SimCity has been around for ages, going back to the original top(ish) down view which hooked gamers in and became a household name that everyone had heard of, even if they were one of the nine people in the world who hadn’t played it. Several years later and EA have brought the series back, offering up some great HD visuals, more upgradable buildings with challenges attached to them and a completely new, totally stuffed up DRM system.
Let’s get the big news out of the way first: as you’re probably aware by now, SimCity features an always-online system, meaning that in order to play you’ll need to be connected to the Interweb at all times. This has brought about a few issues, the obvious one being that any lack of connection – be it during a train journey, a drop in your ISP or a hardware fault – will prevent you from loading up the game and taking your city to the next level. Not only that, but with all of the game’s saved data being stored on the SimCity servers, if something goes awry while you’re playing you’ll lose a chunk of your progress. In addition to this, you’ll need to pick a server from the list on offer before you start playing. If you buy the game now this probably won’t be too much of an issue, but those who picked it up around release were herded into specific servers (the ones that weren’t choc full) which were then generally impossible to connect to later on. Again, that doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realise that your city is only saved on the server you picked – if it’s full you can join another server, but don’t expect to find any of your hard work waiting for you. The server I ended up on still has its issues despite some hard work from the folks at EA to increase server capacity, and it feels weird having a small internal cheer just when I’m able to load the game and play for a while.
But the game itself? Well it’s an odd one to call. It’s every bit as addictive as you’d expect it to be, and anyone who’s played a SimCity game before will feel at home immediately. As soon as you’ve claimed a spot in your chosen region and connected a road to the highway nearby you’ll be able to start zoning your residential, commercial and industrial areas and moving people into your city. Unlike previous versions you won’t choose the density or level of your zones, this is instead determined by the type of roads you lay and the general niceness of the neighbourhood. Drop a few fancy-pants parks and gardens and you can expect to see a few posher homes popping up.
You’ve also got the usual issue of power, water, emergency services and all that, which have certain optimal ranges that need to be considered. Drop a fire station on the outskirts of the city with narrow roads into the centre and you’ll see more fires going untackled than if you place it dead centre with plenty of multi-lane roads – traffic is a big deal in SimCity, and it’ll affect more than just how quickly your fire engines rock up to a toasty situation. Tourists, ambulances, school buses, recycling trucks and loads more clog up your streets and actively refuse to find a better way round. There’s also a strange issue in place where shops will have incredibly varied success right next door to each other. While one shop celebrates booming business and endless customers, next door will be closing down because of a lack of business. One house might think the nearby shopping is amazing, but next door is still moaning about there being no shops nearby.
This strange way of moving around town means you’re never quite sure just how large a zone to drop on your roads. Make them too small and you’ll lose out on the benefits that a healthy collection of buildings bring with them, but too big and those caught in the middle will start bitching about low trade and no workers. Get the balance right however and time will bring some pretty great rewards. High density living will cause tower blocks and fancy-pants apartment complexes to crop up in place of the previously small-fry houses; massive shopping centres start being built and enormous factories start producing huge amounts of freight to export. It’s a good, and up close very detailed, reward for trying out a range of tactics and finding something that works for your city.
Once you’re a bit more settled you can start to look into the city specialisms on offer. Split up into a handful of categories, you can turn your new region into a huge mining hub, a gambling arena and several other possibilities. Finding the right specialism for your city is crucial – there’s no point plopping a huge oil drilling complex if you don’t really have any oil to suck out of the ground. Similarly if your sims aren’t producing much recycling then you might as well stay clear of things like a processor factory, as the required materials will cost you a small fortune to import. Get the balance right though and you can start to export your produce on the world market, with the potential to earn huge amounts of money in the process.
You can, if you choose, also provide various things to your neighbouring cities. The idea of always being online does have its advantages, and the ability to build your city in a larger region containing other cities is one such bonus. Get together with a few friends and you can not only buy and sell goodies such as water, power and emergency services but also all contribute to a greater goal, massive projects which need huge amounts of money, a lot of resources and workers as well as quite a bit of time. Once they’re done, however, you will be handsomely rewarded – want unlimited free power to every city in the region? Then build the vast solar farm and, apart from a few fires here or there that will need putting out, you’ll never need to darken your city with the chimneys of a coal power station or risk a meltdown from a nuclear plant. There are several of these large projects to complete, and as a team it’s not at all unreasonable to believe you can get them built.
Of course, you can choose to keep the entire region to yourself if you’d rather. With the cities themselves being disappointingly small, you might decide to utilise the various cities on offer to spread out your ideas a bit. As long as you give your little guys a way to get between cities, this can be a pretty useful approach – hook up the railways, build a bus garage, do whatever it takes to get them around and all of a sudden you’ve got more room for housing, more space to have large pollution-laden industrial parks away from the picky residents and somewhere to have a heavily policed gambling capital. The interconnected nature of each city also means you can transfer money between them to help bolster a struggling economy with cash you’ve made in a more successful location.
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about in SimCity. There are hundreds of ways to go about your city development, loads of ways to work together with friends in order to make your sims as happy as possible, and loads of ways for everything to go horribly wrong. As a city simulator it’s pretty comprehensive, but those issues… the insistence of being online at all times, the bizarre traffic behaviour, the fact that sometimes you can’t even connect to the servers which stops you playing the game which you’ve already spent your hard earned cash on, the inconsistent nature of how the sims move around, do their shopping and go to work… It’s such a huge shame. EA have, to be fair, acknowledged the strange AI used to move around the city and are supposedly working to patch it out, but as such an integral part of the simulator you’d have thought that would have been a priority before release.
As such SimCity feels like a game that isn’t quite up to what it should be. It’s still addictive, and many people will forgive the weird issues just for the enjoyment of watching their city bloom and grow into a modern, high flying society, but the problems being as crucial as they are can’t be ignored. A patch could totally change things, but as it stands it’s just one of those “nearly but not quite” games. I won’t jump on the overly-critical bandwagon (the connection issue is, after all, far better now than it was at launch) and I’m still enjoying the game, but I’m also very much looking forward to seeing if EA manage to do something about the fixable issues.
Reviewed on PC