The 2013 edition of SimCity may go down in history as being one of the hardest games to review. Ever. By now, you’re probably well aware of all the hubbub surrounded the latest of edition of Maxis’ beloved title. Backed by the publishing power of EA, the developers opted for an always-on/server-dependent experience, a design choice that, to put it bluntly, practically ruined the initial launch of such a highly-anticipated game.
The subsequent news surrounding the debacle has been incredibly well documented at places like Rock Paper Shotgun, Eurogamer, TechDirt, Kotaku, and so on, and so on. Hell, even the mainstream media has joined in the fun. Paragraphs of DRM discussion, reaction to responses from EA and Maxis, and always-online hacks have been front and center. Buried beneath this mess, there’s an honest-to-goodness game to be played, and in our case, reviewed.
Yes, the service Maxis developed is part of the game experience, and the launch issues that plagued the title should not ***EVER*** be forgotten, especially by those who made the decisions that led to the disastrous launch. Perhaps “disastrous” is a harsh word here, but when tons of people who purchased the game could not access the title they paid good money for, thanks to an experience that relies on a robust amount of server space and server-side computational power to deliver the product as intended, perhaps it isn’t.
That said, the server issues seem to be largely under control--at least connecting is a much easier task than it was during launch week--and accessing the game seems to be more hit than miss. Of course, there are those of you who might say a $60 game should always hit, er, be playable whenever the person who bought it wants to play it.
And you would be right.
But that was not the case with SimCity during its launch, and while the rectification process appears to be stabilizing a player’s ability to access the game state, the initial stain will likely be permanent. When you consider the potential of the game itself--minus the server/always-on nonsense--that’s unfortunate, because once you get through the connection morass, a game worth your attention exists.
With a design tweak here or there (and no, I’m not referring to the always-on debacle, I’m strictly talking about gameplay), SimCity could be a contender for Game of the Year. Thanks, however, to a baffling decision to severely limit the amount of space players can develop, what should be an opportunity to create a sparkling Metropolis rooted in the player’s imagination descends into a frustrating exercise in space management. You see, the developers only give players a (very) limited amount of space to develop their city, and unless you are an expert in geographic layout and design, your experience will be largely limited to zoning, rezoning, bulldozing, and rerouting as you work feverishly to create enough space to plop that shiny solar power plant and the promise of clean energy it represents.
I would understand such a decision if the developed area expanded in congruence with the player’s experience, population, and wealth; and unless I simply haven’t progressed far enough, this is simply not the case. What you see is what you get. That little square you start off with is the only amount of space your claimed city will have.
Yes, Maxis designed larger areas to build multiple cities on--in an effort to facilitate the social integration they so urgently pushed on their players--but I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help me when I need to add another recycling facility in MY city and I simply have nowhere to plop it. My choices are reduced to this simple act: destroy a (perhaps successful) building in order to place the new, often necessary facility. Sure, the opportunity to share with other cities exists--trash, power, shoppers, workers, freight, 911 services, among other things--but that does not alleviate the problem when the recycling facility is full and there’s nowhere else to expand upon the initial building.
While I am focusing on garbage disposal, this particular scenario is indicative of the problems I faced when playing SimCity. Maybe I just suck at laying out a city in an efficient manner, but the point remains: The fact that players are stuck with a very limited sandbox with which to play with impacts the game’s enjoyment level.
Again, it should be pointed out that I am reviewing the game itself, and not the server stuff that goes along with it. Furthermore, the server issue, at least in regards to accessing the game state, appears to be better. As of this writing, there are 25 server worlds available, and about half of these are full. It should be noted, however, that if you can’t access the server you were playing on previously, the city you put all that effort into zoning (and re-zoning) will not be available to you. While this is, perhaps, common knowledge by now, it still something that bears repeating.
But I digress.
The gameplay itself is incredibly logical and user-friendly, allowing even the most inexperienced SimCity player to jump and start building their own, personal Xanadu. Your newly founded city will feature pop ups, guides (who speak their own special brand of Esperanto), overlays showing the best areas to place power sources, water supplies, and other related utilities. In fact, the information from these advisers comes at a steady stream, as the player is asked to fix this and add that, all in an effort to attract more of everything to your growing city.
The building of roads is a simple process, and the developers--clearly understanding the area limitations they inflicted on the players--allow players to curve these paths, giving the illusion more room is being provided. I say illusion because no matter how hard you try, or how neat your layout is, you WILL run out of room. And then what? Where are you going to put that Statue of Liberty when the area you had set aside for it has a much-needed wind farm on it? What do you do? Do you destroy to create, or do you leave you city as is--essentially making it a “set it and forget it” situation? The unfortunate thing is, because of the severe area limitation, setting and forgetting is a viable option with SimCity.
While publications accept the size limitations in stride, choosing, instead to focus on other shortcomings. The AI of the growing population leaves something to be desired, especially when you watch a group of sims run headlong into the ocean while waiting for their ferry boat to arrive. While such details serve to be an amusing by-product of Maxis’ creation, these anomalies can be corrected by a patch. That being said, the size limitation could also be patched, but that qualifies as an update, which is not the same as correcting a flaw in the populations’ collective intelligence.
Putting size limitations asides for a moment, the presentation of the game is incredibly smooth and clean, as Maxis put a great deal of effort into creating attractive regions that support multiple zoom states, allowing players to take faraway looks at their creation or zoom in for a closer look at the fire that’s burning out of control as your fire department is stuck in traffic--a delay that could’ve been prevented if the AI would’ve chosen another (obvious) path to get to the blazing building. Pathfinding issues aside, the area on which your city resides is incredibly easy on the eyes, something Maxis deserves a ton of credit for. Giving players multiple zoom states to refine and expand their creations is quite beneficial, especially when you’re trying to get rid of that annoying abandoned building that’s preventing you from plopping down a new park for the newly-zoned neighborhood you’ve created.
Maxis has also gone to great lengths to provide a pleasant soundtrack, one that doesn’t quite grow to annoying status while you’re waiting to connect to the server that houses your cities. During gameplay, it serves as a friendly accompaniment as players try to squeeze every developmental ounce out of their limited sandbox.
One of the decisions that led to the always-online state of SimCity comes from the social tools that were included in the final product. The idea is for players to claim cities in areas, and once their creations are up and running, they can interact with neighboring cities in order to acquire goods, services, shoppers, and workers from their neighbors. Ignoring for a moment that such a feature should probably be optional for players, and not a demand, is such a mode of gameplay even necessary? From my experience, the answer is no. If players so choose, they can set up their own region and make it private, allowing them to claim and develop every city frame in the area. From here, the trading of services, goods, products, and population is done by the individual player, instead of relying on perhaps uncooperative neighbors.
Does this mean the responsibility to manage these areas increases exponentially? Absolutely, but it also indicates the multiplayer aspect Maxis and EA were so vehemently pushing on consumers is not a necessary component regarding the game’s enjoyment. Of course, books could probably be written about the developers’ decision to absolutely ignore the single-player option in favor for their always-on/server-driven experience. I understand the desire to combat piracy, but I’m not sure cutting off your nose to spite face is not the way to go about it. Forcing players to join an active server--hopefully, they aren’t all full--to experience the game they bought is foolish, unless the game in question is an MMORPG, something SimCity is not.
EA/Maxis are quite capable of creating a system that performs a one-time online check to ensure the player isn’t using a pirated copy, which makes the decisions surrounding SimCity’s always-on playable gamestate all the more confounding and frustrating.