“We built this city. We built this city on false pretenses.”
Maxis have finally released Simcity – the newest iteration of the city-building sim (the most accurate of monikers too!) that has been providing gamers with hours of planning action for decades now. Past release have always been a gradual evolution with increasing scope and graphical fidelity, but this time Maxis have decided to change things up and bring us a more personal way to see our cities grow, and so they claimed, a deeper system for actually running those cities. It’s not worked out all too well.
When you start Simcity (don’t be fooled by the 250mb download, once you launch the game it will say ‘processing large file’ and this is when it’s actually downloading the game, it’s only around 2.25GB though) you’ll be taken through a tutorial where you can get to grips with how the game works. It does a decent enough job, you learn about the new road-crafting tool (you can now build in curves, but don’t because then you waste space) and where protester’s complain about your city (even for weeks after you have solved the problem) and about waste management and power (and how somehow power moves in orbs around your grid, sometimes stubbornly refusing to go down a street where your unpowered hospital lies, its residents shivering in their darkened rooms).
Once that’s complete you can build your own city. First you must choose a plot, and although it’s hard to tell from the menus, each plot is drastically different. You’ll probably want to join a region where other people are actively playing (more on that later) or even better, with friends if it will let you (the menus currently show 99% full regions, it’s difficult to find a space) and then choose a map with the set up you want. Do you want sea access? Rail access? A highway that enters your city once or travels through it? Ore? Oil? Wind? All of these things should be taken into account, as well as the fact that some maps are terribly small thanks to rivers intruding on much of the playing space. This will limit your growth substantially.
Once you’ve picked an area to set up, you’re given a meager budget and left to it. You need to lay out roads, zone residential (for people to live), commercial (for people to shop) and industrial (for people to work and make things) and then also plot out the services you will need. The game is fairly lenient in that crime, health and fires won’t really be a problem until you have the money to build the requisite services, and you can always just pay your neighbours a small hourly fee to deal with the problem for you. Zoning is attached to roads nowadays, and once a certain building is happy enough, it will expand in density as long as it’s on a road that will support it and it has enough space. There are grid lines to help you plan for this space while you lay down roads but it is fiddly and very easy to misjudge it by a foot or two, then you won’t see the problem for an hour or so until your buildings are ready to expand but refuse to, then you have to bulldoze entire city blocks to get it right. Buildings are also sorted into different wealth bands and this can be affected by nearby services and parks, you need a decent mix of each wealth type so you can’t really create a veritable utopia. You need your poor districts to provide workers for industry. It’s depressing but I suppose it’s at least true-to-life – it’s sort of what the Conservatives have done with Northern England.
After you initial set up you can choose from a number of specialisms such as tourism or mining, and then you help your city to grow. There’s no real end-game but by the time you get over 100,000 residents your city will begin to descend into some kind of hellhole due to traffic, crime, fires or monsters. That’s when it’s time to either build a new city, or bulldoze the first one to the ground and use the money to make a better version (something which I have found impossible to do as the game seems to crash whenever I bulldoze large sections, and after I did it block by block over half an hour it decided to not save what I’d done.)
The game is always online, so if you don’t have a steady internet connection or are thinking you’d like to play this on a commute, you’re out of luck. The feature you gain for this is multiplayer, in terms of other player-run cities that share your region. You can exchange services by offering certain vehicles or buying excess power/waste disposal from your neighbours, and you can work together to create great works such as international airports or massive housing projects that will provide benefits to everyone in the region. The only issue being once you have one of these great works there’s very little to do with your cities afterwards, you’ve essentially ‘won’ the game. With friends this system can work quite well, with you each striving to meet the needs of the other cities. Someone has a worker shortage? Zone more residential in the space you have and provide a way for them to commute! A mayor is governing a town of blathering idiots? Build a university and watch as they flock to your city to clog your streets with traffic to receive their free education. Oh wait, that’s not so good. The other issue with multiplayer is that their city’s problems will influence you too. If they have a lot of criminals, they’ll come to your city, air pollution can blow over, traffic can block up your highway, and there’s nothing you can do about it if they’ve logged off, possibly never to return.
While all of this is happening you do get a lovely view. On our new gaming PC (i5, 7870, 8GB RAM) we can turn everything up to full and get a steady 60fps, and the tilt shift effect (that can be mostly turned off) really does work to make your city look like a physical model. You can set various filters if you want and the number of tiny details on each of the buildings such as rubbish being left outside and solar panels being installed on educated houses really does make the world seem more alive. You rarely see two of the same building in a block, so there’s enough variety to avoid the city of clones problem that some games like this can face (Anno 2070). You can even see other player’s cities in the background and while they’re not in real time, it’s nice to see them grow as yours does, and be envious of their towering skyscrapers as you’re sifting through the rubble of your meltdown site-city.
The disasters are as much a part of the Simcity franchise as the building is and the newest edition provides a fair few. There’s the more serious ones like earthquakes, tornadoes and meteor showers (I’m putting meteors firmly in realistic thanks to Russia’s little escapade this year). Then there’s also some sillier ones, which to be honest don’t really fit in with the rest of the game that well. At times a giant red lizard will stomp across your city, destroying everything he touches before chowing down on some garbage, the UFOs are back but bizarrely ineffectual, and you can have a zombie outbreak that basically wipes out your city. The worst disaster in when one of the aforementioned happen to your nuclear power plant. The nuclear power plant is efficient and low-pollution, but if it runs out of water, you have stupid sims, or a disaster hits it, it will go into meltdown and irradiate a quarter of your city. This takes a long time (and it must be play-time, not time logged out) to fade away, essentially ruining that plot for you. The random nature of the disasters does mean you never feel truly safe and the game doesn’t get boring in that way, but it can feel cheap when you’ve carefully built up a perfect city and then it’s ruined by something completely out of your control.
Since launch last week, the game has been beset by widely publicised problems. From not being able to log in to having your city’s progress completely wiped, it’s not been a lot of fun. There’s also more news emerging about how the game doesn’t actually simulate things in the way it claims to. While you might have a population of 100,000, only about 15,000 of those will be simulated on the screen. Sims can be tracked to work and back, but they won’t return to the same house, have the same name, or look the same, raising interesting philosophical questions about identity. Much of the simulation is an illusion, and this is currently leading to massive traffic problems as herds of busses and garbage trucks all take the shortest route to the next thing that needs doing rather than communicating with each other, and much of the inter-city gameplay is completely broken. Some of it will be patched but I’m not convinced all of it will, particularly the traffic which has been shown to work in such a simplistic way, the system is fundamentally flawed. People will learn to cheat the system and make it work for them, but without mod support it looks as if many of the ridiculous annoyances are here to stay, as it’s simply working as intended.
While this review might seem overwhelmingly negative, it’s hard to get away from the fact that in a week I have logged 20 hours of playtime. That is huge, and while you can probably take off 6 or so hours for trying to get into the servers and recovering from glitches and crashes, that’s still a lot of playtime for a game that costs me £25 (from the US Amazon store with a voucher). There’s a lot to love about the game from the visuals to the ‘I’ll just build one more thing’ mentality that it creates. For £45 I’d say it’s a rip off and not the product they advertised, but if you can find it a little cheaper (and I’m sure you will be able to in the coming months) it’s addictive and at times relaxing, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.