SimCity review: return of a classic

By Matthew Rorie, Mar 04, 2013 8:00am PST

It's fitting that the newest entry into the SimCity franchise is again simply called SimCity: it's a return to the bedrock principles of the series, but still incorporates enough complicating factors to keep would-be mayors on their toes for the hours it will take to grow a city to maturity. This is a fine reboot, containing some great new additions to the franchise while also reserving some room for it to grow in the future.

The basics of gameplay are going to be familiar to pretty much anyone who's ever played a SimCity game, even if you haven't touched one since elementary school. You start with a plot of land and a trust fund's worth of simoleans, start building a basic set of roads, plan out residential, commercial, and industrial zones, set up basic utilities, and sit back to watch your town grow up out of the weeds. Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to roll through your entire bankroll in just a couple minutes' worth of gameplay when you first plant your flag, in which case you can do little but click up the speed of the game and sit back until your city's grown a bit. (You can take out a bond measure if you want a quick boost of money, but these can be tricky to rely on until your cashflow is well in the black.)

Problems quickly arise, as your foolish peons grow petulant and unhappy if their houses burn down or there's no clinic to help cure their scurvy. SimCity does a great job at staggering these complicating factors over time as your city grows, with immediate needs like supplying power and water segueing into intermediate desires for things like police stations and garbage collection, with longer-term goals for schooling and public transportation following after that. It can be a bit annoying when the game's script decides it's time to, say, start burning down your city and you don't have the cash to construct a fire station right away, and you'll probably wander through a few disastrous exercises in frustration before everything starts clicking and you're ready to take on the hours of work that it'll take to build your megalopolis.

Part of that process is learning how to rely on SimCity's excellent methods of presenting its information to you. It'd be easy for a game like this to bog you down with spreadsheets and bar graphs, and there are plenty of numbers to peruse should you wish to do so, but the user interface takes pains to make the data relatable. There are dozens of different data filters to scroll through, highlighting areas with poor police coverage, low happiness, no educational opportunities, and so on. There are also plenty of thought bubbles emanating from the various buildings under your purview: zoom in a bit, and your Sims will tell you what's ailing them, if anything. This data can be also be frustratingly contradictory at times, though, as you'll often run across businesses that complain about a lack of customers while the residential buildings around them laud the number of stores that are available for shopping, or apartment buildings that get snippy about a lack of nearby parks, despite the fact that you've piled half a dozen parks into empty slots in their immediate vicinity.

As fun as the core city building is, there are still a number of frustrating issues that arise. Sometimes a block will see its zoning wiped out or shifted to another zoning type entirely when you reload your game; this doesn't actually eliminate any buildings, but is still an annoying graphical glitch. There's no way to grade hills or otherwise terraform the plot you start with, meaning that zones with a lot of terrain deformation are often far trickier to deal with than flat zones, since roads and buildings will often refuse to build on steep terrain. And despite the guidelines built into the road tool, in cities with large and complicated road layouts, it can still be difficult to see precisely how much room you need to leave open for larger buildings to take root, leading either to empty gaps in the middle of blocks or areas that aren't quite big enough for skyscrapers to rise. None of these are particularly dire bugs, but they do detract from an otherwise polished experience.

Of more pressing concern is the relatively tight confines of the one-size-fits-all plot that every city is built on. While each plot will have different individual features, such as shoreline access or oil and coal deposits, they're all the exact same size, and that size winds up feeling cramped after a few hours of building. Maxis has explained this away as a result of the need to run on a wide variety of machines, but many of the other games in the series have managed to include multiple city sizes as a baseline option, so it's hard to put much faith in that argument.

Maxis also says that they plan to increase the city size at some vague point in the future (read: in one of the inevitable expansion packs), but that's small comfort. You're more than capable of building a virtual San Francisco in SimCity as it ships, but if your tastes run more towards the sprawl of a faux Houston or a model Tokyo, you're out of luck. As your Sims get happier and wealthier, though, they'll eventually start building up rather than out, and watching skyscrapers bloom in your city center is one of the game's major satisfactions.

SimCity requires players to have a constant internet connection to play, and forgoes the use of manual saves in favor of constantly backing your data up to Origin's servers. This makes some sense when playing the game's multiplayer, which is, oddly enough, substantially easier than playing by yourself. Multiplayer regions can consist of up to 16 cities run by as many different players, and exporting raw materials to other cities can be a major source of income early on in a game. Likewise, expansions to the city halls of other players can afford you early access to advanced buildings that you'd otherwise have to invest heavily in from your own coffers, and multiple players may eventually work together to begin to construct a Great Works site, each of which requires a huge initial investment but eventually grants large benefits to all nearby cities.

The always-on connection requirement isn't quite as welcome if you enjoy playing solo, though, as the lack of manual saving leads to some silly complications in single player. Most notably, every action you take is immediately irrevocable: there's no rewind button or grace period when placing a building. Normally, that's not a big deal, but if you accidentally lay a road too close to a hill, you may find yourself forced to bulldoze and rebuild it (at significant cost) to actually zone the area around it.

More frustratingly, if you find yourself mis-clicking when attempting to place a building, you can find yourself making very expensive mistakes. If you place a very, very costly water treatment plant and immediately discover that it's a bit closer to your wealthy residences than you intended, there's no recourse, which can be frustrating if you value efficient play. (In the absence of manual saves, disabling your internet connection is the only way to test out a risky move before actually making it permanent, which isn't an outcome that anyone can describe as ideal.) And, of course, if the master server goes down, you're unable to play even single-player. Alt-tabbing out of the game for more than a few minutes will likewise often cause you to lose your sync and be forced to restart the client entirely.

For all these avoidable limitations, SimCity is still a gorgeous and often captivating strategy game. The ever-present tension between investing and saving is a constant presence as you play, and the numerous city specializations (oil drilling, ore collection, gambling, tourism, etc.) will help each city that you create feel different than the one before, and the design is smooth enough to encourage you to try your hand at multiple cities, both alone and with friends (or strangers) online. This isn't a radically different experience than what's come before, but considering SimCity's refined UI and mechanics, it's easy to consider this the best city-building strategy game to arrive in years.


This SimCity review was based on a build played at Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores office, as well as separate boxed copy using a special Origin login. The game comes out tomorrow.

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