Let me begin by assuring you that this review is not going to be a drawn-out whinge fest about the social injustice that is “always online DRM.” That matter is less of a problem with SimCity and more to do with gaming in general. While it may have delayed the game’s functionality until about a week after its release date, in my experience the DRM has had little to no effect on the game itself. While it’s true I would be playing rather than reviewing right now were it not for my own temporary lapse in high-speed internet, this is not an issue with the game, but the method of delivery. So let’s ignore the online stuff completely and just focus on SimCity.
It’s hard to imagine a more highly anticipated game than this SimCity reboot, as the series has had no “true” sequels—barring the ill-conceived and even more ill-fated SimCity Societies—since 2003’s SimCity 4. Not only has it been a long wait, SimCity 4 set such a high bar with its introduction of region play that allowed us to create a huge, interconnected span of cities that could be as independent or cooperative as we liked. However, parts of the game seemed vague or needlessly complex, and requiring us to individually load cities made it less than fluid.
The new SimCity’s Glassbox engine aims to change all that. The new system is streamlined without being overly simple, with game concepts being (usually) explained as you explore them. You can zip between cities without having to return to the main menu, and while this isn’t quite as instant as it appeared in the trailers, it is a significant step up from SimCity 4. All zones and infrastructure now bind to roads, allowing for irregularly shaped neighbourhoods that don’t suffer for their aesthetic flair. Population is no longer simply a number, represented through purely cosmetic sprites buzzing randomly about the city. Now every citizen and resource is an agent, represented physically in-game.
Compared to SimCity 4, Glassbox looks and feels great. This would be more impressive if no other advancements had been made in the city builder genre in the last decade, but they have. City Life 2008 had a simple and fairly intuitive design, while Tropico 4 already gave us curved roads and physical agents. And of course, having such agents isn’t much use if they don’t go where they’re supposed to. Sims and vehicles being more than cosmetic means they have the potential to cause real problems, such as pedestrians holding up traffic by endlessly circling an intersection. Sometimes water, power or sewage will fail to get to certain buildings despite having the supply and being connected by road. Delivery trucks that move your very expensive manufactured goods sometimes take enormous detours on their route, potentially holding up the whole production line and costing you thousands of dollars. For an engine built with transparency in mind, it often leaves us scratching our heads trying to figure out problems that shouldn’t exist.
Specialisations are new to SimCity, allowing you to focus your city towards mining, drilling, electronics, trading, tourism, gambling, education or none of the above. The first three are all about exploiting, refining and selling natural resources to make insane amounts of money. This goes well with trading, which is fortunate as it’s almost impossible to make a pure trading specialisation city. The game tells you to “buy low and sell high” the game’s various resources, but buying and selling prices are always identical, and never seem to change over time. It’s confusing and should have been developed or at least explained further.
Tourism is now indicated by much more than a subtle spike in Commercial demand, with real citizens coming to your city to spend all their money. This is one of the subtler specialisations, relying largely on your existing commercial districts to make big money, and requiring little more than an adequate mass transit system. It’s fun and it works, but we’ve already seen similar in the City Life and Tropico series, and SimCity doesn’t bring much new to the party. Also, the number and type of tourists you attract can vary greatly from one day to the next, with no reason given as to why.
The problem with specialisations is how much they force you to sacrifice. If you’re going to make a mining town, then it has to be just a mining town; there’s no room for anything else. You’ll need mines on every inch of ore and smelters refining it all just to unlock all the specialised buildings. While you can mitigate this in larger regions by having one city’s unlocks carrying over to all the others, allowing you to spread the burden, there is a greater issue.
All specialisations require workers, driving up your Residential demand. However, these do nothing to satisfy your Commercial and Industrial demand, the former necessary for denser zones—so you can cram more residents into your limited space—and the latter necessary to supply the Commercial businesses. The result is a seemingly insatiable need for more residents, workers, shoppers… just everything, so that any fully specialised city will almost certainly need one or two backup vanilla cities to supply all the zones it didn’t have room for. It’s a frustratingly restrictive house of cards from a series and developer usually known for letting us play the way we want.
Cities can also join forces to complete Great Works such as international airports or solar farms that provide benefits to them all. While this is a good idea, the cost of such works is so exorbitant that by the time your cities are developed enough to supply the funds and construction materials, they won’t need these benefits at all.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music in a Sim game. While it is forgettable enough not to get on your nerves even in marathon gaming sessions, I still yearn for the catchy, jazzy tracks of SimCity 3000. Snippets of music from earlier Sims games play when you click on commercial buildings, though, which is a nice nostalgic touch.
Overall, my opinions on SimCity are difficult to pin down. The game has only been out for two weeks at the time of writing and already my experience with it has been a rollercoaster ride spanning from mildly impressed to burned out and disappointed to maddeningly addicted. Who knows what I’ll think of it once my internet works again. For now, I’ll say it is a fun and charming game, if a little flawed and confusing at times. It might not be ground breaking, but it is SimCity.
Charming but flawed
Proof that frustration is inherently addictive.