Updated Wed, Mar 06, 2013 by Xerin
SimCity was the first of its kind, a city simulator that allowed you to rule your city as mayor and inundated you with tasks related to its macro-management. It established a genre that spawned a plethora of city simulation games, such as The Settlers, Anno, Caesar, StarTopia, and Cities XL. It also brought several other Sims franchises to life, the most popular being The Sims, a game that zooms in on the micromanagement of a sim’s day-to-day life.
Here we are in 2013, ten years after the last SimCity release with an all new entry into the series. The latest SimCity aims to return to its roots and focus on the fun and entertaining aspects of playing mayor. Previous simulation games focused on appealing to the long-term fans of the franchise, the same group that enjoy 4x games such as Civilization and Master of Orion, where small choices here and there lead into bigger consequences (both good and bad) down the line.
Does SimCity have what it takes to survive in this modern market or has Maxis failed to deliver? Let’s find out.
SimCity is rated E 10+ for mild violence (comical hijinks), so reserve this title for children 10 and older. It also requires an Internet connection, even if you want to play alone in single-player mode.
SimCity is an addictive revamp of a franchise that was in dire need of a reboot. It provides an endless supply of instant gratification. SimCity, (not SimCity 5, even though it's the 5th release in the series), is the perfect moniker, because the newly revamped version has returned to the franchise's kinder, gentler roots.
To get what I’m saying you have to hop into a time machine back to the year 1989, when PCs were labeled by their processor designation (286, 386, and 486), the best computers had turbo buttons, monitors took up the entire desk, and the CD-ROM was an emerging technology. SimCity was released on various home computing systems (Amiga, Commodore 64, DOS, Macintosh, etc.) and was a game. You could plop down residential, commercial, or industrial (RCI) plots that would grow based on happiness and wealth. Both were managed with roads, police, fire, power, and parks. It was addictive, but simplistic, and you could play forever and not even realize you were at the computer.
Future titles were drastically different from the original, but held the core concept that you were a mayor, you zoned RCI, and you managed a city infrastructure. SimCity 2000, released in 1994, added an excess of new features including hospitals, schools, prisons, airports, mass transportation, and much more. SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 continued the trend, expanding the game’s depth, but greatly increasing both the time commitment required and the learning curve. The SimCity titles were suddenly more than games, they were full-on simulators.
Eventually the series painted itself into a corner--the complexity of the simulation was too much for the mass-market, appealing only to existing fans of the franchise. SimCity became a niche simulator for heavy thinkers who would dedicate hours and hours to getting a city off the ground without reverting to cheating (although SimCity caters to weaknesspays fans with a Sandbox mode that allows you to add money in single player mode to your heart's content). Is that a terrible thing? No, I admit that I’ve logged hundreds and hundreds of hours into SimCity 4 and its predecessors, meticulously managing each city as if it were a bonsai tree. SimCity was the best at what it did, and succeeded at being a perfect time-waster, even when it wasn't exactly an entertainment application.
SimCity's 2013 iteration sheds itself of the city management bloat and returns to the formula that made the franchise fun in the first place. SimCity is still a die-hard city simulator, but it gracefully sweeps a lot of the RCI computation and city modeling under the rug and presents a user interface that is simple to use, but powerful, with each decision, each choice, having a drastic impact on the city.
Playing through my first city, I immediately noticed a key difference – there are no highways, no subways, no water pipes, or power lines. Utilities and most mass transit are connected directly to the road, so you don’t have to ruin your perfect grid layout trying to place bus stops. These are major quality of life changes that remove a lot of the more annoying aspects of the game and let you focus on what everyone really wants to do – build giant successful cities.
In my first city, I noticed that the game, while simpler, isn’t forgiving and doesn’t lock you into training wheels. It will let you fail and fail hard. There are many different routes to recovery, but if you expand too quickly and develop high-tech industry before your residents are educated enough, then you’ll have an industrial collapse. Build a nuclear power plant without skilled residents to run it and you’ll be staring a fun lesson in hazmat waste.
At the same time, the game is graceful in everything it does. Failing, winning, advancing, or decaying all happens smoothly. The transitions are logical, and the GlassBox engine makes sure that you have enough data on everything to truly grip what the issue is. No more “zots” blinking helplessly letting you know that something is wrong, you can easily get the general idea. In my first city, disease ran rampant, buildings began to abandon, and it quickly became unprofitable fast due to my neglect of a strong hospital system. After some demolition and a few steps back, I was able to recover and make my city even stronger than before (and more profitable).
The game pushes back against you often, either in the form of gotchas (too much discretionary spending, lack of education, crime waves, fires, homelessness) or disasters, creating a constant need for city management and always giving you something to do while building your empire. This is where the real fun is, since everything makes sense, has reasonable solutions, and never truly backs you into a corner unless you sit within your mansion laughing manically as you constantly send lizard monsters at your residents.
