Since Maxis' new SimCity requires an internet connection, EA decided to establish a unique review scenario that allowed for early access to what I'm told is a pre-release version of the retail game, although it's a build that can be reviewed if necessary.
This is not that review.
It does make for an interesting pre-game conversation about what the 20 or so hours I've gotten to spend with it have been like, and what could be expected for the game's public experience. Or it makes for nothing interesting at all except a blog post and some screenshots. Let's see what happens.
For starters, the SimCity franchise has always intrigued me but managed to be complex enough to prevent me from paying any attention to its underlying systems that I could never successfully get anywhere in the series. I even gave a whole hour to SimCity 4 before panicking and seeing what natural disasters I could reign upon my half-powered, under-watered, scattering of a sad industresidential mess of a civilization, which is the only word appropriate enough to make up and call it seriously.
Maxis' 10-year break starts with some pages out of Firaxis' book of UI solutions, or at least drawing heavily from the Sims franchise of usability over complexity. This means that anyone (including me) can get at least an hour into a full-on city simulation without breaking down and hiding in a corner of the map where the sewage pipe should go.
This didn't stop me from ignoring some notes about the build I played not dropping me into a tutorial like everyone else will experience on retail, so my first few hours were still haggard and listless. I think I finally have the hang of things after some brave cities took one for the team, as in my poking around.
City 1 – My Awkward First Kiss:
It started with a road that I zoned residential, and then commercial on the opposite side. I chose a city claim with mountains, and got crazy with my relationship with altitude and what relationship the roads should have with it.
SimCity seems to have at least two dozen types of data maps that include a lot of information about the environment, such as wind; information that I neglected to heed until my town was downwind of the garbage dump that I hadn't made enough space for in the first place. After tearing up over two thirds of what my city was after about four hours in for a massive redistricting and rezoning, I was finally on my way to move on up.
The game thought so too, and brought an adviser onscreen to see if I wanted to know more about claiming another town. Mine was profitable, and I could specialize a new one to take advantage of the game's new major hook of inter-dependencies. I decided that SimCity's notification center was smarter than me, hopped out to the region I was in, and claimed a new city to establish.
But first, I wanted to upgrade my residential roads so that traffic wouldn't back up so much for my population's daily commute to work. My mistake was forgetting that everything in SimCity happens server-side. The game entered a loading loop that I had no choice but to force the program closed after waiting over 10 minutes.
I rebooted the game to be told that my city couldn't be loaded. No other regions could be loaded. Persistence is key when reviewing games, since sometimes you know they'll just be atrocious and need to be fully explored to confirm it, or at other times, they're just not available.
Exiting and reopening the game yielded better results a few minutes later. My city seemed untouched, but it was also 5 AM. The next day, I began my second attempt at the perfect city in a region with much more activity than the one I began in.
But what's this?
I hadn't claimed a new, virgin land. I had hopped into a fully functioning city with close to 650K Simoleons, a nuclear reactor, and some mining issues. It was earning 24K an hour. But the citizens were unhappy and I would fix it. I had previous experience with pollution issues, and saw the beginnings of it (despite millions of Simoleons of someone else's pre-existing successes), which obviously meant I should intervene.
Within 5 minutes, I had demolished everything that could pollute the environment, installed new, more expensive things I didn't understand, and encountered my first bankruptcy. This was remedied rather easily with a tax hike to 20% across the board and a 50K bond, and then a 100K bond, and then a 25K bond, and then companies began to close, and crime arose, factories stopped shipments, and after going bankrupt two more times it was time to leave my mark for someone smarter to clean up.
City 2 – Smarter Boogaloo:
I had spent time away from the game envisioning how a perfect city would be constructed. This time I'd go with flatter land, and some water, and I'd use circles. This was the beginning of a city with no traffic issues, and smarter zoning so that residential districts weren't being polluted by my short-sightedness. In fact, everything was going great until residents started asking for things, like a police station, or healthcare, or a bus line. A bus line they probably still want, but I'm not the mayor of that town anymore. It's complicated.
At the end of the day I found myself profitable during daytime hours due to running on solar power, and in the red at night when citizens would abandon high rises due to not having power and me telling my screen to "deal with it, bitches."
