SimCity hasn’t evolved much since the late '80s, aside from the addition of further levels of detail and complexity. Whilst the latest SimCity title doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel, it represents a strong sea change from the existing traditions of the series. By hampering the potential single player progression and funnelling players towards asynchronous, cooperative play, SimCity is a bold, original modernisation on the city-building franchise that is sure to ruffle some feathers.
At its core, SimCity has remained the same game since 1989. Players are given a generous amount of starting funds, and are tasked with creating the hulking metropolis of their dreams. From designing infrastructure, dealing with traffic flow issues and ensuring that their citizens are adequately powered, watered and protected, the core tenets of its gameplay is relatively simple to understand. 2013’s SimCity is no different - players place buildings and roads, connect power and water, and ensure that the ancillary needs of their citizens are met. The change in 2013’s gameplay comes not from the additional layering of mechanics, but rather through logical iteration and intelligent simplification. Gone is the need to route underground plumbing and electrical lines - they are now incorporated into roads. The traditional three-density approach to placing zones has been replaced by a more organic evolution system, whereby locations that are environmentally pleasing and see a larger volume of traffic will simply grow over time. Simple storefronts will give way to towering skyscrapers simply by virtue of good play.
As a city outgrows its existing infrastructure and demand for simple civil utilities rise, players will be faced with the difficult choice of placing new buildings, or upgrading previous ones. Instead of building a whole new power station at an exorbitant cost, for example, another furnace could be added to the original to help squeeze out as much value as possible. These can be upgraded further later in the game, being replaced with cleaner burning furnaces to reduce pollution and increase happiness - albeit at a significant financial detriment. SimCity quickly treats players to a lesson in simple economics, teaching them to maximise the use of their financial outlays in the most beneficial way, in order to avoid operating at a deficit.
SimCity is a true delight to watch and play. The soundtrack excellently ebbs and flows in and out of gameplay, growing alongside your city from simple musical pieces to larger, fuller medleys of sound. Visually, the game impresses, utilising a strong tilt-shifted look to make everything seem slightly more toy-like and pleasing. Placing and upgrading buildings is accompanied by a satisfying “thunk” as they fall into place, giving a feel of simplicity and adding character to a potentially dry concept. The cities feel vibrant and alive, inhabited by thousands of Sims, driving cars and walking about. There is a feeling of personality, vibrancy and life exuded by the city as it grows and thrives. Many city-building simulators fail to ever rise above the inherent dryness of the content. SimCity, however, is a master class in how to add style and personality to an impersonal genre.
Throughout play, a number of advisors will appear in-world to give contextual tasks that will help to develop your city further and expand into one of a half dozen city specialisations. These missions usually involve placing new buildings or upgrades, making a certain level of profit or keeping a high average happiness. Some provide the player with large cash bonuses if they undertake foolhardy or downright risky missions, such as the Fire Warden who wants to give the city a fireworks display - raising happiness, but starting many, many fires. The mission structure is symptomatic of intelligent design, however, there are far too few to be undertaken and they are too easy to complete. It is not uncommon to spend well over half an hour between missions, aimlessly upgrading and adjusting the city.
Throughout the entire product, there are obvious signs of intelligent modernisation over the designs of its predecessors, however often these modernisations don’t go as far as they should. In particular, it is frustratingly easy to build highly inefficient, ineffective road maps, creating huge traffic jams and reducing profitability. As buildings require a specifically-sized area to grow to their highest density, poorly placed roads will leave them unable to upgrade and financially useless later in the game. The game tries to alleviate this by presenting players with gridlines when placing roads to allow for the highest levels of growth,but the measurements it provides are wrong. It is infuriatingly detrimental to overall city design, and on more than one occasion ended with the complete destruction of a city block, just because the measurements were slightly off. It beggars belief that such a simple problem to fix was left in the game upon launch.
Further simple design flaws hinder SimCity’s potential as an enjoyable single player game. It is simply far too easy to make a simple design flaw early in the development of the city - a poorly placed building, or a misused type of road - that are nigh on impossible to correct a few hours later without wonton destruction. Whilst these will frustrate many players, perhaps the biggest flaw lies inherent to its overall design.
SimCity is not a singleplayer game by design. Players choose one of a number of available land plots within a region, and develop their city asynchronously with others who are doing the same. Electricity, water and sewage are all easily shared amongst the region. Workers will drive, to and fro, leaving to another city to earn a day’s wage. Students will catch the school bus and gain an education elsewhere. Even civil services, like garbage collection, law enforcement and fire protection can emigrate wherever they are needed. It builds a harmonious, symbiotic relationship between your city and those that share the region, allowing for each to specialise as they please, whilst still having access to key municipal services.
There is a wonderfully pleasant sense of camaraderie to be gained from helping out another mayor; however, this can quickly turn to frustration. Staying reliant on others for key features is fine whilst they play and grow in tandem with the needs of your city. If they falter behind, however, there simply will not be enough key utilities for your city to prosper healthily. Furthermore, due to the relatively spartan amount of room allowed for each city block, covering these services yourself can lead to issues of space. It is easy to feel restricted and shackled to the progress of both your fellow players, and your relatively small space allowance. Players are able to claim more than one plot in a region, but playing two separate cities makes each feel disparate and disjointed from one another. Playing two cities feels like an arbitrary, artificial barrier to building one massive megacity, and it quickly loses its lustre.
There is a depth and intelligence to the design of SimCity, and many of the flaws throughout can be erased through patches and time. It is a shame that these exist at launch, but the modern track record of videogames would suggest these minor tweaks could be patched out and fixed. What will likely always remain a sticking point for the title, however, is its requirement to always be connected to the Origin service to play.
It would be impossible to review SimCity, even at this late stage, without discussing the server issues that plagued its launch. SimCity requires all players to connect to a server and maintain an internet connection in order to play. At launch, massive server issues plagued users, making connection almost impossible. For over a week, players reported being unable to connect to servers and play the game they had purchased. Even those that could connect would frequently run into issues during gameplay.
In my time with the title, I have had very limited server issues. I have always been able to connect to my server, Oceania 1, without any trouble at all. Of all the people with whom I share regions, only one had reported having trouble gaining access to the server initially, but has not had an issue since. As I can only base my judgement on what I have experienced, it is a shame to hear that others overseas have experienced issues, but I myself have experienced none.
There’s a lot to like about SimCity. At its heart, it is a well designed, beautiful looking and sounding city simulation. Whilst there are clearly issues within the game and areas that needed more polish than they received, ultimately, the purchasing decision for many will hinge on the new, multiplayer-focused direction of the franchise. Those with no qualms about playing in tandem with friends, or random players online will find an enjoyable experience. Those that demand excellent singleplayer gameplay, however, should probably look elsewhere.