Review: SimCity

Developer Maxis had a vision for the new SimCity. This vision was one in which players would build small specialized cities and work together to create vibrant regions encompassing many cities controlled by multiple players. Maxis wanted desperately to turn SimCity, a traditionally single player series, into a online community based entity. Gamers were told of the advantages cloud based computing would provide and how this SimCity would be the most robust, powerful simulation in the series to date. The price of course was an always online digital rights management scenario. Up until launch, Maxis was emphatic in their insistence that what they had to offer would completely offset any negatives incurred by this scenario. It’s a testament to just how much gamers love the SimCity franchise that so many of us (1.1 millon so far) gave Maxis the benefit of the doubt and pre-ordered or purchased SimCity at launch.

Developer: Maxis
Publisher: EA
Reviewed on: PC
Release Date: Available Now

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Now, weeks after launch, I believe it’s fair to say most of us regret our decision to give Maxis the benefit of the doubt. SimCity‘s launch was an unmitigated disaster. Servers buckled and broke under the weight of thousands upon thousands of gamers eager to play. Days passed before some players even made it passed the main menu. As Maxis started adding servers to compensate for their drastic underestimation of just how people wanted to play a city building simulator, new, more insidiousness problems began to emerge. Features were turned off in an attempt to just get players online. Once players made it into the game and began building cities it was a total crap shoot whether or not you’d stay connected long enough to achieve anything. Untold thousands of cities were lost forever to the digital ether thanks to problems syncing cities with the servers and cloud saves.

At first people attributed a big portion of the problems to all the background calculations we were led to believe were occurring server side in order to facilitate the complex number crunching our cities required. Perhaps Maxis did not outright lie, but they sure gave everyone the impression that SimCity could not function without the power of cloud computing and server side input. Of course we now know that is not the case. It now appears as though all the hard number crunching our cities require IS being done locally. The cloud and always online connectivity is only tied to superfluous stuff like leaderboards, syncing cities within a region, cloud saves, region chat, achievements, trading etc…

As these facts began to emerge Maxis reaffirmed their belief that SimCity could not be taken offline without a herculean effort by their development team. Inquisitive and knowledgeable hackers/modders however were able to take SimCity offline barely two weeks after release. First it was passing SimCity‘s automatic disconnect after 20 minutes of offline play. Accessing a debug mode and delving into the hard numbers and code going on behind the scenes. Then it was getting whole regions to function offline.  Basically everything Maxis swore could not be done is being done, in short order, by a small group of dedicated fans. It’s not perfect yet, but I have no doubt that within a few months a more user friendly modding package will begin making the rounds and Maxis will see the number of players connecting online plummet. Well, more than they are already plummeting.

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What is truly disgusting is that almost all the things Maxis has tied to their always online scenario could have been done in this thing other games call “multiplayer.” Syncing data, leaderboards, chat; all those things are standard elements of any games multiplayer functionality and in no way mar the experience of playing offline. Maxis‘ vision was one born of fear of piracy and the desire to have absolute control and access to players at all times. I don’t believe it had anything to do with making a better game. It’s “games as a service” gone horribly wrong. When even the most unstable  MMO’s can look down their noes at your game, you know you’ve done something terribly wrong. No amount of free games from the Origin store can possibly repair the damage Maxis has done to the reputation of the SimCity brand, their own development studio and EA in general.

What’s truly heartbreaking about SimCity is just how much I want to love the game. When things work it is amazingly fun to build a city and watch it grow. That core aspect has kept me playing these last few weeks and it’s what made so many love the series to begin with. Unfortunately, the more you play SimCity and the better you get at playing it, the worse the game becomes. I’ve put more than a few hours into SimCity and as each one passed by I found myself less and less happy with the game. Eventually I found myself just feeling and more and more angry.  In fact I can’t think of a recent game I hate more than I hate SimCity right now. In all fairness I’ve been playing the last few days just to see if Maxis can salvage the game.  I want so badly for SimCity to not be what it is; a steaming pile of digital vomit mixed with some always online feces. After this review I will not play SimCity again until it is playable offline and has had more plastic surgery than Lil Kim.

At first the incredibly tiny city maps do not bother you too much. Until you realize each city has room to specialize in a small number of things and nothing else. I can’t imagine giving players access to larger city maps would break anything. The size limit exists solely to force, not encourage, players to work together. Even if you play alone in a locked region you’ll have to manage multiple cities in order for any of them to truly thrive. Gone are the days of a “city with everything.” Gone too are the tools to contour the land as you see fit, as seen in previous games. Gone are the detailed readouts breaking down every number and statistic; replaced by super unhelpful visual data maps and probably the most asinine indicator for residential, commercial and industrial demand anyone could have ever conceived. A green, blue and yellow stripe? Really Maxis? That is how I’m supposed to gauge demand? Even punch drunk boxers from the 1940’s could have told you that is stupid. Ten years ago that may have been a passable idea, but even SimCity 4 had the courtesy of giving me a more user friendly display in the form of the City Opinion Polls section of the UI.

