Arts video game review

A tale of two SimCities

It is the best of games, it is the worst of games



Electronic Arts

Released March 2013

For Microsoft Windows, OS X

When I was 10 years old, my favorite game in the world was SimCity 2000. I was fanatical about it — I spent whole weekends planning out city blocks on sheets of graphing paper and testing them to see which was the most efficient. I spent so many hours on the simulation that it’s possible it sowed the seeds of my political leanings.

10-year-old me was like a modern day Herman Cain, with bold plans to run my government on unimaginably low tax rates. I’d meticulously plan out every square inch of my objectivist utopia, and then check the box beside every penny-pinching city ordinance the game offered. Why pay for schools, police stations, and hospitals, when you can just merge them all together? Give the city children a fast-paced, hands-on, experience-based education in crime fighting and emergency services. Nothing says “employable” like a grade-schooler who can perform a tracheotomy.

I haven’t played much since then. Junior high, high school, college… these things eat into a young mayor’s leisure time, and what I had left to devote to SimCity dwindled. But the thrills of municipal management still called to me. The fire still burned within me. Someday I would build my city on a hill. And all the planners with their inefficient grids and stupid zoning policies would look up and shout “Save us!” and I’d look down from my 0 percent tax rate Eden and whisper, “No.”

Launching not with a bang, but a whimper

It’s obligatory to note that after waiting 10 years for the next SimCity, fans were forced to wait a little longer, as the game remained unplayable for days after release. Congested servers, combined with an obnoxious demand rights management policy, meant very few people got to play the game until more server capacity was brought online.

If you’ve read anything about SimCity in the past week, it’s likely from someone preaching the evils of the game’s DRM. But the server issues as of writing seem mostly resolved. So we’re left with just that usual question when deciding to buy: is it a good game?

Heaven is other people

If you want one good reason why you should buy SimCity, it is this: it has multiplayer. That single feature should be enough to command the attention of any SimCity fan. If you were anything like 10-year-old me, your one regret from the game was that you never got to rub it in other people’s faces that you were a better mayor, and therefore a better person than they were.

The new SimCity includes multiplayer, and does so in a way that is both clever and full of potential. Cities exist as part of a region, and each region holds between 2 and 16 cities. Within a region, cities are connected by roads and railways. Citizens commute between cities, go on vacations in other cities, emigrate and immigrate. Cities can trade resources and collaborate on major projects. Pollution from one can drift to another, and research unlocked by one can be used by cities throughout the region.

Regions can be public (anyone can join) or private (invitation only), or, if the player desires, they can control all of the cities in a region by themselves. The game was mostly created as a cooperative multiplayer, but it’s not hard to see latent potential for inter-player competition, such that, for example, mayors could jockey for bragging rights.

What is this, a city for ants?!

If the prospect of the game’s multiplayer feature is the reason you should acquire SimCity, then the reason you should avoid it is its single player. In several regards, Maxis has gone backwards in the development of the series, and one of the major ones is this: the cities in SimCity are very tiny.

The plot of ground that the player has to work with in any given city is equivalent to the “Small” size in SimCity 4. Also, terraforming has been removed, which means any cliffs or bodies of water further reduce the scope of what you have to work with. On most plots, it would be ambitious to get a population of a quarter million people — those who go into this game expecting to create the booming metropolis that the previous installments encouraged will be disappointed. In this SimCity, a city barely has enough room to serve a single function. You succeed through specialization — one city might hold the region’s Ivy League university and tech industry cluster, another the region’s major port and trade hub.

I have no quarrel with the new reality that one city can’t do it all. What makes the reduced size an issue is the extreme to which things have been taken. The size restrictions are so severe that trying to do even just two things at once in a city leads to underwhelming performances of both. Playing solitaire, I often ended up creating entire cities that were nothing more than suburbs, New Jerseys to house the people who would man my New Yorks. The problem presents an even larger handicap to multiplayer regions, where everyone wants to make the Big Apple, and no one wants to be of the bridge and tunnel crowd.

Seek simplicity… but distrust it

Another disappointing aspect of the new SimCity is the extent to which the depth of gameplay has been reduced. Gone is the challenge of coming up with complex solutions to complex problems —most of the game’s hurdles can be overcome with a single addition or subtraction from your bag of tools. It’s hard to make a city that won’t run on 0 percent taxes.

To some extent, this simplification has led to a better experience. For example, laying out a grid of roads has become much easier, with a smart placement system that does the spacing for you whether you want your roads straight, curved, or something crazy.

However, the game seems a little buggy when it comes to zoning and placing buildings within the patterns that you make, and the tools, while simpler to use, have lost their precision. So if you don’t want to risk letting the game’s guided placement system screw things up, tough luck — there isn’t a way for you to do any better manually. Also frustrating is the size of “ploppables,” like police stations or universities. These player-placed buildings don’t fit well into the block sizes that you are doomed to use, and because they inevitably lead to wasted space, they only exacerbate the problems of small-sized cities. The end result is that it is very easy to quickly slap down some roads and wing it to make a pretty city, but virtually impossible to min-max your way to have the best city.

Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without

On one hand, the introduction of multiplayer to SimCity is a groundbreaking development for the franchise. When mods for the game start appearing, things could get really interesting. If neighboring cities can send ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars, why not invading tanks? And with the addition of “zombie outbreak” as one of the game’s natural disasters, this new SimCity is only a few tweaks away from being a post-apocalyptic city-planning/survival-real-time-strategy game in which societies rebuild, cooperate, and clash amidst a lawless, zombie-infested wasteland. No other SimCity game has had this sort of potential.

On the other hand, SimCity caters so poorly to my obsessive compulsive, min-maxing yen that it almost doesn’t seem like a SimCity game at all. It feels like an awkward cross-breed with something from Zynga’s catalog. And the little interface issues get so much under my skin that even if an exciting SimCity-meets-World-War-Z mod came out, I’d probably still find myself intensely irritated that my munitions factory takes up five-sevenths of a city block and stops me from putting anything on the remaining two-sevenths.

Maxis has taken SimCity in a direction that appeals to casual gamers, at the expense of the complexity traditional to the franchise. As such, I think of the new SimCity as a strictly worse game than alternatives like Tropico, even with bug fixes and larger city tiles. At the same time, this latest installment has set in place a framework for multiplayer play that holds too much promise to ignore. As the server issues settle and the multiplayer actually becomes playable, we’ll get a better idea of what SimCity really has to offer, and just how much of its potential will be realized.

Wait until spring semester is over before you pick this one up, and if there is excitement over the latest mod or forums of people coordinating multiplayer games, then don’t be afraid to pick this game up for about $40. If not, then… wait another ten years.