount of network stress, but nothing seemed to work. I had purchased a game that I knew from personal experience was almost definitely awesome, one that I was anxious to enjoy, but I couldnít do so because Originís servers were being hit too hard by thousands of other gamers in the same predicament as myself.

SimCity asset

Eventually, I was able to connect long enough to work my way through most of the familiar tutorial before I got booted again. Another time, I cleared the tutorial and finally played through most of a game. As my city was trying to recover from a massive earthquake, though, server issues booted me to the title screen. There was no trace that my city had even existed. Hours of work had gone down the drain. If the session hadnít already been going badly due to my ineptitude as a city planner, I would have been livid. Instead, I promised myself that I would learn from the mistakes I made and do a better job the next time around (hopefully with a city the game would let me keep).

When I tried to sign in a day later, after many of the network issues had finally been resolved by the addition of more servers, I was greeted by the same tutorial that Iíd already thrice completed. Fortunately, a fellow game critic came to my aid when I complained on Twitter. Heíd encountered the same issue and discovered that quitting to the main menu will allow you to start playing a proper game. The next evening, most of a week after the game arrived in stores, I was finally able to partake of an experience a bit closer to the one Iím sure Maxis had in mind.

Once a player has completed the aforementioned tutorial, the next step is to choose a server. The game then recommends a lobby where some people are already playing. A lobby is actually just a map that consists of several interlinked cities, and the idea is that you claim one of those massive tracts of land and start building until you have established a proper foothold. That will allow you to eventually trade resources and improvements with neighbors in the region, which can be quite helpful for reasons Iíll discuss momentarily. Unfortunately, my experience has been that the game does a very poor job of matching a person to a lobby that actually has any openings remaining. That could be a symptom of the sheer number of people who are playing right now, or it could be terrible network coding. I have no way to know for sure and I wouldnít care to hazard a guess. The apparent solution to the problem is to create a lobby of your own. Then you can claim the tract of land that you like most--probably based on the resources that are indicated as being available, as well as the amount of land versus water--and you can start building by using your allotted funds to construct start building along a highway that runs through your region.

SimCity asset

If youíve played a past installment in the SimCity franchise, you should have a decent idea where things mostly go from there. City planning requires that you zone for residential, commercial and industrial enterprises. Doing so costs you nothing, and buildings will eventually appear as if by magic. They probably suck, though, so your job is to create an environment in which they can improve by taking steps that alter land value. Thatís most easily accomplished by smartly placing services such as fire stations, hospitals, and bus terminals that will entice people to move to your city, as well as parks of various types. People sure do love their parks in this game.

Additional citizens will naturally pay more taxes and that helpfully allows you to meet the demands that accompany an increased population. From nearly the first minute of play, youíll be part of a huge juggling act as you consider priorities--do you add a clinic for people who are bound to eventually come down with a nasty cough, or do you spring for a fire station first because a burning building is a more immediate threat?--and try to execute your plans for a metropolis. Success is met with a sprawling urban landscape comprised of steel girders and high rise buildings, while failure often means incessantly wailing sirens, abandoned structures, rubble, and columns of thick black smoke as everything goes up in flames.

All of the above is interesting all by itself, especially with the ludicrously detailed and only occasionally glitchy animations that bring life to everything from throngs of school children to traffic congestion, but Maxis decided to do everything it could to require careful attention to social elements. You only have limited space in which to build your potential paradise, which means you have to make some tough decisions about what you do for yourself and what you pay someone else to do. At the click of a button, you can pull away from your city view and look at the overall region, then broker trades with players who have gone in a different direction with their city. The advantages to this quickly become obvious. Maybe youíre having trouble finding an affordable water supply. If thatís the case, you can spend a bunch of simoleons (the gameís virtual currency) to construct a treatment plant with an expiration date, or you can pay a small fee to have the supply piped your way by a nearby city. In return, you might make money by providing garbage service with an associated service charge that helps you pay for your own operations. True self-sufficiency is aggressively discouraged.

SimCity asset

Though I can appreciate the social elements, I do wish they were more easily accessible. After I created my public lobby, I played for around eight hours and no one else ever joined. That happened on two separate occasions, and it meant that I had to do everything for myself because I couldnít turn to neighboring mayors. That led to slower and more costly development, which in turn led to some frustrating situations as the population of my concrete masterpiece expanded beyond 75,000 or so. Suddenly, no amount of fire departments and trucks could keep up with a string of sudden blazes, which sent Venteropolis into a financial death spiral from which it never recovered. There needs to be a better way to make sure that you donít face a similar end when you create your own lobby.

With SimCity, the team at Maxis is asking consumers to trust that the need for a persistent online connection wonít get in the way of a good time. Weíve been assured that the ability to play with friends and strangers will add something special to what was already a rich and rewarding experience. Iíd love to believe that, but for now the social element has only managed to produce an unreliable environment thatís as likely as not to blow up in a personís face. Iíll continue to play the game even as it is, and Iíll enjoy it more still in the likely event that everything actually works the way it should somewhere down the road. I just wish there were an easier way in the present to know when that will or wonít happen.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 12, 2013)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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