SimCity Official Review

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Developer(s): Maxis
Publisher(s): Electronic Arts
Platform(s): PC, Mac
Review Platform: PC
Release Date: March 5, 2013

I like to play videogames. Hell, it’s part of my job. SimCity isn’t a game that likes to be played, and it’s a damn shame, because underneath the myriad of technical issues plaguing the game there’s a really fun experience. Like most reviewers I’ve had to toil with whether or not to let “service” issues influence the final score for SimCity. I decided that it was more than fair to make room for the service issues to play a role in determining the final score.

When the game actually worked, which wasn’t very often at all, there was fun to be had. You start with a lifeless patch of land and are tasked with shepherding a small town to a specialized metropolis. You lay roads, zone for residential, commercial or industrial building, all the while trying to manage the issues a growing community confronts. As your population grows you’ll need to supply them with water, power and jobs. Soon, people will start getting sick from the pollution at your industrial factories and you’ll need a hospital; soon, Sims will start their houses on fire and you’ll need a firehouse and a grade school, so your Sims know the difference between “preheat to 400” and “yeah, 600 sounds about right.”

Eventually, traffic will become an issue and you’ll have to upgrade your low and medium density streets to medium and high density avenues. This will allow local housing, commercial buildings and industrial centers to expand, providing more people and more jobs. As your city grows, crime will become an issue and that little hospital you built earlier in the game will overflow with patients and doctors will have to start turning people away. A police station will solve the crime issue, and a larger hospital will allow more patients to be treated.

The systems and needs you have to manage in SimCity are complex, but the way in which they are presented to you is smart. Everything has a graph. The happiness of the Sims in your city, ground pollution, the influx of tourists to your commercial center and where they are spending their money, are all presented in slick, modern, TED Talk-like graphs that make understanding why something is happening easy. It’s also the best way to anticipate future problems.

New to SimCity is the “single-player online.” This time around, players will be sharing space with others. There are different types of regions, and each region has a set number of cities that can be built in it. For instance, there is an island region where only two cities can be built, and a forested valley with a river running through it where seven cities can be built. To start a game you can either create a region by yourself, making it public or private; or, you can join a region with open cities. Cities within a region can interact with one another. Need water? Well, you can buy it from a neighboring city that has excess. You can buy power from neighboring cities as well. Sims from your cities will go to neighboring cities for jobs if your city isn’t providing enough work, and if you have a casino in your city, Sims from neighboring cities will come to your city, blowing their hard-earned Simoleons and sometimes staying overnight in expensive downtown hotels, if you have expensive downtown hotels. All of this sounds interesting at the very least. 

But, there are a few problems. Put aside the fact that no one really asked for this “single-player online” feature in the first place. The move from a solely single-player experience to shared single-player experience means that the space your city occupies is significantly smaller than in previous SimCity games. Eventually, you’ll quite simply run out of space, forcing you to turn to other cities in the region to get what you need. No city in SimCity can function independent of other cities in the region. It’s been specifically designed that way to force players to engage in the shared single-player experience. Because of this, cities are mostly one-trick ponies. Your city will only ever do one thing really well. It might  have a few secondary markets or specializations, but the game clearly isn’t designed to allow for one city to be self-sufficient.

This system doesn’t always work how it’s supposed to, either. At least, not currently. Because SimCity experienced horrible server issues at launch, the “single-player online” aspect of their game flat-out didn’t work. If you were able to get on the servers during the last week, you had better stayed logged on forever. If you logged out and tried to log back on to play the city you had been playing earlier, the city either 1) wouldn’t even be there or 2) if it was there, it didn’t sync to EA’s servers correctly and you lost hours upon hours worth of gameplay and progress. This happened to me with three cities. The first city I started simply disappeared. The two subsequent cities, which I had put a combined total of 20+ hours into, went from being thriving cultural metropolises to small towns with not even a quarter of the population they had in the previous play session. More servers have been added and, yes, the game is significantly more stable than it had been; but, the system still isn’t working how it is supposed to work. Players are reporting spending money on shipments of water or power from neighboring cities, only to receive half of the amount that they originally paid for. Some players have even reported entire market structures with neighboring cities collapsing, trade deals disappearing, tourist inflow simply stopping, and Great Work projects losing progress as a result.

SimCity still isn’t working exactly how it is supposed to work. The server issues that the game experienced at launch ultimately mean that I couldn’t, and still can’t recommend this game to anyone. Some may argue that it isn’t fair to review a videogame that isn’t working properly, and I think there may be a time and place for that argument; but it isn’t the case with SimCity. EA and Maxis made the decision to make this a single-player online experience that required an always-online Internet connection to play. That wasn’t something that players had a choice in. No, we are simply expected to eat our cake. EA and Maxis also made the decision to have a closed beta, perhaps the stupidest decision anyone made throughout the development process. If it is okay for EA to include always-online as feature or “service” that its consumers are expected to embrace, than it is not ludicrous for me to expect that service to work seamlessly, smoothly, perfectly. There are many, many people that paid $60 for a game that quite simply didn’t--and still doesn’t--work. As a consumer, I’ve never felt more used and insulted.

I’m still utterly confused about how to think about SimCity. I love so much about it, and then I think about losing an entire city, losing progress in two more, and all issues from the past week... I can’t help but boil over with rage and indignation. There’s a really good game in there somewhere; but, the fact that you have to wade through a shit and pissed-filled swamp of tech issues just to play it, ultimately ruins the experience.

Final Score “An Absolute Disaster” 4.5
Everything looks pretty spectacular from a distance, especially skyline vistas; but, when you zoom in close, your eyes start to bleed. Fuzzy edges, bad texturing, framerate stuttering... all can be witnessed.
When it works, the game is great fun. Unfortunately, there are still too many aspects of the shared single-player experience that still doesn't work right. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the game hadn’t been designed specifically to encourage cities to interact with one another. Random disconnects are still happening for some players, and cities are still losing progress of disappearing altogether.
I’ve received better service at a Denny’s.
The sounds is really well done. The score by Chris Tilton is by far the best thing about the game. The ambiance of a city is wonderfully captured in SimCity.

Review by Jon Hamlin

Jon Hamlin is a freelance game journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He plays too much Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and enjoys a good glass of wine. Occasionally, he can be found commanding his legion of doom on Xbox Live as GeniusPantsPhD. Follow him on Twitter @WordsmithJon, or email him at All Articles by Jon.


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