SimCity review: return of a classic

For its avoidable limitations, SimCity is still a gorgeous and often captivating strategy game. It's easy to consider this the best city-building strategy game to arrive in years.

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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.

Random monster attacks can wind up distressing both Sim happiness and your firefighting capabilities.

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.

A wealth of detail is available if you zoom in close enough.

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.

Skyscrapers will appear if your citizens are happy, and if your streets can handle them.

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.
From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 4, 2013 8:00 AM

    Matthew Rorie posted a new article, SimCity review: return of a classic.

    For its avoidable limitations, SimCity is still a gorgeous and often captivating strategy game. It's easy to consider this the best city-building strategy game to arrive in years.

    • reply
      March 4, 2013 8:02 AM

      Yes, Matthew Rorie is now doing freelance work for Shack.

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      March 4, 2013 8:26 AM

      How many puppies would you give the new SimCity?

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      March 4, 2013 8:35 AM

      lol the discrepancy between these articles: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2013/03/simcity-impressions-we-waited-ten-years-for-this/

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        March 4, 2013 8:44 AM

        Some of the issues I'm reading there are certainly valid, but a lot of the bugs that they're running into I never encountered. I've seen other reviewers with some significant issues, with Kevin at GameSpot apparently losing half a day's worth of work due to a server problem (according to his twitter), but my experience was relatively smooth, aside from the awkward "alt-tab for a few minutes and be asked to restart the game" issue.

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          March 4, 2013 8:49 AM

          Let me rephrase: alt-tabbing out of the game for more than ten minutes or so will boot you back to the main menu and apparently prevent your game from contacting the main game server, forcing you to restart the game if you wish to continue to play.

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            March 4, 2013 9:16 AM

            That sounds like a great feature... I'm really not keen on the always on aspect. I just see it causing a lot of ill will in the long run due to stuff like that.

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              March 4, 2013 9:21 AM

              At its best, it's unnoticeable. At worst, it causes you to lose lots of work when a server has a problem, as has apparently happened to some other reviewers. That kind of stuff is inexcusable, but again it's not something that has happened personally to me.

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                March 4, 2013 9:25 AM

                Yeah which is cool I wouldn't expect someone writing a review to bitch about something that didn't happen to them. Hopefully EA doesn't fuck up much with their servers though.

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          March 4, 2013 11:29 AM

          It seems to me the criticisms people are having are a combination of bugs, poor design decisions, and not really "getting" the way the game is intended to work, and people aren't always distinguishing between them well.

          Note that I haven't actually played the game yet. That's just the impression I get from reviews, previews, and commentary others have made.

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            March 4, 2013 11:35 AM

            Anytime a franchise takes a decade off (and I think most people are happy to ignore the existence of SimCity Societies), I think it's natural for people to expect something substantially bigger and better than what came before, and for better or for worse, SimCity isn't really a game with a much grander scope than SimCity 4. It's still really good, but it's not a huge step forward for the series.

            And yeah, there are definitely some items in the game that I would consider bugs or missing features that the devs probably consider "working as intended." The lack of terraforming is especially annoying, since any plot you build on that has a hill in it is going to have a decent percentage less land to actually build on, and when you consider that the plots are already small to begin with, choosing a plot with hills or a lot of water feels really inefficient.

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        March 4, 2013 1:43 PM

        Kyle: Also, would it kill them to have subways? Streetcars are nice, but...
        Peter: Or anything that allows transport without taking up gobs of space on the surface.


        I find it ironic that there are no subways.

        Kyle: Yeah, next time I am building no streets, because avenues are just tons better.
        Haljackey from the video I posted touches on this issue.

    • reply
      March 4, 2013 9:12 AM

      [deleted]

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        March 4, 2013 9:17 AM

        It's...different, and I think time will have to bear that out based on individual preferences. There's certainly no getting around the fact that the cities are much, much smaller than you've been able to make in previous Sims games; the focus on simulating individual members of the population means that you're capped out at a few hundred thousand people max, rather than the millions and millions of people that you could have in previous games.

        I still found it to have enough options to keep me interested for a couple dozen hours of game, although again, I didn't run into any of the truly disastrous bugs that some other reviewers have been encountering, despite playing it for multiple hours on two different machines.

