In sitting down to write this review, I spent a good long while thinking to myself, “What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said?” From one end of the Internet to the other, endless stories of server shutdowns, data-corrupted cities, and idiotic motorists have bounced around in an online echo chamber. My voice will be one among many, but I must add to the chorus, all the same.
Before I had installed the game, I’d originally thought of posing the question as, “Is SimCity worth the cost, not only in terms of money, but also in the trouble of installing and using Origin?” I’ve avoided all EA games since they decided to enter into a pissing match with Steam, denying some of their games (like Mass Effect 3) from that popular distributor. It’s bad business, as it alienates customers with proprietary politics (the main reason I also dislike Apple). But this isn’t a review of Origin, this is a review of SimCity. Though at this point, is there really so much of a difference?
After a week and a half of denied access to the game I supposedly owned, I was able to start playing reliably. The first thing I wanted to try was a single player experience, because despite EA’s fervent wish to veer this series into MMO-land, I knew that it will live and die by its solo experience. Picking a spot along the coast with an ample supply of oil and water, I set up shop.
Less than ten minutes later I was met with my first non-online-related disappointment: SimCity looks awful. The buildings have extremely low-quality textures, the sims (your city inhabitants) are little more than blocky stick figures and the bland terrain can’t level itself out to accommodate construction without clipping and warping obscenely. It’s no wonder developer Maxis decided to hide all of this behind the blurry lens of “tilt shifting”. Sure, it makes your city look like a model train diorama, but more importantly, it applies a thick layer of Vaseline over most of the screen in a vain attempt to obfuscate the fact that this game looks worse than 2004’s Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. And since sitting and staring at your creation is at least half of the fun of playing this series, the impact on my enjoyment was devastating.
Before SimCity’s launch, Maxis developers heralded the design decision to model every citizen, every car, every toilet flush and every cargo delivery in real time. To their credit, it was a bold move and had they succeeded, it would have been trumpeted as a leap forward in simulation technology. Unfortunately for us, what this actually translates to is endless, unceasing, irrational traffic jams. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, cars will sit at green lights for many in-game hours waiting to turn, or sometimes jack-knifed across three lanes. The problem becomes laughably broken when police and firefighters jam up the works. At one point, I was hit by an earthquake which started fires that, because traffic had ensnared my dozen or so fire trucks, raged until almost every building in my city had burned down. If I hadn’t been prepared, an 1871 Chicago fire-style conflagration would be fate kicking my ass. Instead, my army of first responders sat in their cars, staring out their windows as the city crumbled.
The traffic problem is immense, since if people can’t get where they’re going, everything grinds to a halt. But what about the first few hours when the streets run relatively smoothly? In that brief window, the game dispenses small chunks of enjoyment, with neat features like upgradable government buildings and connectable parks. Watching police respond to robberies is cute and taking mini-missions to create more jobs or build a seaport can help fill in the gaps in my creativity. It’s also welcome that, in a seeming homage to the Tropico series (go play those games instead!), you can create industry like oil refineries and plastics manufacturing, as well as tourism with casinos and attractions. Can you tell that I’m reaching hard to find positive things to say about this game?
Let’s move on to the multiplayer portion, shall we? The first problem I ran into was the complete lack of filtering tools or matchmaking to find an open game. When you click join, you are given a random (or possibly descending in order of age) list of full games. I must have clicked the “load more results” button several dozen times. Even the little popup helper at the bottom of the screen shouting “Join XYZ’s game!” took me to a full region. It was quickly becoming a joke. Finally, I had to visit the EA forums and issue a plea for “friends”, just so I could play this wanna-be MMO with other people.
So are all of these design decisions that sacrificed playability, access, and convenience worth the trade-off for multiplayer? You know where this is going; of course they aren’t. Players can visit and watch other mayors build their city, they can send utility vehicles to help out, sims can inter-city shop and go to school and everyone can work together to build region wonders that benefit the entire region. That’s about it. You can’t co-build a city and even the chat system currently has a horrendous lag time between messages (seriously?!) which leads to miscommunication about who should build which bonus-giving building. And once again, the broken traffic hampers everything, as my ambulances and garbage trucks couldn’t even make it out of my city to help my friend’s municipality. Of course to add insult to injury, when you log back into the region (either in singleplayer or multi), there’s a small chance your city will be rolled back by 30 minutes or so of playtime (because EA can’t trust you with a manual save feature, you see). Likewise, every so often I would notice that no new construction works or sims would enter my city and I became perplexed as to what I was doing wrong. Turns out, the game sometimes forgets to do its simulation job and I had to exit and re-enter the game to get it going again, like a stalled car with a busted engine.
At a recent panel discussion, Firaxis developers shared a favorite quote of Sid Meier’s: “The game shouldn’t have more fun than the player.” With all of its simulation technology, SimCity is clearly having a ball managing all the data. But none of that translates into player fun. Instead we have a steaming mess of pathetic visuals, broken simulation management, and predictably infuriating forced online requirements. Ultimately, when compared to other city-building games, even the decade-old Simcity 4, Maxis set the bar low and failed to clear even that. At least they gave me Mass Effect 3 for free in apology. Wait, it can’t import my ME2 character’s face correctly? You’ve got to be kidding me! Well, at least I can unhesitantly uninstall Origin; I’ll take the small victories where I can get them.
Reviewed By: Brian Mardiney
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of SimCity for the PC provided by Electronic Arts.