A simple Google search, or hell, even a quick search here on tech2 will indicate that both Electronic Arts and Maxis have been holding the Idiot Ball with SimCity. The requirement to be online all the time more-or-less ruined any chance this otherwise great game had. The condition of the servers has been so bad that I had briefly considered simply reviewing the game's loading screens, since that's all I had been able to play.

Error 37 all over again
For those who don't know, yes, the latest game in an otherwise completely single player franchise has multiplayer integrated into it in such a way that you HAVE to be online to play it. Yes, even if you never plan on interacting with another human being for your entire stint in the game, you need a stable Internet connection. It's so bad that if you get disconnected for more than a couple of minutes while playing, you'll get booted out of the game because it couldn't sync with the cloud.

Even for EA and Maxis, it's gotten so bad that they have had to shut down some game features that they have deemed “not integral to the core gameplay” in an attempt to make the servers more stable.

The game's biggest problem

The game's biggest problem

I'd like to talk about this for a bit. Forcing an Internet connection on to players is a highly anti-consumer practice and should not be rewarded in any way. And let's not delude ourselves, this is an anti-piracy measure, not some benevolent move by EA or Maxis that's meant to improve our enjoyment of the game.  No. This was meant to be a way to curb people from pirating the game.

What certainly hasn't helped is EA's refusal to offer refunds for what has been a game so fundamentally broken that you couldn't even play it, despite having already paid for it. It also doesn't help that EA has been notorious for shutting down the multiplayer servers of its older games, so unlike the timeless earlier games in the franchise, whether or not you can play this game ten years down the line is completely up to EA and whether they deem it profitable enough to keep the servers up.

Regional management
Moving on to the game itself, after spending minutes, possibly hours, staring at the patcher, you’re greeted with a mandatory tutorial that manages to do a good job teaching you the basics of the game, and it’s up to you to apply your knowledge in building an actual city. Once you get used to the concepts, interface and general controls of the game, you’re set free to pick a region to start building your city in.

One of the bigger regions in the game

One of the bigger regions in the game

Cities are parts of a greater area dubbed Regions. A region generally has anywhere between two to 16 places that can have a city. If you’re playing alone, a small 2-3 city region is the best choice, whereas if you know enough people, 16 can be a lot of fun. After picking a spot, you can start laying out roads and setting up zoning to start the city.

Each region also comes with a number of sites for Great Works. Exactly how many Great Works you can have depends on the size of the region, with the smallest ones having only one or two sites. A Great Work is a giant structure that gives bonuses to every city in the region. It is supposed to be built as a collaborative effort between all the cities in the region. Building one of this could take forever if you decide to play alone.

Cities? More like towns!
One of the biggest problems that arise from the Region system employed by Maxis is the severely limiting city size. City sizes cap off at roughly 2 square kilometers, which would hardly qualify for a town, much less a city. This is mostly because the game has been designed and balanced around the multiplayer and Region system.

The balancing comes from the fact that Maxis doesn’t want a single city to be able to do everything the player could possibly want, like was possible in earlier games. Instead, you’re supposed to either have other players in your region, or build another city in your region yourself, and establish a trade between the cities for invaluable resources. While this is an interesting idea in theory, and plays pretty well in the game, the option to have bigger cities would’ve been a better thing, because the small city-size ends up feeling very claustrophobic.

The city size is severly limiting

The city size is severely limiting


Dumbed down or refined?
The one thing that Maxis has managed to pull off well is the refinement of the game. SimCity has some of the most intuitive design philosophies in the series. Gone are the days where you had to sit and think about what density of zones you need. Instead, there is only one option for each zone. The residents and workers upgrade their settlements and establishments on their own if they see a need for higher-density buildings. This ends up making the game feel refined without being dumbed down. You’ll still need to pick the right zone for the right spot, but density is no longer a big concern when starting your town. Instead, the density depends on the kind of road you build the zone around. Use a medium density road and you’ll see tenements crop up. Higher density roads will end up giving you skyscrapers.

Another way the gameplay feels more refined is how the game now handles utilities. You no longer have to lay down intricate underground pipes if you don’t want your Sims to die of thirst. Instead, water travels from a source to buildings through the road. It’s the same with electricity—as long as a building is connected to a road, it will get electricity.

Driving around in circles
Speaking of roads, you get a lot more options this time around instead of just straight or diagonal lines. You can now make curved roads, which gives more freedom in the design of your city. The problem here, though, is that while your city may end up looking unique and even beautiful to some degree, it will be severely hampered by the fact that a curved road ends up eating a lot more space than a straight one usually would. The small city size doesn’t help in this regard.

Roads transport anything, from vehicles to electricity to sewage

Roads transport anything, from vehicles to electricity to sewage

Buildings have also been changed in the game. Once you plopped down a building, you can add some modules to it to make it more efficient. For example, if your school has too few classrooms and too many students, you can add a module that increases the number of classrooms, and as a result, gives you a more educated workforce. A police station can benefit from additional garages.

Casinos or mines?
You get to pick a specialisation for your city from a number of options. A city can be anything—from a gambling city like Las Vegas to a mining town—with all the good and bad that comes along with it. For example, if you decide to turn your city into a gambling one, you’ll make a lot of money. The downside is that the money will attract a lot more crime than you would usually have to handle.

What makes the game tick is the Glassbox engine. The engine, some of which seems to be on the cloud, allows much more realism in the game. Your Sims will act as realistically as you would expect them to. Albeit with a few issues, the engine is still very powerful and could end up being a great tool to analyse city planning for professionals after some tweaking.

Maybe I wasn't as good a mayor as I was led to believe

Maybe I wasn't as good a mayor as I was led to believe

SimCity looks drop-dead gorgeous. While not exactly Crysis 3 or Tomb Raider, the game looks amazing thanks to the aesthetic style that Maxis has gone for. The developers used a tilt shift focused camera for when you zoom into your city. This gives greater focus on the object you may be examining, while giving depth of field for the surroundings. This gives the game a unique toy-ish effect. It also ends up being a bit finicky, though, as sometimes the object that the camera is centred on gets blurred and whatever’s slightly behind it gets the focus. For those who don’t like this, the tilt shift can be switched off from the options menu.

Other options for the visuals of the game include the ability to use a colour filter. There are a ton of these, ranging from the visually pleasing (my favourite being the Vibrant filter) to being functional, like the various colour-blindness filters.

It all boils down to…
All in all, SimCity had the potential to be the best game in the series, perhaps even the best in its genre. But all of this is brought down by the need to stay connected to the game and the emphasis and balance around multiplayer. City sizes are too limited, choices too restrictive, and in case you’re in to multiplayer, there’s no way to defend yourself against griefing. The reliance on other players also seems to be too high, which essentially either forces someone who prefers to play alone to claim other cities and min-max them, or to essentially give up on ever being able to make a Great Work.

The tilt shift focusing looks great

The tilt shift focusing looks great

It feels sad to see such a good game go to waste because of some nasty design decisions, but there you have it. If Maxis manages to fix the game and make it so that it isn’t balanced around multiplayer, doesn’t require you to be online all the time and has the option to build bigger cities, it has the potential to be an amazing game. Till then, we’re stuck with what is essentially a game you can’t play the moment the developers decide that it isn’t profitable anymore. We have a game that has players depend on other players, even if they want to play by themselves. We have a game that kicks us out if we lose our Internet connection while playing alone. We have SimCity.

Publish date: March 13, 2013 12:48 pm| Modified date: December 19, 2013 9:50 am

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