Another way the game pushes back is that infrastructure isn’t that expensive to place, but very expensive to maintain, and you can’t cut funding arbitrarily, it’s either an all or nothing expense (you can turn individual buildings off, but you can’t allocate funding building by building, which keeps from allowing you to cause strikes, but makes the budgeting cut and dry). You need to build up before you build out, so that you have the income to support expansion of city infrastructure.
Of course, one of the features I absolutely love is the creative things you can do with industry. While a lot of the other management features are gone (ordinances, strikes, power lines, water pipes, etc.), there are now industries that work on a global market. For instance, to make money you can educate your entire population and get them recycling, then turn their recycled goods into plastics or alloys, then either use those materials in your industry or sell them at a profit. There are many neat ways to go about things like that.
Power isn't an on/off thing, the power grid will compensate for failures and ration power to avoid critical failures.
The game isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but I will argue that’s at least 49% sunshine, 49% rainbows, and 2% burnt marshmallows. Traffic modeling is still a bit buggy, but I’m not really sure if we’re talking SimCity 4 traffic modeling (which resulted in a Rush Hour expansion to add additional mass transit, followed by NAM (Network Addon Mod), a player created solution to SC4’s traffic woes) or if we’re talking bad mayoring. If your city expands too fast and you reach 100,000 sims, then you’ll notice traffic jams everywhere. But if you take your time and invest in all forms of transportation, including trains, then traffic isn’t that big of a deal.
A random side note, sims construct FLUSH with the road, making diagonal and circular roads viable. This is a major improvement over previous titles where diagonal roads were like salt in coffee.
Some other key burn marshmallow issues are the map sizes. They all fit around “medium” in previous games, so you can’t really make giant cities. I’m sure this will be rectified in later map releases, but it’s an issue nonetheless. A lack of a map editor is also kind of annoying. I’d like to make my own regions to keep things interesting, but the ones provided seem satisfying enough and I believe it’s a design choice for multiplayer. There's no building editor, either, or any way to mod the game, although Maxis has said the functionality is built but won’t be enabled until later.
The multiplayer aspect really helps make the game shine. In the past, when starting a city you would often find yourself having to make a choice at your first fire or crime wave--do you plunge your newly founded city into debt, or do you put on your budget-miser hat and watch your residents suffer? Now, when faced with such a dilemma, friends can allocate some of their infrastructure to race to your city to help deal with crime, fire, and medical emergencies. I’ll discuss region play a bit more later on but, needless to say, I love it.
In summary, the gameplay is phenomenal. Sure, it’s not nearly as in-depth as previous iterations of the game, but that’s a good thing. Not having to suffer saving money up for water pipes, juggling ordinances and their costs, and dealing with a simtrillion issues doesn’t mean that the game is bad; it just means it’s different...in a good way.
I’m not sure how to describe the graphics, honestly. They’re good, really, and they look fine. They do go in an entirely different direction from the previous games' ultra-realistic approach to city rendering, however. The graphics are similar to World of Warcraft’s cartoon-style graphics--everything looks smooth and it’s all pleasing to the eye. I’m not really sure that the technology is there yet to carry on advanced simulation while also have jaw dropping graphics, so it's difficult to gauge where our expectations should sit.
Modeling of other cities in the region is a bit sketchy, which is one of the reasons I’m to understand that cities are far away from each other in a region, instead of side-by-side. If you look closely they don’t look very appealing, but work well for sitting in the backdrop.
Some things are really cool, graphics wise. At night lights flicker on and in the day they flicker off. You can zoom in rather far and everything on the street level is detailed rather well, although even with anti-aliasing on I found lots of artifacts. Your mileage may vary.
The attention to detail is where the game really shines, though. In SC4, cars would fade in and out, only representing a rough estimate of what traffic was like on that road, not actually modeling real traffic. SC4 is a bit different--each car is a real car on the road, and it can leave your region and come back. The GlassBox engine simulates each sim’s day to day life, as previously mentioned, rolling all of the complicated factors of the game together and hiding them behind a simple interface. So there are living, breathing, sims roaming your streets, actual cars and school buses zooming through town, and more.
The interface is also superb, it’s simple, easy to use, and provides a wealth of information on every subject. From the data layers showing the violent throws of sewage through your city to the description of each ploppable, the game is brilliant. Zots (those blinking symbols above distressed buildings) are somewhat back, but solving their issues is made easier by the various data layers.
The music is actually really enjoyable. I was surprised, since the previous games usually featured a soundtrack inspired by elevator music (which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, mind you). However, where the game really shines is in the sound effects. Every click on the map will answer back with a brain-pleasing response tone. Everything you do is rewarded with something audible, from checking into your massive skyscrapers to seeing the efficiency of your recycling plant.
Another neat thing is that the “jukebox” (the music player, as it has been called in previous games) is intelligent and changes the music based on population, current events, and zoom level. It enhances the immersion into the city. During disasters, like a zombie attack, the music fades into something appropriately creepy.
I’m satisfied with the music and sound in SimCity and really have no negative points to make. For a simulation game, it’s top tier.