It would have been so easy to just condemn SimCity and call it a day. When the game launched, nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong. In my case, I couldn’t even play the game until 36 hours after the 9pm PST release of the game on March 4th, 2013, due to a bizarre issue where somehow the game thought my IP address was from Europe and that the game was still unreleased. And then when the game finally unlocked on my Origin account, playing it proved to be a frustrating experience. I suffered through 20 minute queues to play, being disconnected from the servers, losing progress and worst of all, one of the biggest features of the game, region play, was not working.
And yet it was during a time when my city was completely isolated from my friend’s other cities in the region that something strange happened. Despite the server instability, despite Origin, EA and the DRM, despite the game itself being essentially broken, I was becoming addicted to SimCity. Hidden beneath all of the frustration was a diamond of a game.
Show, Don’t Tell
The SimCity series has always been about laying out the groundwork of a city and then watching it grow or collapse based on the player’s mayoral decisions. What makes this new SimCity stand out is how it shows the player the details of exactly what makes the city function. Instead of the meticulous charts and elaborate facades of earlier games, in this SimCity everything is visible to the player while viewing the city itself.
Instead of cars appearing out of nowhere where there should be traffic and disappearing where there shouldn’t (like in SimCity 4), every car in SimCity comes from a specific place and has a planned out destination. In fact, through the new GlassBox engine, every single person in the game is fully simulated. Workers commute from their homes to their jobs, students go to school, tourists visit attractions and shoppers flock to businesses. And as all of these people walk, drive or ride from A to B, the roads eventually become congested, naturally resulting in traffic that is both visible to the player and believable.
The sims (people) in SimCity actually provide the backbone for many of the features in the game. The most obvious example is how the new game handles RCI (Residential, Commercial and Industrial) zones and needs. In order for a commercial business to thrive, it will need customers. The people living in residential zones will become customers assuming they can travel to a business in a reasonable amount of time and that they have money from a job. If all goes well, the business will receive some simoleons (money), the shopper will receive some happiness, and the commercial business will order more stock from industrial manufacturers.
GlassBox simulates not only the people and vehicles, but also every resource in the game. Industrial zones produce freight which must be picked up and delivered to commercial zones and trade ports. A coal power plant must receive a delivery of coal before it can produce electricity which itself can be seen moving along the roads to the buildings throughout the city. Even sewage must travel from its point of origin to a treatment plant or outflow pipe.
If the player ignores a particular need, the resulting problems are also made very clear just by looking at the city. If there is too much crime, graffiti will appear on walls in troubled neighborhoods. If there aren’t enough garbage trucks, trash will pile up next to buildings. If a building catches on fire, rising smoke develops into raging infernos that can spread to neighboring buildings. And if the fire truck doesn’t get there on time, the player can clearly see the traffic that got in the way. If the player doesn’t deal with sewage, things get really ugly.
The best part of all of this is that it actually makes SimCity much more fun than ever before. The player spends less time staring at charts and graphs (though detailed overlays are available) and more time managing the city and watching it come to life. The game is an absolute delight to play and look at.
Red Elf Needs Food Badly
The depth of SimCity (and perhaps the reason I became so addicted to it) exists in the challenge of balancing the constantly evolving needs of the people in the city. It starts out so simple. In a brand new region, the first step after choosing where to start a city is to create a place for people to live and to provide water and power to their homes. All the player has to do is draw a road from the regional highway, declare the land alongside that road as a residential zone, and build a power plant and water tower for these basic needs to be met. After completing these simple steps, construction workers will drive to the residential zones and build houses. Sims will move in, and a few of them will get jobs at the power plant and water tower. Soon water and power will be delivered to the new houses and the player will start collecting taxes than can be used to further develop the city.
It won’t be long before the residents get bored and want to go shopping, and SimCity once again provides visual details—this time in the form of thought bubbles—to help guide the player without the need to consult a list or chart on a separate menu. Another road and some commercial zones later, businesses will be constructed. More residents will get jobs, the businesses will open, and with that, a variety of other needs will be added to the mix. The businesses will surely expect some kind of police protection to deal with shoplifters. And by now, the residents will want health coverage to deal with their injuries and sickness. Uh oh… is that house on fire?
