SimCity (2013) review
From the time EA announced that SimCity would need an always-on internet connection there was some rage brewing in the fan community. It's understandable rage too, because SimCity is the latest in a line of games that is loved, and still played by many, many people. Although EA has had a tough time, it has to be a least partially please that there are millions of people out there who care. And that's a big potential audience to sell your game to.
Count us in that loyal fanbase too. We still play Sim City 2000 sometimes, and we have a copy of Sim City 4 stashed in our Steam account for rainy days too. But SimCity is exciting because it promised to unite the gameplay of Sim City 2000 and Sim City 4 to make, what should be the ultimate God game.
So, with all the problems EA has had at launch with servers being too full and criticism of map sizes and bugs, is SimCity worth your money, or is this a game that's failed to meet the huge expectations of the fans.
A stunning world
There's no other way to describe the look of SimCity as stunning. Graphically, this is one of the most impressive things we've seen. Of course, it's not as spectacular as say, Far Cry 3, but that's not the point, what's going on here is far more about giving Sim City fans what they've always wanted - the ability to walk around the city they've built.
But there's a lot more to it than that. In this game, there is the feeling that you're managing a real city. You have to keep everyone happy, while building on your population.
There's plenty to do too. You can stick to building roads, zoning areas and build up your population and thus tax income that way. Or you can turn to a specialisation. If you have a high-wealth population, or an airport, you can go for a gambling town. If your city has buried natural resources, you can become an oil or coal magnate.
We enjoyed this aspect, but there are some frustrations here with exporting your product, or getting resources in to build, say, processors. But if you set up a good supply chain, with good road links out of your city, then you should be able to make a good living this way.
As before, you'll have to contend with the odd natural disaster. These can be truly annoying, and they invariably come when you're broke, and they take out an important and expensive. Earthquakes are pretty devastating, as is the inevitable lizard attack. Zombies will turn up too, which is a hoot.
We tested SimCity on two machines. The first, our gaming system which is a Core i7 2700K, 16GB of RAM and a nVidia GTX 670 (our thanks go to nVidia for supplying this) and the second is an i5 ultrabook with 4GB of RAM and Intel graphics. The difference between the two was significant, as you would expect.
On the proper gaming machine, things look stunning. Buildings have a realism to them that we find captivating, and the animation of cars and people is, for the most part, wonderful to watch. We got all the settings up to maximum, and we rarely had problems with frame rates or quality.
One EA update did make buildings flicker for nVidia owners, but we think this has now been fixed. You will also see, sometimes, that roads behave in a weird way - we've had houses built over roads, but both the house and road function perfectly. This sort of thing could be cleaned up, but it's really a very rare problem on the whole.
On the laptop, the game was playable, but a lot less pretty. This does mean though, that you can easily take your city with you when you go away for the weekend. Just don't forget that you need internet access.
We love the idea of playing in a region with your friends. For us, this was always something that was on the SimCity wishlist. In the past, it would have been far harder to add multiplayer - don't forget, the last Sim City game was 10 years ago now. But now, it's possible and very practical.
Online play is separated into two categories. You can play with people you don't know, on public servers, or you can set up a private game between you and people you invite to join you.
Of course, if you play in public then you'll be subject to people who either want to crush you, or help you. While it's not possible for an online player to have too much of an impact on your game, it's worth remembering that regions share jobs and pollution. So if you have jobs and your neighbour has insufficient work, their Sims can come and work in your city. If you've not planned well, this can have an impact.
We mostly played in our own region alone, but online play is a really great idea with people you know, and if you work together toward a single goal - like a Great Work - then the rewards will come faster than if you work alone.
If you want, you can gift things to others in your region, and there's trading too, which allows you to buy and sell resources. It is, however, worth pointing out that trading has been subject to some real problems with server load, and we've not been able to test this as fully as we'd like.
At the heart of SimCity is Maxis's new invention, GlassBox. It's this that has really changed the game, and increased the potential for it. The idea is simple, the execution is rather more of a challenge. In the new engine, rather than things happening randomly, they follow a set of rules that are as close to the real world as you can easily simulate in a game.
This starts at the terrain level, with the maps being given real-world layers of all the things you'd find in our world. The most important part here of course, is the presence of mineable natural resources like oil, ore and coal. Depending on the route you take with your city, these may be crucial in its development.
The engine also simulates everything else. So there is water moving from pumps to people's homes. You get electricity moving from the power station homes too, and Sims moving around in cars and waste being pumped from their houses to whatever sewage facility you have provided.
The engine is very clever, but it's clear that - at least for now - there are some bugs. For example, there are times when despite good water and power, you'll see indications that your Sims are bone dry, and power-free. This is enormously frustrating, and there are some weird reasons for it happening. We've heard people say that if your roads are congested, it will affect the transport of water, sewage and power. We can see the logic of this, because it makes sense for the game engine to move "objects" around the world, rather than individual things like people, cars, water, sewage and power. You can see, when you're in the right viewing mode, that all these services move in lumps, there's not a stream of water, there's a blob, and it moves like a heartbeat away from its source, not in a flow.
