Developer: Maxis / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: PC / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+
Wow. EA made it hard to review SimCity. Some of us, ahem, recognized the difficulty of the situation and held fire on scoring a game that simply wasn’t ready. To be fair, who knew EA would screw the pooch quite so spectacularly? Who knew that SimCity wouldn’t be playable on day one or for much of its opening week?
It was unplayable, literally, for reasons that have been explained by the EA big-wigs, but still are totally irrelevant to the actual experience. Executive Producer Lucy Bradshaw released a statement that illustrates quite clearly how off-base, off-track Maxis (and by extension, EA) can be when the size of their franchise obscures their audience judgment.
Here’s a lesson: How THE DEVELOPER wants gamers to experience a game means NOTHING. How the audience wants to enjoy it is EVERYTHING. SimCity’s conceits are myriad, and the misplaced messages reinforced the post-release disaster, but several truths emerged:
- a) The core gameplay of city building, Simolean earning, Sim acquiring expansion is intact, compelling, addictive, and multi-layered.
- b) Managing budgets, RCI ratios (residential, commercial, industrial), and trade between regions is crucial and also entertaining.
- c) Starting cities are small and within a few hours you’re looking to expand in your region, with new cities that might be yours or could be friends’.
- d) If you listen to, and react to every suggestion from your advisors, you’ll be screwed.
- e) The variety of city types, shapes, looks, feel, and functions is pretty spectacular, even if on a micro-level it may often look like your Sims and government services are acting in the most ineffective, clueless way possible.
We played in a cozy enclosed environment in anticipation of the game’s release, and it didn’t exhibit any of the problems that would plague the launch. But it was clear (to some of us) that the experience wasn’t an accurate reflection of what the real-world would be like. I joked I didn’t know if the multiplayer would work functionally, let alone be fun, actually assuming it would work, but deferring judgment until there was more data.
So now we judge SimCity in an environment where statements and half-explanations have attempted to address issues (and in fact, for me, made matters more inexplicable). But without ignoring those launch issues, we can now actually play the game and see how its functions emerge in the wild.
So let’s be clear: SimCity is broad, well-designed, artistically cool and also topically relevant, expansive, addictive, and fun. It’s also broken, incomplete, oddly shallow despite evident depth of simulation, and occasionally frustrating.
Let’s add it being addictive and exhilarating; addictive in the ongoing build and evolution, exhilarating when decisions improve finances and city designs boost population and Sim happiness. Building cities is so damn cool, and the tools are so very effective in enabling this obsession, but still there are systems to kick and tools to prod.
Macro-level SimCity is amazing. You build a spectacularly-realized city in a region of possibly 16 similar cities. Your plot is small, relatively, to the macro game, and you use it to learn the ropes. Then you take over another city in your region and the pathways to success begin to emerge: One city is the revenue driver through waves of tourists visiting special monuments or stadiums. One is the industrial powerhouse, harvesting coal, ore, or oil, and shipping or selling that commodity to other cities. Another might be the gambling mecca, managing the attendant crime issues with smart transit arrangements that bring in the high-rollers.
Though it’s easiest to build cities in the familiar grid format of past games in the franchise, you now have the opportunity to build curved roads. The guidelines that help suggest optimum road locations encourage the grid pattern, but you’re totally free to get creative with circular roads, curves, whatever patterns your city-building aesthetic demands.
With power, water, and sewage all flowing along road paths it’s relatively easy to get your city on the path to growth. Though as you progress along the building upgrade path you learn the kind of spaces certain buildings—and their potential expansions—require. Don’t be surprised if you find your first city crammed on space in the mid-game period as you look to boost mining production, trade opportunities, and even the functions emanating from your City Hall. By city two or three or four you should know how to leave space for growth, which will make those expansion opportunities easier.
Personally, my most successful city so far is the one where I started building the cheapest dirt roads to shape out the city and expand across the map in order to get my mining (revenue) production facilities in action early than I’d managed in other cities. The roads are all upgradeable, so I was able to create space to grow, access resources, and then upgrade the roads so my population and industrial density in those spaces could improve. Within a few hours I was rolling in cash and able to respond to every disaster potential or growth opportunity where literally cost was no object.
The cash resources then allowed me to speed setup of a neighboring city where I planned to mine the rich ore seams, and another that I wanted to focus on building a technology industry. I was able to gift cash from the first city, and offer other services, like garbage collection and health care to ease the strain on the new cities as I grew them towards their own revenue generating goals.
And, despite Executive Producer Lucy Bradshaw’s apparent hopes, I’ve done it all solo. The very basic connected city format of SimCity 4 is fully enhanced here, and I’m sure will be fun and fascinating for socially connected gamers wanting to work together in communities. I don’t. As a result, the completely unnecessary ‘always connected’ is nonsensical, and unforgivable when it doesn’t work. The conceit that we should all want to play the game how EA wants us to is a joke in this age of user-generated content, user wishes shaping game releases and designs, and consumer entitlement to actually playing the game they paid for when they paid for it, and how they want.
No question that SimCity will remain on my hard drive for, well, probably ever. I’ll keep diving in, building, sharing with my own cities, working towards construction of a Great Works. I’ll no doubt add the British themed pack to create my own mini-England. I’ll try to get better at constructing transport networks within and between cities. And there will be many more late-nights, early mornings, chin cupped in my left hand, right-hand clicking away in response to the whims of my growing population. SimCity as a game is thoroughly entertaining, if flawed in several areas, and now at least we can experience it fully, and hopefully put the disaster of launch in our rear view mirror.