All of a sudden what was a simple town with modest needs is a growing city with numerous demands. As the city grows the list of expected services is expanded from police, fire and health to include education, various forms of mass transit, public parks and sewage treatment. Also, existing services need to be improved as the population increases.
For that purpose, SimCity has a new feature. Many buildings can be upgraded with expansion modules. An overcrowded clinic can be improved with additional waiting rooms. A wind power plant can produce more electricity with additional turbines. A casino can become more profitable with some nickel slots for the low wealth sims.
Primary Main Objective
And speaking of casinos, they represent one of the many ways a city can be specialized in SimCity. Each plot of land a city can be built upon may or may not have a number of available resources. If a city is built over land with an abundance of oil, it could be a perfect site for entrepreneurial oil tycoons. The player can drill for oil and sell it on the global market, or refine it into gasoline and plastic for even greater profits. If a city is at a prime location in a region, it might be time to start a casino empire and to attract as many tourists as possible. In addition to drilling oil and gambling, there are also specializations for mining, producing electronics, trading and culture (landmarks). Each of these provides a good enough reason to build a whole new city, and adds more goals and significant replay value to the game.
Of course, the real goal for many SimCity players will be to build a wealthy city full of as many skyscrapers as possible. Accomplishing this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The low wealth sims that move into a new region certainly have no need for 100 story buildings. In order to progress towards growth, the player has to focus on improving the wealth and happiness of the sims. As happiness increases, zones grow through an increase in density. Place a basic park in a residential community and, assuming the roads are wide enough and space allows, medium density apartments will replace the motorhomes and tiny houses. Further improving living conditions will cause the apartments to be replaced by high density tenements.
That’s great if the player wants an overpopulated and crowded low-wealth city. To entice medium and high wealth sims, services must be improved and higher quality parks must be placed. This in turn will increase land value which will tempt wealthier sims to move in. Those sims will have more demanding needs than low wealth sims and will be less forgiving of problems like power and water outages. They will require educational facilities, higher paying jobs and a higher class of shopping. This means that the player will also have to improve the wealth level of the businesses and factories in the city.
When I got to the point that I was trying to balance the various levels of wealth and density, my SimCity addiction truly began. And let me remind you that this was in a broken region where my city was completely isolated and self-contained. Despite ongoing frustrations with the unfortunate launch, I was utterly addicted and having a lot of fun.
SimCity By The Numbers
It’s worth mentioning that this is one of only a few cases in SimCity where looking at a graph of information is necessary. There is a handy population list that displays not only how many sims are in your city, but what their wealth levels are, how many of them are unemployed and how many jobs are unfulfilled. It also shows how many sims are unsatisfied shoppers and how much unsold stock remains at unsuccessful businesses. The real trick is trying to make a profitable city where all of these numbers are as close to zero as possible.
Imagine a city that has 500 unemployed low wealth sims and 250 unfulfilled medium wealth jobs. That kind of information can be useful to a player who might then place a medium wealth park in a low wealth residential area. As a result of the increase in land value, some of the low wealth buildings will be replaced by medium wealth buildings. That in turn will decrease unemployment (and population) in the low wealth community and fill available positions at the medium wealth jobs as the new residents move in.
Sure, it’s easy enough to fill up a city in a couple of hours without ever consulting the numbers. But when things go wrong in SimCity, they go very wrong. An uneducated population is more prone to illness and fire hazards and more likely to produce criminals. A city that is built without much foresight will be overrun with crime and will burn through the night. As a result, the player will be forced to increase their police and fire coverage, but that will eventually inflate city expenses per hour to the point that the city will be losing money instead of gaining it. If the city goes broke, the player is given three choices.
- Cutback on services by turning off buildings like fire stations, clinics and schools.
- Take out one of three available loans, which must be paid back with interest or increase taxes so that cash flow is positive.
- Start a new city.
Usually one of the first two options is feasible, but occasionally a city becomes so overwhelmed by its own weight that it collapses upon itself. In that case it might be better to just start from scratch. 99% of the time the city can be saved, but sometimes doing so requires too many drastic decisions.
Is That a Giant Lizard?