Eventually I would reach out to neighboring utopias who could provide me with resources that weren't readily available. I had to swallow the pride of not being able to manage an entire city on my own, due to the restriction of land and the consequences of ground pollution. SimCity had beaten me with the inevitability of environmental recourse, and thinking I could take things into my own hands.
This is a game that is focused on smaller, purposed communities that are dense, rather than expansive and self-reliable. If anyone intends to play SimCity without any social interaction, then they'll be juggling at least two towns to run a steady ship.
City 3: F*** Everyone
My greatest curiosity about this entry in SimCity would be to figure out how long a simple, small town could function before the game started to break it. Cities seem to function on their ability to start falling apart and require assistance from the mayor, which is the most compelling way to keep players in the zone.
One person is sick so you need a 20K clinic.
Fires are happening suddenly because it's time to build a fire department.
We decided to move into and live in a town with no plumbing, water, or electricity.
What was the game's limit before it was going to start asking me to be the best mayor ever?
About 4 minutes after paving a nice, small grid with equal amounts commercial and industrial opposite a residential half that could employee both I was asked where the power was. That's fine, I even put a garbage dump and sewage pipe miles out to the far reaches of the map where nobody would get sick from pollution. My population grew steadily and I earned a simple 150/hr, enough to idly upgrade roads to increase density. We placed a Town Hall, and then after watching half the city burn down every other day gave in to demands for a fire station.
This city is still running well, and has been the most stable for me. Skipping steps in previous learning experiences never paid off, but with a town of just under 2K citizens and earning close to 3K/hour, it's sustainable and happily functioning. At this point, my next experiment will be to see how much money I can farm out of it at this rate without lifting a finger.
I'll be the only person in my region who has the Convention Center, and everyone will envy my small town that can do it all on it's own. They'll come from miles, just to see me using only a third of my land, polluting nothing and hosting events on the outskirts of the ridge we founded our homes on. I just can't wait for the servers to load my game again.
The end. Of my stupid diary. I'm remiss to say that SimCity would be one hack of a game without being always online, because without the determination of a reviewer hoping to speak as fairly about a new release as possible, I would have been easily deterred from playing SimCity at least a handful of times now until wanting to try again.
This is my main gripe about the game so far, because while the social aspect can be a compelling part of Maxis' space-age systems, it directly interferes with the player's ability to do anything at all. I'm sure that there are dozens of reasons both publicly and internally about why there's no offline option for SimCity, especially when considering that the game pauses to sync all of your cities before naturally shutting down, but for a game that is a largely single-player experience, it's baffling as to why the option to play offline had to me removed.
I'm sure the decision was made early on in the development cycle, since the game is designed with the idea in mind that cities will remain a constant even when players aren't interacting with them, but whatever risk assessment that was performed to justify an always-online game with a smattering of metagame social interactions was hopefully one that also intended to take into account what SimCity's retail life would be like when servers are not responding. It's too early to be the judge of that, but being told my cities aren't available on the server's terms is one of the most baffling functions of SimCity, and has been the bane of my experience with it so far.
Otherwise, if it weren't for being interrupted by being stuck in a loading loop, or turned down from the game to begin with, I probably wouldn't have found the willpower to stop playing at any point. Every layer of menus and game interaction is built to bring some notice of urgency to the player's attention, which in turn will glue you to the screen in order to be sure everything is functioning fine, or waiting a few moments to save up enough to expand your police force. Citizen events such as hosting a block party will return great rewards if approved by the mayor, for instance, or should the police suggest upgrading to a precinct, it may lead to a good few hours of planning and saving to accommodate their requests and feel like you can put crime to bed once and for all– that is, if there's not a zombie invasion or meteor shower to get hung up on first.
There's lots more to say, and understandably so for a game as complex as SimCity is. On a basic level, it's intriguing, addictive, and accessible enough to feel like you have a handle on being the mayor, or at least that you could some day. There are some new and interesting systems at play with a focus on city density and specialization with the region being the big picture, rather than how perfect individual cities are. Lastly is how different player decisions will affect other cities within the same region, since I've already seen what can happen when a city upwind of mine can pollute an eco-town, or felt the sense of power when doling out electricity to others.
Keep an eye out for the full review later this week, whereupon I'll have had even more time with the game, and hopefully less time being told it's not available to play. I'd really hate to see that affect its score, because so far, this always online business is warranting a few deserved complaints from me.