Saturday, August 10, 2013

SimCity (2013) Review

City of Thamesbridge at night with a neighbouring city in the distance

  • Developer: Maxis
  • Publisher: EA Games
  • Release Date: 7 March 2013

I've played every SimCity in the main series since the original game was released back in 1989. For a bit over a decade, sequels to the original game were pumped out in 1994 (SimCity 2000), 1999 (SimCity 3000) and 2003 (SimCity 4). Not counting SimCity Societies (which was more of a spin-off than a true sequel to SimCity 4), SimCity fans have had to wait an entire decade for an official, Maxis-built sequel. So earlier this year, Maxis finally released a new SimCity game, with the same name as the original, implying that it's meant to be a reboot. Up until the months preceding release, all the press was really positive about the game. It was only after a couple of betas and the game's launch that doubts about the game started to emerge. Regardless, being a true fan, I decided to give Maxis and EA the benefit of the doubt and try out the latest addition to the ground-breaking SimCity series.

Gameplay (3/5)
The primary goal of SimCity remains the same, i.e. there is none. SimCity is a sandbox game where you play the role of a city mayor/urban planner. Your job is to provide the necessary infrastructure (roads, power, water, etc.), services (police, fire, health, etc.) and zoning (residential, commercial and industrial) to encourage the growth of a thriving metropolis. In the new SimCity you have to be logged in to the SimCity servers in order to play but arguably the biggest addition to the new SimCity is the ability to play with your friends. Friends can claim neighbouring cities in a region and then you are able to share money, services and commuters amongst yourselves. The new SimCity also allows your city to have one of six "specialisations": Mining, Petroleum, Electronics, Trading, Gambling and Tourism. Specialisations have unique buildings you can build which can greatly enhance your economy. Products from some of these specialisations also help in the construction of Great Works, projects that cities in a region can collaborate on such as an International Airport or Space Centre.

I have a love/hate relationship with the new SimCity. On one hand, the game still retains that addictive quality that its predecessors had – namely starting out with a small village and watching it grow and prosper into a metropolis (well maybe not quite a metropolis – the plots are too small for that). In fact, the new one feels even more like a living city thanks to the citizens (aka "agents") driving back and forth between workplaces and residences meaning each city will feel unique in this regard. I've spent more than 100 hours playing the new SimCity and this is even with the small plots you’re given to build your city on (although it may be because of the small plots that I've played it so much).

What I hate about the game are quite a few things though (besides the fact I couldn't play the game at all in the first few days – more on that later) and the list is so exhaustive that I had to address the status of these bugs and issues in a separate blog post. While it might be reassuring to know many of the bugs have been fixed, the major game design flaws are still there.

One of the major design flaws is that you’re no longer just the city council in charge of urban planning of residential, commercial and industrial zones and associated infrastructure. Thanks to the aforementioned specialisations, you’re now also in charge of coal mines, electronics factories and casinos – things that are usually in the domain of private enterprise. This just further reinforces the fact that the new SimCity is all about micromanagement instead of macromanagement. I like to think of the new SimCity as a bonsai bush and the old SimCity as a vegetable patch. In the new SimCity, just like the bonsai, you have a very small plot of dirt to work with which requires consistent attention and care. Veggie patches (the old SimCitys) were much larger patches of dirt that required minimal attention besides planting the seeds, giving them a little water and then watching them grow. Basically, the old SimCitys had a more realistic, hands-off approach than what you have now.

"I like to think of the new SimCity as a bonsai bush and the old SimCity as a vegetable patch.

Sound (5/5)
As you zoom in on your city you can hear all the background noises such as cars driving around, police car sirens blaring and crowds cheering at the Expo Centre. On the data/infographic layers you can hear switches being flipped on the power layer and taps turning on for the water layer. It really helps immerse you into the game and helps create the illusion your city is living and breathing.

Music (5/5)
I feel quite sorry for Chris Tilton, composer of the SimCity soundtrack. He put a lot of effort into the soundtrack but it’s sadly been overlooked thanks to all the focus on gameplay issues since the game’s release. The music in the game changes as your city and region become larger, starting off as minimalist country music and eventually turning into an grandiose orchestral piece. The music even plays in beat with what is happening on the screen on the slowest speed (or so Maxis claims). There’s pretty much only one leitmotif at play here but it’s a good one in a John Williams kind of way.

Graphics (4/5)
On the graphics front, the game is remarkably detailed and the cities look beautiful. You even have several filters to play with when taking screenshots (similar to Instagram) although the cynic in me says this proves even more what the focus of this game is – i.e. style over substance. You do encounter the occasional graphics glitch though, like buildings being built on roads (although I believe this has since been fixed), roads disappearing into the earth and objects in the foreground and background sometimes appearing blurry when zooming in. It's also a pity that you only get a low-res view of neighbouring cities in the distance.

The Orange and Teal filter applied to a SimCity screenshot

Replay (2/5)
I played SimCity a lot during my first run but then it quickly loses its sheen once you realise how much is broken behind-the-scenes. To be fair you'll probably end up replaying this game quite a few times and for tens of hours (I did) but that's probably more to do with the the plots being so small so it doesn't take long before there isn't much you can do with a particular city anymore. Also the several hours were probably due to simply waiting for things to happen. For example, it takes a really long time to wait for University research to unlock new technologies, probably an hour or two real-time, although this is dependent on how many students attend if I'm not mistaken.

Polish (0/5)
The game was a buggy mess for the first week which is inexcusable considering the betas they had; they knew that the server load was going to be an issue from the start. Many players (including myself) couldn't even connect to play the game in the first few days. Over time, the network connectivity issues subsided through a combination of feature disabling, patches and additional servers. However the damage was already done. Even now, a few months after release, there are still lingering issues with the game that haven't been addressed although thankfully the major ones that prevented people from playing at all have mostly been addressed.

Let this be a lesson on how not to resurrect a well respected franchise. Thanks to the bungled SimCity launch, I no longer have faith in Maxis making a decent gaming experience. It’s just not the same ace studio it used to be.

Score – 7/10

The new SimCity is a casual, online-only, sandbox game involving lots of micromanagement with little useful data to guide your actions. The pretty miniature cities means you can create great looking desktop wallpapers but that's about all it's really good for once you've figured the game out. This is fine if that's what you're looking for in this game but it’s about as far from the original SimCity formula as you can get. While Maxis should be lauded for being bold and trying something new the design and implementation was so poorly done they may have done irreversible damage to their reputation.

If you want to get the game, you can get it off Origin

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