From top to bottom, the more you understand how SimCity is supposed to work, the more you realize how broken it is. Outside of visual presentation, I’m hard pressed to think of a single aspect of the actual simulation which is better than previous SimCity games. Traffic is beyond dumb, currently taking the most direct route regardless of alternate roads and transportation. Resulting in massive congestion and a fracturing of every function dependent on roads. School and municipal buses, police and firetrucks, ambulances and trade depot trucks; none of them function the way they should. Maxis is working on a fix to ensure vehicles take better paths to avoid traffic, but honestly, how could they have not seen this in testing? Even a city with a tiny population of 1000 residents makes it clear traffic does not function properly. It goes beyond just traffic congestion though, as there seems to be little intelligence involved with where your Sims go to work or live. You could have an indicator saying you have no need for commercial buildings (thanks blue stripe!) and yet Sims will complain about not having anywhere to shop. You can have multiple places for your industrial buildings to ship freight, and yet buildings will constantly become abandoned due to lack of places to send freight. It’s maddening.

Meteor

One of the most damning things about SimCity is the fact you don’t really matter and neither do your decisions. Beyond basic zoning and road layout, your city will continue to grow in population. Sure buildings will burn or become abandoned, but damned if Sims don’t keep moving in. Even without proper support services I’ve watched many cities climb in population. The decisions you make often feel completely removed from what actually happens. I’ve had a city with green happy faces across the board abandon buildings en masse the minute I raise taxes. Other times I’ve had cities that were very unhappy rocket my popularity beyond 80% after I levy heavy taxes. It makes zero sense. Don’t even get me started on the massive hit your city will often take as it hits the 100,000 population mark. Suddenly you’ll go from banking 20,000 Sim bucks an hour to owing 10,000 in what seems like minutes without any logical indication why.

It’s like SimCity itself is telling the player “f*ck you that’s why.”

Even the tools which are in place to help you make a better city, like the street plopping guides that appear, are broken.  No matter how hard you try, you will miss-align roads. Often times multiple guides will appear and overlap one another, resulting in crooked corners and buildings just a thin line away from having enough room to expand. Since this is an always online game, you can’t save and go back. Every miss-click or poorly placed object costs you cash.

The visuals are an improvement over previous games
Always Online DRM
No Offline/Single Player
Core simulation itself does not work properly
The very online aspects that Maxis promoted do not work properly

I actually like the idea of building cities in the same region as friends. Trading resources and working together to build great works IS a nice idea and is actually something I would have been happy to be part of the game; had it been part of an online mode and not a forced feature. Too bad even that does not work. The very things SimCity uses its always online setup for do not work. Leaderboards and achievements are just getting reimplemented and yet are as likely to give you credit as they are to ignore you. Something as simple as Region chat and updates, absolutely basic text based messaging, does not always work. Who cares if DogsDie needs coal if I don’t get that message for hours if not days? Who cares if I can search for regions to join if all it shows me is full regions? Why does the game feel the need to leave abandoned cities in a region instead of just deleting them? Nobody wants to struggle to repair a failed city, even if it has weakened an entire region. Hell even the massive disparity in experience and design sensibility makes working with other players awful at times. You’re telling me my awesome city can’t become even more awesome until a few friends get a day off work next week? I ALWAYS have to depend on others to make my own personal creation excel? What the mother of the f*ck?

All this to say; don’t buy SimCity. This game belongs in the barrel of shame with garbage like Haze, Lair and 2007’s Shadowrun. I feel pity for the talented developers at Maxis who had to enact the “vision” of their clueless leaders. I feel pity for them because I have no doubt they knew they were shipping a fundamentally broken game. I feel nothing but contempt for the higher ups at Maxis and EA who ok’d the always online drm, the obliteration of an offline mode for a game made famous for its offline mode and the shipping of a game that is blatantly broken.  Shame on them. Maxis is now a shining example of what not to do. Lets just hope the rest of the industry learns from their colossal mistakes.

Review copy purchased by author.
Official Game Site

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Comments

  1. Great review, my thoughts exactly. As someone who really WANTS to love the game I find myself approaching it as more of a puzzle game that looks like a city builder than any kind of representation of real life. Because traffic works like X then I should build my city like Y rather than building my city like… you know… something that vaguely resembles a real city. It’s fairly entertaining seeing the cogs in the machine that way.

    PS. Also I keep buying my water and sewage removal from you in our region and once every two hours the server stops working and my city gets filled with poop. Thanks.

  2. Diarmuid

    Harsh, but fair IMO. Good review PMPB.
    Normally I wouldn’t agree with using initial online issues as a stick to beat a game with as most titles have such problems, but the fact that it is tied into the flawed philosophy Maxis and EA are following means it is perfectly open to criticism.

  3. Dangerous Brian

    It looks so good too, graphicly. This is not superior to Sim City 4. Decision made, I will not buy this. Thanks for hammering home the horrid truth about this game.

  4. Matthew J

    Harsh review, but right on the nose PMPB. Even if you set the server issues and DRM aside, SimCity is broken at a fundamental level, and it’s a damn shame.

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