Many YouTube videos show how bad the pathfinding can be too. Give Sims two routes, one longer, but with plenty of capacity, and one short, but with a single lane dirt track, and the Sims will always take the shortest route, even if that results in massive queues and a high-capacity road completely empty.
Even the Sims themselves are less clever than they at first appear. For example, your sims don't have a fixed job, or a fixed house. Sims are a unit that, like water, passes from the source - the house they slept in last night - to what the SimCity developers call "sinks". To get to their destination, like water flowing downhill, Sims will go the quickest route until they find a place to work. What this means is that you really need places for Sims to work that are close to their homes, and a proportion of Sims to jobs that mean you industry has a full complement of staff, and your Sims all have jobs.
Once you know about how the engine works, you can better build cities. Although, to some extent this feels like gaming the system. And this is especially true of the road system, which - as we write this - is enormously flawed. There are many YouTube videos showing how congestion can mount up when the main route is a dirt track, but a secondary - but less direct - road offers them all the capacity they need.
Maxis has spoken about this though, and has promised that such gameplay bugs will be fixed, and that it has already solved some problems. We can appreciate that there are some things you learn about the game only when there are millions of people playing it. And, honestly, a lot of these bugs are frustrating, but that's part of learning to play the game. Is it any more frustrating than the learning curve in a first-person shooter?
If there's any lesson here, it's that to make SimCity work as it should you need to obey one rule: keep your roads congestion-free.
City size limits
Here's a bit of a rub too. The total size of the cities can be a bit restrictive. Having said that, what we found is that the small build area forces you to play the game in a different way to how you would with unlimited space.
We sort of see this as a bit like not having unlimited money. If you have a lot of spare cash, through, say a cheat code, then a lot of the fun goes away. Say you're able to put any sort of building down, and don't have to plan, then the challenge is basically zero.
City sizing is something of an extension of this. It forces you to plan your city, and your region, to get the best out of them. It makes the game harder to some extent, but that's surely a good thing? Some people are cross about this, and we would like a little bit more space - perhaps once your city reaches a certain number of Sims, you get granted more land by the region or something?
It's possible for cities in a region to share various things. The problem we had is that it didn't seem to work very well. We had a lot of trouble persuading things to go to the place they were needed, and imports were, at times, a pain too. We struggled with oil a lot, needing it for one power plant, and having another city producing thousands of barrels per day, but the two just wouldn't buy and sell to each other.
We are told that this is because of the server load, and that as things settle down trading should be improved. It's also been reported that there are some bugs related to this too, but Maxis is working to fix these as and when it is notified of them.
In theory, resource sharing mitigates the small cities problem, because in theory you'd just build a massive region where there were vast zones for Sims to work, live, and shop. We don't think this is how the game was designed though, as you can't improve the inter-city infrastructure much.
Ideally, we'd like to see it be a bit easy to move resources around, and quicker to change from one city to another. But aside from that, working in a whole region gives you up to 16 cities maximum.
With this review, we had two choices. The first was to review it as is, and to mention the bugs and allow them to either affect the score, or to simply give the game no score at all.
The second option was to wait for the issues to stabilise and then review it. But this didn't seem fair somehow, the game is, after all, being played right now by people, who have spent their own money on it. We think that anyone considering the game needs to know that there are still some very real issues.
But, with all that said, it's clear that SimCity is every bit the game we wanted it to be. Early on in your city's life, you'll find that everything works beautifully. The game is engrossing in that way that Sim City 2000 was, and you can play it for tens of hours without getting bored. There's always something to do.
As the game goes on, that's still the case, in fact it gets better because you have to rethink things. Eventually, for example, mining becomes impractical because you can't make enough money from it, and it takes up loads of map space. So you move on to more high-tech pursuits. This is great, and it requires you take bold decisions about the direction of your city.
The problems happen at this point. We found - and this is a bug acknowledged by EA - that our oil power plant just refused to buy-in oil. This is a devastating problem, especially if it hits you when you have no money because you will have no services without power, no water for example. But it's not like a normal challenge, it's annoying and spoils the game.
SimCity is, to some extent, everything that was promised. It's an incredible game that offers more depth, more realism and more challenges than ever before. It has some bugs, and a fairly bad launch has coloured the experience a little, but ultimately we've played for over 30 hours now, and it's flown by and we've enjoyed 99 per cent of it.
There's a moral argument to be made that we should not buy games that have such irritating requirements for users to be online at all times. We'll leave decisions about that up to you, the users. DRM always tends to be self-defeating. While you might save a few quid from people downloading a torrent of it, the ill will generated usually means people grumble online or just don't buy the game. And here, it's never been more clear that gamers won't take this nonsense.
Our score will seem high to some, with those bugs and the online requirement. Honestly, we think this is a five-star title that's lost a star because of some silly, but correctable mistakes on EAs part. If the company wants an extra star, then give everyone an offline mode, and get that AI fixed. As it stands, we'll keep playing, and if the game reaches its potential, then we'll update our opinion.
It's also worth noting that a good few problems - online requirement, small maps - can easily be solved by Maxis, as they've been done by someone who hacked about with the code to enable the developer mode.