And if that wasn’t bad enough, in SimCity, random disasters can occur at any time. These include natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes as well as a few unnatural disasters that provide a welcome moment of lightheartedness in an otherwise businesslike game. Entertaining or not, disasters can be crippling. I had one city that was overrun by crime, and, of course, an earthquake occurred with the epicenter right underneath my shiny new (and very expensive) police precinct at a moment where money was far too tight to be able to afford to replace it. The criminals had a field day. With the game saving your progress to the cloud automatically as you play, there is no way to roll back to a previous save file, so every decision is permanent.
Friends With Benefits?
Fortunately, if a city is in trouble, it can receive help from other cities in the region. SimCity features region play where the player can either control all of the cities in a region or invite their friends to play in asynchronous multiplayer. Sims can commute from city to city, providing additional workers or shoppers when needed. Players can send each other gifts like coal, oil, or even simoleons if a city is struggling. Neighboring cities can also provide emergency and service vehicles as well as utilities to each other. These resources are exclusively for region play and are not taken away from the host city, and the host city will receive bonus simoleons when its vehicles are utilized. Through region play it is possible for a city to have no services of its own and rely entirely upon its neighbors for such things.
It’s also very fun to play SimCity with friends. When the feature was first announced, many considered it to be a sign of casualization for the series, but in practice, it’s an entertaining, welcome and entirely optional feature. Now that the servers have stabilized I have had the opportunity to enjoy this aspect of the game. It is fun to play in a region where each player has certain responsibilities, or to purposely build a dysfunctional city full of criminals that will cross over into other cities. Players can also work together towards completing a great project, a massive construction that provides benefits to the entire region. Beyond that, it’s great to be able to share my most creative cities with friends.
I created one city that resembled a crop circle and invited a friend to take a look who immediately recognized it for what it was. This design was made possible thanks to the new road tool in SimCity, which allows curved roads for the first time in the series (SimCity 4 mods notwithstanding). Certainly, for the most ambitious and creative of players, this improvement is incredibly significant.
Sadly, those same players will be disappointed by the limited land available for cities to be built upon. The cities in SimCity are roughly 25% of the size of the largest cities in SimCity 4. Further limiting creativity is the fact that the cities in a region are never adjacent to each other, so it’s impossible to create a sprawling metropolis in this new game. Fans have been very vocal about this subject, and if recent tweets are to be believed, then these features may be added to the game at a later date.
The Sights! The Sounds!
Rounding out the game is a wonderful aesthetic package. As mentioned above, the visuals do a remarkable job of conveying information to the player. The graphics themselves are also respectable. Many of the buildings in the game are given minor modifications so that they don’t appear identical when the same model is used twice, but some more recognizable buildings do become a bit too familiar. Still, I couldn’t help but to marvel as my cities developed, and when I took the time to zoom in and really look around, I found it to be a very enjoyable experience. Watching the sims through the GlassBox engine added to the sense of life present in the city. It was easy to get lost in their lives, watching them catch buses and going to school or commuting out of the city to some unknown destination in the region.
The sound in SimCity is also very well done. The sound effects that layer upon each other do an amazing job of filling in the blanks for what the player cannot see, such as the slot machine noises coming out of the casinos. The music is also appropriate, and changes according to what the player is doing and depending on the state of the city. When disaster strikes, it’s often the music that provides the first queue to the player.
A Trial of Patience
Unfortunately, there are also a variety of bugs prevalent throughout SimCity. These are being addressed and I have no doubt that the majority of them will be fixed in upcoming patches, but for the time being, they are far too numerous to be ignored.
It’s just a shame that SimCity got off to such a rocky start. I must admit that the region I originally created and spent dozens of hours on is at this point nearly unplayable. The cities in that region take 5 to 10 minutes to load (instead of the normal 10 seconds), and the region features are broken. It’s possible this region got corrupted due to server issues or other bugs during the first difficult week with the game. As I said before, it would have been so easy to just condemn this game to the bargain bin. But I remained patient and started a new region and have since had no issues. The number of servers has been drastically increased and they are much more stable than when the game first launched.
More importantly is the fact that I found so much to enjoy even with a single city in an isolated environment. Now that the region play is working too, I am enjoying the game, uninterrupted, and I’m having a blast. I’ve finally found the game that Maxis created. SimCity still needs a lot of work, but its accomplishments should not be disregarded.
Ari spent 66 hours playing SimCity. He has been a fan of the series since playing the original in 1989. He did not receive a copy of the game for review purposes.
For a followup on the state of the game, check out SimCity – One Month Later.