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          March 4, 2013 9:19 AM

          Couple dozen hours so far, that is. Certainly going to keep playing.

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        March 4, 2013 1:33 PM

        From what I've seen, it looks like it has potential to be more fun than sc4. As it is right now, probably not. It looks like a lot of steps in a good direction, but w/o proper support, this game will sink fast. I only hope support isn't going to be tons of paid DLC and microtransactions.

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      March 4, 2013 9:21 AM

      da fuq is dis

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      March 4, 2013 9:35 AM

      Just to clarify the end text here: I played the game for around six hours at EA's office on Thursday, but also received an Origin login that allowed me to play the game from home over the weekend, where I spent the bulk of my in-game time. I didn't run into any major issues with the always-on connection requirement, but where I did I noted them in the review.

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      March 4, 2013 10:28 AM

      This comes in the mail tomorrow and I imagine will be playable by this weekend. Sorta like diablo.

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        March 4, 2013 10:38 AM

        I'm hoping that's the worst-case scenario. I kinda doubt that the game needs to constantly sync with the server in the way that Diablo does.

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          March 4, 2013 10:51 AM

          Unlike Diablo, it's not streaming actual gameplay data, it's pretty much just forced multiplayer.

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        March 6, 2013 2:15 PM

        Iv played 2 sessions about 4 hours total and have had no problems

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      March 4, 2013 10:58 AM

      Those cities are just ridiculously small

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        March 4, 2013 10:58 AM

        Yeah, it's kind of the major bummer with the game. You can construct regions where you run multiple cities, but you do hit the limits for each one pretty quick.

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          March 4, 2013 11:15 AM

          Well, hopefully they don't charge too much for the city expansions.

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            March 4, 2013 11:22 AM

            Yeah, overall the game is one of the less-annoying in terms of up-front microtransaction requests, in that there really isn't a huge amount of first-day DLC content waiting in the wings. I have a feeling that Maxis is going to push for stuff packs and expansions like they did with The Sims rather than tiny DLCs. It's too bad that making the city plots bigger is almost certainly going to be something you'll have to pay for, though.

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              March 4, 2013 2:07 PM

              I don't know. I've seen some big changes in the patch accompanying Sims 3 packs, though the bulk of the new content was obviously in the pack.

              We shall see.

    • reply
      March 4, 2013 11:09 AM

      Hi Matt! :)

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      March 4, 2013 12:58 PM

      Nice review. I hope EA wakes up here and gives us a SP thats offline, game sounds just like how Sim City should be. But I guess that is as likely to happen as Blizzard to give us an offline D3 SP :(

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        March 4, 2013 1:15 PM

        Not going to happen. EA has said they want online functionality in all of their games.

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          March 4, 2013 1:29 PM

          They have it. Now give us offline functionality =p

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        March 4, 2013 1:30 PM

        This is the only surefire way of preventing piracy. Always-online is here to stay.

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          March 4, 2013 1:38 PM

          it's a sure way this game WON'T get my money.

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            March 4, 2013 1:45 PM

            yeah, im getting to this point as well. if its online only for a game design reason, thats fine. but if its solely online to prevent piracey or to spam me with ads/dlc offers, i have no need to buy those games.

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          March 4, 2013 2:01 PM

          It's not the same system Diablo III uses, so it's a good bet someone will figure out how to trick the game into thinking it's saving remotely.

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            March 4, 2013 3:37 PM

            People set up a wow server during alpha, so it can be done.

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        March 4, 2013 3:51 PM

        offline is available on PS4, kthx.

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        March 5, 2013 7:58 AM

        When the game was first announced, I was looking forward to buying a copy for my dad. He's a long-haul trucker, and plays SimCity 4 on the laptop he takes with him in the truck. Revealing that it would be online-only was kind of a buzz-kill. It's useless to him if he can't play it on the road.

    • reply
      March 4, 2013 1:28 PM

      I watched this the other day (4 parts)

      http://www.twitch.tv/haljackey/b/372077242

      I thought the small map size was bad, but I didn't think it was going to be that bad.

      • reply
        March 5, 2013 12:54 AM

        Never played SimCity before, made it as far as middle of second video and started falling asleep. Guess these games aren't for me.

    • reply
      March 4, 2013 1:43 PM

      Was not joining Giantbomb your decision or was that out of your hands? If so why go back into game journalism at a later time?

