The hype for the new SimCity game (SimCity 2013, SimCity 5) by Maxis, which will be released by EA on March 5, 2013, is pretty hard to ignore. In recent months, and especially since the SimCity Closed Beta test that took place during the last weekend of January, more and more details have emerged about the game all over the internet. And as each bit of information is received and digested by the passionate fans of the series, the debate rages on over whether the new SimCity is truly a worthy sequel, or if it is a downgrade when compared to SimCity 4.
A Matter of Scale
Perhaps the most widely criticized issue about the new SimCity is the size of the lots cities can be built upon, the limited number of lots that can appear in a region, and the fact that those lots are not adjacent to each other. In SimCity 4, lots came in three sizes, the largest of which was 16 times larger than the smallest. The large lots were great for making self-contained cities, but such cities would still be described as small compared to the ambitions of some players.
To make a true metropolis with millions of citizens, a SimCity 4 player could build cities in several lots (dozens or even hundreds of them), which would all be connected and able to share resources. In the region view, all of those cities would visually become one big metropolis. To any player interested in building the biggest city possible, or a city of similar scale to the largest real life cities of the world, SimCity 4 was their best choice.
In the new SimCity, all lots will be roughly similar in size to the medium lots of SimCity 4, which were four times smaller than the large lots. On the new region view, lots are separated by predesigned and unchangeable highways and land features, and the largest regions only contain 16 lots. To some fans, calling this a downgrade is an understatement. It’s clear from this information that it will be impossible to create any kind of realistically scaled metropolis. But why is this so important?
If the amazing cities that the SimCity community has been showing off over the years from SimCity 4 are not reason enough, then the community of Minecraft provides a suitable answer to the question. Searching the internet for some of the most ambitious Minecraft creations produces results that are staggering in scale. 1:1 replicas of real life buildings and architecture are not uncommon, and in some cases, hundreds or even thousands of hours are spent on their creation. This tells us quite clearly how limitless the creative ambitions of gamers are, and that given a certain set of tools, they will always construct projects that exceed the expectations of what those tools should even be capable of.
Two Steps Back
So I can understand why some of the most dedicated of SimCity fans believe the new game to be a downgrade. To go from a game that allows the player to create a sprawling metropolis to one that only allows at most a series of 16 relatively small cities that are not even adjacent to each other can only be described as disappointing. And beyond that, there are other missing features from SimCity 4 as well. Terraforming (manipulating the land like in a god-sim) is completely absent from the new SimCity. There are no subways or farmlands. Water pipes and power lines have been entirely removed, with their functionality being merged with that of roads. It can’t be denied that the lack of these features will further stifle creativity and/or realism.
Beyond that, there are a variety of technical complaints that have come up. Some fans are frustrated that the cities will be saved to the cloud, preventing players from unleashing disasters on their cities to watch the carnage before rolling back to an earlier save. Then there are those complaining that the game requires an “always online” internet connection to play. Others boycott EA’s Origin platform entirely. Even the visual style of SimCity has come into question, with some people feeling that the game looks too much like The Sims, or too much like a cartoon.
And yet, despite all this, I find the term “downgrade” to be a very harsh description of the new SimCity. In fact, from what I’ve played of the SimCity Closed Beta, to call the game a downgrade is to do quite an injustice to the developers and what they have accomplished within the new game. Where it may be described as a downgrade when referring to the immensity of its scale, the new SimCity can only be described as an upgrade when looking at the little details.
A New Engine
The technology in the GlassBox engine that was developed for the new SimCity allows the game to simulate every resource, from the Sims (citizens) themselves to the waste they produce. When the player designates a residential zone, construction workers will drive into town from the regional highway and build houses or apartments there. Soon, Sims looking for a place to live will come to town and move into an available dwelling that is compatible with their financial limitations. Their home will be powered by electricity that (in a specific data view) can be seen moving along the roads from the power plant to the home, assuming enough power is available to the city. If the city has waste management, the produced sewage will be pumped along to where it needs to go, or will build up and become quite unpleasant if the city has no means of dealing with it. The Sims occupying the building will drive to work, and contribute to traffic. The factories with a large enough workforce will produce goods which will be picked up and delivered by freight trucks. If the factory catches fire, the nearest fire station will send out a truck, assuming its trucks are not already dispatched. The fire itself is simulated, and spreads realistically from one building to the next if left unanswered.
In older games in the series, if a road was too congested, the game would show you a lot of cars, but the cars themselves were just part of an elaborate facade. Everything in the new SimCity happens for a reason, and that reason is always visible to the player and realistically simulated.
Some of the GlassBox-enabled features should be of special interest to SimCity 4 players who connected multiple cities together. In SimCity 4, connected cities could make trade deals with each other to send or receive water, power or waste management, and residents in one city could get jobs in another and utilize various forms of transportation to get there. It was a cool feature, but it had its limitations, the most severe of which was that time was essentially paused in any city not being immediately controlled by the player. It was easy to make one city to act like a garbage dump for the other cities in the region, and to never have to deal with the consequences in the garbage dump city.
The new SimCity improves upon those features. Although the passing of time is asynchronous for all cities in a region, if the player controlled city becomes overrun with crime, the other cities in the region will be affected as well, and the player will see the results upon returning to those cities. If a building catches on fire in a city without any fire protection services, a neighboring city with a spare truck will send it, and the response time will be reflected by the distance it has to travel and the traffic it encounters.
There’s also the option to allow friends or strangers to be the mayors of other cities in your region. I have not personally had the chance to test this out yet, but it is a feature I am looking forward to. I have always considered SimCity to be a single player game, but I’m willing to give multiplayer a try.
The upgrades in SimCity are numerous, and for more details, please see my impressions of the SimCity Closed Beta.
This or That?
The question now is whether the improvements outweigh the missing features from SimCity 4. In an imperfect and unscientific poll on GameFAQs, I asked a group of people on the SimCity board whether or not they would be buying the game and why. Of 92 voters, 22% had pre-ordered, 34% said they were probably going to buy it (pending reviews, friend’s opinions, or other deciding factors), 16% said they would not buy it because they considered the game a downgrade or found the missing features from SimCity 4 to be inexcusable, and 26% refused to buy any game that required a constant internet connection, or any product on EA’s Origin platform. It seems like the community is pretty split.
Taking this information into consideration, I contacted Ocean Quigley (Creative Director and Art Director for the new SimCity) via twitter and asked him whether or not there was any chance of us seeing larger lots or regions with adjacent lots in the game (the most missed features from SimCity 4). His response was as follows:
“Not for ship, maybe afterwards. I can’t give you promises – but we know lots of people want bigger landscapes to build on.”
I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Personally, I did not have a problem with the size of the cities while I played through the SimCity Closed Beta. Then again, I could only play for 1 hour, and in that time I did manage to make a city that occupied about 75% of the map. Thinking of that, the lots do seem limited in size. But more importantly, I was having so much fun enjoying the simulation, the gameplay, and the visuals (I actually prefer the new look) that I barely noticed the lack of space.
Admittedly, I’ve been looking forward to the new SimCity since it was first announced. The time I spent playing the SimCity Closed Beta just further increased my anticipation. Do the missing features from SimCity 4 carry more weight than all of the new features in SimCity? Is the new SimCity a downgrade? I don’t think so, but you’ll just have to decide for yourself when SimCity launches on March 5th. Personally, I can’t wait.
Now that the game has been released, check out the Gamer Horizon review of SimCity and SimCity – One Month Later.