Napo Point was in trouble. I had been purchasing power from a neighboring city, but, suddenly, that power source disappeared. My friend had been running that sitting, but she was offline, and I couldn’t see any reason for the power to suddenly disappear. But, explanations aside, I needed a source of power. I had recently constructed a college, and it was fielding about 800 students a day. With college-educated folks in my population, I figured a nuclear power plant was an excellent and low polluting option. It was a few days later in game time that I noticed that this was not the case. Industry began to complain about the lack of educated workers, leading business to begin a constant cycle of opening and closing. It was maddening- despite a constant flow of people through my college, I never seemed to be able to come close to meeting any of my educational demands. And then it happened: my plant, devoid of educated workers, had gone into meltdown.
This anecdote is SimCity in a nutshell- whenever you feel like you are playing the game correctly, breaks in the model destroy the experience. While the game attempts to ensnare you with its beauty and the addictive nature of expansion and upgrade, frustrating, illogical design choices combine with poor server construction to ruin any sense of immersion, forcing the player to battle the game instead of enjoying it.
SimCity is a departure from the other games of the series, eschewing a single player experience for one can be best described as a sort of asynchronous MMO. Cities exist in a region comprised of 3 or more cities, regions being public, by invitation, or private and consisting of only cities founded by the player. Cities within a region can sell services to one another, give each other cash, and citizens of other cities can travel from one to another. Services offered by cities with players who are offline are offered statically- thus if you’re buying your entire stock of electricity from another city in the region, you could potentially outpace their power supply if you grow and that player doesn’t play. In practice, that wasn’t particularly a big issue. The larger problem was that randomly these offline cities would simply cease offering their services. Thus, in my multiplayer game, I periodically would lose water and power, and watch my cities streets fill up with sewage.
Despite the interaction with other player’s cities being Maxis’ entire justification for placing the game online, I found the multiplayer aspect to be problematic at best, and game-breaking at worst. I did, however notice that the intra-city interaction seemed to work fine when I was interacting with cities that I controlled- the networking only seemed to misfire when other players’ cities were involved. It was nice, then, in my private Napo region, to build an industrial area, a balanced residential/commercial /industrial area, and a wonderful tourist beach/casino town. I was able to bounce from town to town, making the developments I wished to make, creating specialized and unique areas. It was a lot of work to run three cities simultaneously, but that was the most rewarding of my experience playing the game.
The gameplay includes the classic SimCity building aspects. Service buildings (fire departments, police stations, parks, schools and so on) are directly plopped down on the map, while commercial, industrial and residential areas are zoned, built upon by the AI sims. Unlike previous games, the density of the development is not determined by the zoning (no more light, medium and heavy zoning) but by the size of your city and the type of road network to which your zones are attached. This places a high emphasis on building a proper road network, and the game is nice to include gridlines as you build road areas. This is one of those must have features for future similar games- the gridlines make building a uniform and efficient city a snap.
Once you’ve built your gridlines and zoned your territory, you sit back and watch the Sims move in. You may have to sit back for some time, as well, since that money goes fast, and as of this writing, the fastest of the three game speeds, Cheetah, is still disabled. As Sims move into your city, expanding it further, you may start to get that old addictive feeling from previous games. It’s fun to see that population number tick up, and to see small lots of houses upgrade into massive sky-scraping apartment complexes. The buildings are beautiful, too, displaying a great variety of looks and colors. I don’t believe I saw building repeats over the landscape of any city. And, like any good upgrade system, watching those numbers tick up creates an experience you have trouble looking away from. But, concurrently, you’ll start to notice the gaping cracks in the games infrastructure as you build services to keep up with your burgeoning city’s demands.
The level of nonsense that occurs on the services and resource level of your city is, to be frank, insane. It seems that too many of the processes in the game seem to be designed with a logic that is meant to reflect something else. For instance- the education system seems to be city wide. That is, you’ll need to run a high proportion of your entire city populace through your entire educational system for any of them to be considered college educated. This is why, despite having a college in my city, I was unable to properly staff my nuclear power plant. It also meant that I was constantly forced to demolish abandoned industrial buildings that seemed unable to find any college educated workers.
The fire and police systems suffered similar issues. No matter how many fires were occurring in my city, all of my available fire engines responded to one, and only one fire. Once that fire was extinguished, they all moved on to the next fire. This meant that if there were 3 fires, and I had four fire departments, I still typically had at least one building burn to the ground (at which point the game would beg me to expand my fire coverage). Police forces has a similar response issue, constantly resulting in a weak response to crime. Despite my best efforts, police forces never seemed to be able to keep up with the level of crime.
But I think my biggest issue with the game was the way the Sims were modeled themselves. Residents of my city seemed to behave in very, very odd ways. Citizens that would commute to the next city for work would move out of my city because they were unable to find stores (even though they only lived two blocks away from commercial districts). It was impossible to build proper road networks because Sims always travel the shortest distance between two points, which forced me to build high density streets everywhere. Sims that would walk to the park and find it full would then walk until they had their fill, complain they couldn’t go anywhere, and move out of the city. And, in the city which suffered a nuclear meltdown, I watch as my population increased by 70,000 in its immediate aftermath, with citizens constantly moving into and then instantly out of the radiated zone. The behavior was simply bizarre. The larger my cities grew, the more broken the game model became.
So, should you play SimCity? I waited until the end of the well-publicized server connections issues to begin my review odyssey, and they are not a factor in this review. In fact, I must state that while I did have some connection issues on the day of release, I haven’t had any in any play session since then. No, the problems with the game are much more basic than that. The multiplayer city connections seem to let the player down without warning. Single player was entertaining for a while, addicting even, but as I continued to play, the game displayed inadequacy in nearly all of its systems, from traffic and commerce to education and fire protection. Without some series patching, it’s impossible to recommend SimCity in its current state. I saw a review quote from the box of Tropico 4, about the next SimCity needing to live up to Tropico, and not the other way around. At the moment, there’s no contest.