Buildings rebuild from humble suburban homes to vast skyscrapers; my city bustles with traffic and Sims filling every sidewalk. Before I realize it, hours have passed playing Maxis’ reboot of the revered SimCity franchise. Few genres produce the same pure addiction as city-builders, and SimCity improves upon that formula in some ways. However, the implementation of forced, always-online DRM causes far too many compromises that keeps SimCity from having the same long term depth and replayability that made it’s predecessors true classics.
The core building experience of SimCity is highly enjoyable, at least in the first few hours. Information is presented clearly in a clean user interface, and various city infrastructures such as water, power, and sewage have been streamlined for the better. Toggling through data layers makes accessing management information simple, and I found it intuitive to quickly identify and deal with problems.
Gone are the days of laying down pipe lines and electrical grids. Instead, everything is connected by roads, removing some of the tedium of past iterations in the franchise. The improved road tools make it easy to set up evenly placed grids thanks to transparent grid lines. The addition of curved roads adds aesthetic value as well, allowing greater variety between road and building placement. SimCity is wildly addictive in its opening hours, compelling you to expand and develop your city until it’s populated with beautiful skyscrapers. Specializations add to this allure, encouraging you to create an identity for your city and create income through tourism, mining, and gambling to name a few.
SimCity runs on Maxis’ new Glassbox engine, which can be incredibly beautiful at times, and zooming in and seeing the tilt-shift effect adds a diorama-like feel to cities. The soundtrack by Chris Tilton is elegant and fitting; rarely feeling repetitive hours into a single session. In particular, zooming in and hearing the sound change to city chatter is a nice effect. The small city size unfortunately makes the cities look unnatural; abruptly stopping at borders that don’t resemble any cities I’ve seen. Viewing your work from region view makes the small size even more noticeable, and the overall look of your plot seems more like a small town than what I’d associate with a sprawling metropolis.
It’s past the few opening hours that SimCity’s general lack of depth becomes evident. The comically small two square kilometer city size limits creativity and prevents you from building the massive cities of prior games. While this creates an interesting dynamic of maximizing the space available with the most important needs of your city, you’ll reach the limits far earlier than you expect. Even worse is the constant nagging to build more residential zones when you’ve already maxed out the limits. There simply isn’t much reason to build an aesthetically beautiful city full of curved roads because you’ll waste valuable building space. The lack of an undo button hurts experimentation, and there’s no way to move buildings you’ve heavily invested in. Cities abruptly end at predefined borders, and with so much empty space in the region around you, it seems like a cruel joke that none of it is usable Terraforming is another big limiting factor, and players that choose regions with a plateau or large bodies of water make the already small build size even more egregious.
SimCity is all about multi-city region play. You can share various city services with friends in your region, and talking with a friend on how to best maximize your city’s role in the region can be fun. Region design however is a huge issue. In 16 city regions, groups are separated into fours, so there isn’t much benefit to having all those cities in one region in the first place. You can’t make your own regions, so the paltry list of five is all you’ll have. If you so choose, you can take on all the cities in a region on your own in single player. Doing this feels like you’re missing something while playing. SimCity is clearly designed for multiplayer, so controlling multiple cities loses the real time dynamic interaction between players that Maxis is pushing. Coordinating between cities is a great idea in theory, but the execution is rather limited, and doesn’t justify the forced always-online requirement.
Now if the game simply had these few issues, I might be able overlook them because the core city building is so addictive. Thanks to the always-online DRM however, this is simply not the case. The launch was an absolute disaster, and aside from an hour or two the first day, I was barely able to play in the first week due to overloaded servers. Once I got past the login screen, synchronization issues with the servers caused further anxiety. I put about twenty hours into two cities, only to have my progress halted by frustrating save issues, and because there are no local saves, there was no way to retrieve my data. The servers simply wouldn’t sync my cities, booting me out the main menu. I could play for about 15 minutes, but I would eventually lose progress and be asked to either repair or abandon my city. This cycle continued over and over until the servers decided to inexplicably delete my cities entirely, losing over twenty hours of play altogether.
Joining an online region with random players is incredibly frustrating. The menus don’t filter correctly, and it’s almost impossible to find a region with an open spot. The region wall to chat with other players seems busted, and my chat wouldn’t be received by other players. In a game that prioritizes collaboration, it’s simply unthinkable that these basic functions are still broken. Maxis has even resorted to disabling the fast forward cheetah speed in order to relieve their servers. Leaderboards have also been taken down; piling on the woes of what is honestly one of the worst launches I’ve seen.
Then there’s the ridiculous amount of minor annoyances. Zooming out makes some roads disappear into the dirt, ruining much of the joy of seeing your creation from afar. Roads sometimes can’t be built due to slightly uneven terrain; another casualty of the lack of terraforming. Zones don’t always fill entirely, and I often noticed weird gaps where the grid should be filled. Sometimes the simulation aspects seem inexplicably broken. City services like health, police, and fire fighters behave in bizarre ways, often taking the most roundabout ways to reach their destination. Traffic is another issue, with Sims cramming themselves down odd highways instead of taking a quicker, less populated route. Population will suddenly drop or explode at random times, and the interface doesn’t do much more than chart population over time. Money from industry isn’t clearly defined in the interface, making planning your budget harder than it should be.
I remember watching an interview a few years back with Cliff Bleszinski in which he talked about the importance of resonance, and how important it is to keep players thinking about a game even when they step away from it. SimCity does the exact opposite of this, and the more I thought about the unacceptable bugs and server issues, the more I soured on the game. While SimCity is enjoyable at its core, the game’s always-online design is heavily tied into so many aspects that the result seems contrary to what the franchise is about. Maxis and EA desperately want you to play it as a multiplayer game; making multiple cities and moving on from each over time. Building loses the feeling of investment and growth because limits are hit so soon, and if the lack of depth doesn’t bore you, there’s always the chance that Maxis’ broken servers will force you to make a new city anyways.
The old SimCity I remember loving is one with giant cities full of endless possibilities. They gave me the tools to make a sprawling metropolis and kept me coming back for more. They were timeless games of truly endless replayability that felt fresh with each new city. There are times when the game feels like the true evolution of the genre that a decade of improvements should bring. Unfortunately, the compromises necessary to make SimCity a multiplayer, always-online game detract from what’s most enjoyable about city-builders, resulting in a product that feels like it’s actively trying to keep the player from having a good time.