Editor’s Note: While we did get a chance to play the retail build of SimCity, we don’t feel comfortable assigning a score to such a multiplayer-based game without testing it in a live environment. As such, we are reserving a review score until we can properly evaluate the game. Please enjoy our evaluation of the game in the state that we played it.
Developer: Maxis / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: PC / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+
Elbow on the desk, chin resting comfortably in your palm. Other hand zipping your mouse across the pad, eyes flicking across the screen as a foggy glaze descends. It’s 4am or thereabouts and you started building your SimCity hours and hours ago. Where have they gone? In the steady, considered strategy of planning a perfect city. In the mad, responsive reaction to events triggered by your decisions. And, given time, in the meta consideration of resources shared and traded to the mutual benefit of several cities maybe also owned by Your Mayorship, but possibly tended by friends, strangers, and strangers who might become friends. While the new SimCity embraces the hallmarks that have made the series—and in particular, SimCity 2000—so beloved, while it exhibits some glitches and oddities tough to characterize as mistakes in a game so sprawling, it is still, uniquely, a fascinating, inimitable display of making the drudgery of urban planning fun.
Franchise veterans need no explanation of the premise. Quickly, you’re Mayor of an empty plot of land with a small Simolean kitty with which to build the infrastructure of a sprawling, advanced, inter-connected city. It sounds like a dull lesson in social studies, economics, manufacturing, health, wealth, and happiness. Oddly, at times during your city’s expansion it is. But never long enough to make any creative strategist—or should that be gamer—wish to throw in the towel.
The start is simple—you build a road connecting your city-space to a thoroughfare that will allow Sims to check out what you’re creating. Then, through the placement of roads of varying sizes, and assigning the areas bordering them with a zoning permit for residential, commercial, or industrial buildings people, business, and companies move on in.
Then they demand water, then they demand power, then they demand the city cleans away their shit. And within 15 minutes or so you’re responding to prods from advisors and the Sims themselves, while balancing a budget of taxes (once you establish a town hall) that fund your personal creative objectives, and the welfare requirements of these entitled virtual annoyances.
There are certain core requirements that shine a small, understated-but-not-unnoticed commentary on current social considerations. I noticed in each of my cities that while I couldn’t get away without placing and expanding an ungodly-expensive hospital, if I didn’t place any schools, it took much longer for the citizenry to demand edumacation. I had to balance the needed profitability of a casino complex with the increased crime associated, which required more police officers.
More core economic factors like raw material trade start diving into the deeper economic game here. Looking at the map overlays showing coal, oil, or ore deposits on your plot of SimWorld shape where you will place your industrial center, which largely affects your residential buildings, ensuring to keep them separated since Sims don’t like living next to factories, nor downwind of them.
The extensive tutorial is efficient in guiding you through these core functions, but it’s almost a certainty that your first city won’t be your best. As it expands, those dreams for creating aesthetically pleasing circular roads, centered by a family friendly park will lose out to the reality of needing a police station on that plot, an extra power station, more sewage treatment, broader roads, whatever keeps the Simoleans in the green and the Sims content.
Your plot of land, though it seems large at first, will be filled within a few hours, the point at which you have to consider bulldozing key areas to make room for the requirements of an expanding population. It means fine-tuning your designs so that complementary elements like parks can be placed on the blue dots around high-rises without the need for destroying them. It’s also when the broader multiplayer game comes into focus, and this is where the new SimCity asks as many questions as it answers.
For starters, this is an always-connected game. How long you can be disconnected without losing what you’ve created is currently unclear. It also means no save games, no do-overs. This one is important for those veterans who enjoyed building their city, then unleashing a variety of disasters (all of which still exist, including UFO sightings), watching the destruction, then reloading the pristine save and continuing.
Where this figures into the long-term perspective of your life as a Sim Mayor, is that over time you’ll command several cities, all inter-connected. One of those could be your doodle-about, build and destroy. It’s a long-shot, but it’s the only option. The connection with other cities—other people’s cities—is the major wild-card in SimCity’s potential and relationship with its audience.
The previously solo pursuit of city-building now needs to be shared to fully explore the bigger world. What does that mean? You need coal, I have coal coming out the ground, I’ll sell it to you. But I have garbage piling up in the streets, can I rent your incinerator? These relationships can be set between your own cities in a larger world view, which means you’re building multiples, each focused on what the land offers and what your broader incorporation requires.
How that plays out? So hard to tell right now. Some relationships happen automatically—if nearby cities build ferry terminals without any prior arrangement, it appears that they will connect and you’ll see an influx of tourists, as will they. Same with rail and airports. Landscape-spanning arrows will indicate the direction and type of relationships. But where all that leads, into organized collectives or random need-based friendships won’t be clear until weeks into SimCity’s online life.
All of which is why we’re holding fire on giving a score to SimCity just now. Also, I experienced some technical glitches that I can’t be sure are me or the game, and I’m investigating. I had several instances of buildings flickering in and out as the city got bigger, and no doubt the machine demands grew bigger, and they continued when I down-sized my resolutions and other graphical doodads. From a core gameplay perspective, SimCity, despite its tutorial, dumps you at the controls of a massive undertaking. It’s not that first city that will be the dream, but the later game, when you leave space around your town hall and power plants in order to expand in ways you’ll then need. I can imagine spending three or four hours on one city, establishing the basics, before turning to another location to set that up as a support location, and possibly another to try out different manufacturing like electronics, or focusing more on trade or tourism.
All those options exist, which is the beauty of SimCity and the reason it’s so easy to be lost in expansion or reaction, and only notice the time when the sunlight starts shining in again. But is this bold online experience really what the core audience wants, and, more importantly, does it work. For that, we’ll hold fire for at least a few days.