With Spore having hit the iPhone/iPod market last year, it was only a matter time other Maxis franchises would be introduced to the mobile world by EA. Spore, however, had its scope cut down to only the infant stages of the game where you controlled single cell microbes. Would the same thing have to happen to SimCity? Luckily, SimCity survives mostly untouched, falling shy of the mark made in the recent SimCity 4 and managing to stay away from the mediocrity that was SimCity Societies. There are enough urban planning options in SimCity for the iPhone/iPod to make it a worthwhile enterprise for any budding city planner or mayor.
This version of SimCity is a pure sandbox game. You do get a starter city to build on but that’s really more for convenience sake rather than anything else. There are no scenarios or timed objectives included. The real estate given to you is also rather small and you only get one piece of land so you can’t move from metropolis to metropolis building your own little tri-county metropolitan area. Once the landscape is generated, you also don’t get any terraforming capabilities. If a lake is stuck in your way or you have a need to build a mountain then that’s too bad because you’ll have to restart your game. This is a huge impediment if you’re trying to architect a dense population center only to find out you accepted a map with way too much water.
SimCity is a huge fan of zoning. When I studied urban planning in my geography classes in university, I was always torn between artificial zoning for the sake of maintaining property values, or letting neighborhoods grow organically. In SimCity, you have to pay attention to zoning. Residents don’t want to live next to a smoky factory or a toxic chemical plant and a commercial skyscraper is not going to cohabit nicely with rows of slums. You have to work the demand and supply indicators in order to have the capacity for various zoning types to grow. If industry demand is strong, you’ll need to build those out and possibly raise taxes to pay for it or even artificially to stunt the demand. Of course if you build too many businesses and there are no people available to work, you have to go back and build some residential structures. SimCity continues to be as addictive as ever in allowing you to micromanage these tipping scales.
This version of SimCity appears to lack things like a subway or ski hills but it does include mayoral achievements that you can use to dot the landscape. Right off the bat, you’ll also be able to insert signature pieces of architecture from around the world from the Empire State Building to Westminster Abbey free of charge. Considering your limited real estate space, I didn’t find the restricted complement of buildings too worrisome but it would have been nice to have an option to perhaps download additional types of buildings in the future.
As mayor, you’ll have key advisors who will help give you advice on what you can do to grow or maintain your city. Petitioners will also come with requests depending on the growth track of your city. If it’s developing into the next steel or auto town, you’ll see a lot more environmentalists knocking on your door. A lot of interesting ordinances are available to let you combat ill effects of the city. Instead of building more schools, you can spend some money on education programs. Instead of re-tooling your reliance on industry in a beginning city, you can use anti-pollution or clean industry ordinances to steer the type of factories being built. Finally, the most useful ordinances are things like parking fines, legalized gambling, which enable you to supplement your tax income. You’ll want to use these in the beginning when your business taxes have to be low(er) to sustain growth.
Those are the good things about SimCity and they kept me engaged and busy. What deterred me were the performance issues of the game. While SimCity does render all your zoned properties with 3D isometric buildings, once your city gets to a certain size, you’ll have a hard time scrolling around the game trying to put additional things in. Being an urbanite myself, I tend to build pretty dense properties but when you have a dozen skyscrapers around and you’re trying to add a bus station in the middle of a busy downtown block, it’s all but impossible sometimes without knocking some buildings over to see where you’re putting things in. That’s because SimCity lacks basic panning and rotation camera controls which makes managing large urban metropolises a pain to say the least.
When you scroll around, the game drops to flat 2D zoned property views. There are no buildings so you only see green, blue and yellow squares. This is rather annoying when you’re scrolling around trying to find something in your city. The other problem with the game is the constant dropping in and out of menus. If you’re selecting a type of power plant to build or a type of civic building, you have to wait a bit for SimCity to load a graphical menu where you select the building and then after you select the building, it will load some more back to the main game so you can place the building. The same types of things happen when you want to see graphs or control what overlays (crime, property values, etc.) you want to see on screen. What’s worse is if you have the game open for a long time or you haven’t restarted your iPod in awhile, this type of flipping around gets progressively slower. I found the first message from SimCity quite curious. It told me it’s advisable to reboot the iPhone/iPod before playing the game for best performance. When a game tells you that, you know you’re in for performance problems.
Luckily, the newest version from the iTunes App Store has eliminated all the crashing from the game. I still have a strong suspicion that rail networks either work or don’t work in the game. I have built some cities where rail service was used regularly but in others, no matter how I place the stations or the rails, no one uses it. And of course, like the PC versions of the game, sometimes your advisors are making mountains out of molehills which might steer novices to some unnecessary expenditure.
Still, I have to admit the SimCity allure is here. Being a SimCity junkie who played the original PC release to death and even tried the Commodore 64 version, anything that has Sim in it usually captures my imagination for awhile. It’s unfortunate some technical limitations prevent you from taking cities to the next level. Once you get past about 100,000 in population, there is no more real estate to build on and a lack of scenarios or objectives will result in mayors taking up the morbid task of simulating disasters to get more challenge out of their game. Maybe I’m in the minority but when it comes to that point, I’d rather direct my utopian efforts somewhere else.