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        March 4, 2013 2:49 PM

        I can't really speak to the hiring practices of anyone that I don't work for. I talk to those guys pretty regularly and would certainly dig the chance to work with them again, but I don't think they've made any real editorial hires since last year. We'll see!

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      March 4, 2013 4:00 PM

      One weird thing mentioned on Giantbomb's QL is that the maps are always the same... So the regions have always the same geographical features - no randomization at all. I wonder if that's because it was a controlled environment for reviews.

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        March 4, 2013 4:14 PM

        No, the game only ships with eight regions and they are not editable.

        A list: http://www.ign.com/wikis/simcity/Regions

        I would expect to see more regions downloadable in the future and hopefully a utility to make them, but we will see. Since this is EA I would not be surprised if you would have to pay for more regions.

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        March 4, 2013 4:14 PM

        Hmm, definitely not the case for me. There are something like 10 different zones with anywhere from 2 to 16 individual plots for cities in each one. There's a decent amount of options between the individual plots, but again, some of them seem to be objectively worse for city-building than others. (I hate you, hills!)

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          March 4, 2013 5:07 PM

          Hmm. How does "private" play works? Can you "lock down" a region and have all plots available to yourself?

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            March 4, 2013 5:16 PM

            Private locks down a region for you alone, but you can also invite friends to build on any of the plots if you want. If you don't invite anyone it's solo. The public option is a FFA open to anyone.

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              March 4, 2013 5:21 PM

              Nice. Thanks, pyide. So choosing a large region, with 16 plots, should mitigate the overall plot size issue.

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                March 4, 2013 5:29 PM

                In theory, but the city plots are still in pockets and spread apart around the various regions, you can't control where the plots are situated nor build anything outside of the city borders on the empty region itself. It's all predetermined and the same for everyone.

                So you can't for example fake a larger city or some sprawl by placing multiple cities right next to each other.

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                  March 4, 2013 5:41 PM

                  Yeah, sucks. Oh well. At least I could try to make as many different cities as possible, with different specializations. I wonder how deep or replayable this game is going to be.

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                  March 4, 2013 6:19 PM

                  I imagine most people are probably going to play 16/4 region, solo/private, to get access to the 4 great works. But with only 10 save game slots, I wonder how that is going to work out.

                  This seems really... odd... to limit things so much, and to rather "force" the architecture into multiplayer, kinda like forcing multiplayer onto Mass Effect... :|

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                    March 4, 2013 7:21 PM

                    It will only take up one slot per region so you can have different 10 regions going.

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        March 4, 2013 4:27 PM

        I wonder if anyone would bother with the regions that only have 2 or 3 spaces. Knowing how space is such a concern, I'd imagine that post people would want as much space for future cities as possible, making only a few of those regions really seem appealing.

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          March 4, 2013 5:29 PM

          And having multiple tiny cities in the same region isn't really the same as one large city, imo.

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            March 4, 2013 5:53 PM

            It's definitely not, which is unfortunate. Even a large city didn't really stress my machine all that much, and it's a couple years old.

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      March 4, 2013 6:07 PM

      Matt Rorie! Good to see you but super shocked to see you posting here. This site could really use your writing chops so I hope it works out and you become a regular editor here!

      • reply
        March 4, 2013 6:11 PM

        Yeah, Keef is Batman and Rorie should be his Robin.

    • reply
      March 6, 2013 6:30 PM

      Official forum EXPLODING over inconsistent refunds:

      http://forum.ea.com/eaforum/posts/list/9338300.page


      some people getting refunds, posting their live support chat logs, while others get threatened with bans:

      http://i.imgur.com/K3KFAI3.jpg


      Their tears are delicious :3

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      March 6, 2013 9:05 PM

      Sounds good, I really wish it wasn't online only..

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      March 7, 2013 4:59 AM

      It sounds like the fans don't think highly of SC 5 (Meta score of 2):

      http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/simcity

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      March 9, 2013 8:58 PM

      Always online is just so horrible idea. Especially with a company like Electronic Arts who will anyway close the servers inside 2-3 years and then nobody will be able to play even the single player ever again.

      No EA games ever for me then in the future.

      Was thinking about buying this, but always online drm is just a straight no for me.

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