SimCity (2013) Review

SimCity is not a perfect game. By now, you may even have the impression SimCity is a broken game. And it’s true: SimCity is a deeply flawed game. Despite this, SimCity is a fun game, and one that I’ve found myself going back to even amidst any number of reasons not to. While Maxis and EA have stumbled out the gate, it’s easy to see SimCity as a game that strategy simulation players will go back to time and time again. If, that is, the game can ever be made playable as the development team had intended.

The original SimCity was a fluke. In a landscape of adventure games, RPGs and platformers of the late 80’s and early 90’s, who could’ve guessed that a city-building strategy game would dominate the PC mindshare for two decades? Will Wright did, and his Emeryville-based Maxis studios would produce four primary SimCity games, the smash The Sims series, and a plethora of creative spinoffs before this year’s back-to-the-drawing-board reimagining of the franchise’s core concept, harkening back to the one that started it all. While only unveiled at last year’s E3, the team had reportedly been working on the title for nearly 5 years—a luxurious amount of time for any franchise given the reliance upon annual releases, including for parent publisher Electronic Arts. In that time, Maxis has given us a game that is both a technical marvel and a head-scratcher.

SimCity was billed as a return to form after the lukewarm response to 2007’s SimCity Societies, and in many ways it brings back the charm and fun of SimCity 2000, 3000 and SimCity 4. One of the major design decisions was to move away from the larger maps and customizable worlds of previous releases. Upon startup, players select a region to begin their city; there are eight regions of varying sizes and terrains, and each has available squares where you chose to begin your world-building. Each region has multiple city locations and at least one Great Work, a landmark such as an International Airport or the series’ famed Arcologies that is a boon for all the cities nearby, provided you have the resources and money to build them. SimCity is no longer a single-player service, and the region concept is key to that: in private regions, you can invite your friends via Origin to join your game and build their own cities next to yours, while anyone can join a public region and build—or not build—to their heart’s content.

The framework of SimCity, once you’re settled in your region, is essentially the same as in past outings. You lay roads, you zone for Residential, Commercial, and Industrial buildings, connect power and water, and watch them run. The basics are tweaked just enough to make SimCity feel comfortable and familiar, but layered and unique as well. In the past, zone density was based on what you chose, be it low-density trailers or high-density skyscrapers; here, the density of your city is determined by the roads themselves. Roads can be upgraded and downgraded to accommodate your designs for city density, and for the first time you can curve the shape of your roads to create more natural-looking city design. In fact, roads are the key to everything you do in SimCity. You cannot lay down zones without a road; water, power, and sewage are all connected via roads; special buildings like fire stations, parks, and landmarks need a ‘plop point’ on a road before they can be built. Roads and avenues are the pipeline for everything SimCity aspires for, which is unfortunately where some of the problems of the game lie.

Curved roads are fun, and getting rid of power lines and manually placed sewer systems is a helpful streamlining of services, but the emphasis on roads makes for some pretty serious hiccups in how the game functions. One of the highly touted features of the new SimCity from Maxis was the introduction of their Glassbox Engine. In addition to high visual fidelity, Glassbox is what makes SimCity come to life—beyond just the different power, water, and traffic systems, the engine was designed with the intention to let you follow the everyday lives of your Sims. From the moment they leave their home, you can follow individual Sim-izens as they walk or drive to work or school, go to the park, attend a monster truck rally, and return home at night. Where SimCity falters, however, is in how all these systems are handled. The lives of your Sims, and even their names, are never the same day-to-day. You could follow Todd Anderson from his home in the morning to work, which will always be the closest available job, regardless of income or education level, and then back to whatever is the closest available home—which may not be the one he came from that same morning. The problem lies in the systems themselves: Glassbox equates Sims the same as it does those resources like power and water, rather than with any account for how they might actually function in a real society. And all of those functions run along the roads, including the lives of your Sims.

SimCity’s other faults are not at the ground level—some of them even lie beneath the ground. In SimCities past, the land available for your city to grow was massive, allowing for massive metropolises to emerge in a matter of hours. You could customize your terrain, create mountains and hills, and change the course of rivers, and on and on. In order to accommodate the Glassbox features, and emphasize their multiplayer/region-centric gameplay, all of these elements have been omitted from SimCity. City size is the same no matter where you choose to begin in a region, and customizing that set space is limited yet again by road placement. Running roads and placing buildings on terrain of various elevations can slightly shift the existing land masses, but not to a significant degree, and nowhere close to levels previously allowed in games past. Once you’ve built your city to the limits, there’s nowhere to go but upward, relying on construction of high-rises offices and high-density residential buildings to continue your city’s progress. This can look a bit silly when you see a high-wealth high-density skyscraper next to the open field that represents the space between other cities in your region, but is more of an aesthetic concern than a technical one.

The technical concerns lie with resource management and city specialization. One of the focuses of SimCity is the latter, choosing to focus the course of your development along different paths such as Mining, Gambling, Tourism, and devoting all your resources to that goal. Maxis is great at giving you the tools you’ll need to make any particular focus attractive and possible, but fails to illuminate just how to do so. There are no tutorials on creating a Trading-centric city, no guides for making Education a priority, just the pieces to pick up and play. Some players may prefer this approach, and indeed it puts the onus on the player to determine their city’s success or failure and thus can be truly rewarding to see your well-laid plans develop as you envisioned. But that only works if the systems you’re relying on function as they should. On a number of occasions I would have multiple Oil Wells or Mines on heavily concentrated deposits, with Trade depots in place to ship those commodities off to the game’s World Market—an online stock system that determines the value of your goods based on the player base’s supply and demand—only to never come close to the production needed to develop the next module and begin the process of refining those materials. The same goes for drawing in tourists to attractions such as Casinos or Stadiums; one minute you may find your venues packed and bringing in money, the next they could wind up empty and hemorrhaging cash.

In spite of these issues, I still find myself drawn back to the game’s core gameplay just as I did in my youth. SimCity is a vessel for creativity, and though there may be cracks in that veneer, Maxis has crafted an experience that is hard to put down once you log in. There is fun to be had in laying down buildings and growing them with the game’s Modules—adding jail cells to Police Stations, Hazmat engines to Fire Houses, and Auditoriums to High Schools is one of the coolest aspects of the game. SimCity can also be a beautiful game; even at low settings—as my three-year-old PC has to function at—the way your town lights up as night falls can be a thing to see. Added visual filters allow you to present your city in different moods, almost as a tailored portrait to admire much as you would create on Instagram.

SimCity’s launch will be remembered for some time, but once the dust has settled it will be remembered as a game that dreamed just a little too big. The lofty goals of Maxis fell just short of their final product, and perhaps that’s alright. SimCity is a good game that could have been great with just a little more time and a lot more network stability. With fixes on the horizon—Cheetah speed is finally back!—and expansions sure to be in the blueprint, SimCity will be on the collective minds of their fan base for the foreseeable future. Whether that is a good thing remains to be seen.