Readers beware: This review doesn't have a happy ending.
We acknowledge that the SimCity franchise is much-beloved by many gamers (including this reviewer), however the score and summary of the game has to be given to the game as it was experienced, not how it might be once all of the game's issues have been addressed.
The sixth SimCity game (fifth, if you don't count Societies) was released amid much expectation and controversy.
To say SimCity represents the pinnacle of gaming for some people is no understatement. Since its initial release in 1989 (based in part on a Stanislaw Lem short story), both Will Wright and Maxis have become household names. The Sims series, arguably the most popular game ever, was an offshoot of SimCity. SimCity is where it all began.
After our initial peek at the game at last year's E3, we predicted that the new SimCity was going to be incredible: the game looked amazing, and the new GlassBox engine promised "a simulation from the bottom-up, instead of the top-down." Sure, there were concerns about the always-online aspect, especially considering that SimCity inspires a sort of OCD; a "don't mess with my stuff" mentality (that's not exactly simpatico with forced multiplayer), but players were willing to give this new model a go.
Then release day arrived and, as any MMO player could have predicted, the game's servers fell over, resulting in many grumpy gamers, unable to even get past the game's loading screen. It took me over half a day before I was able to authenticate to a server and get to the game's main menu, and even then, I had a very patchy connection for the better part of a week.
But still: I was playing. The game offers a great tutorial, which is recommended - even if you are familiar with earlier SimCity titles - if only to get a handle on the new interface, which is intuitive and easy to use (despite the massive oversight of not including an 'undo' button or functionality). As with earlier games in the series, the basic idea of SimCity is to lay out the roads, zones (residential, industrial, and commercial), and utilities for your city, and to help it develop into the best city it can be - usually before you then destroy it by earthquake, UFO visitation, tornado, or other disaster.
In this new SimCity, cities are created on plots that are in turn located in a larger region. Cities in each region develop a relationship, as they are able to share resources, technologies, and work towards common goals together. The theory goes that different players claim cities in each region, and then play together side-by-side, usually developing a different specialisation for each city. (Of course those of us who prefer to go it alone can create a new private region and claim all of the cities for ourselves.) These plots are small enough so that players aren't likely to be able to "do it all" in one city; interaction between cities is the chief game mechanic here.
It's a quite different approach to the traditional SimCity modus operandi, and it would be interesting - if it worked. Unfortunately, due to a bug in filtering, any player who tries to join an existing region is presented instead with a list of regions that are already full, so both the player who wants to join an existing game, or the player who wants to create a new one, and have friends (or strangers) join in, miss out. This has meant that in my gaming playthrough I have yet to be able to experience any of the features that have been touted as key to the game.
(That said: I almost had a multiplayer experience. On my second day of playing I logged in to find a mysteriously-named city in my region had been created - with an almost alien-like layout of concentric circles - and then abandoned, over the course of several short hours.)
In any case, I was still able to make an ironic attempt to simulate the multiplayer aspect of the game by creating multiple cities in a region, and to try and get them to work together. While it took some time to build these from the ground up, after a while I noticed the benefits: one city didn't have the funds to invest in a fire station, but I noticed fire trucks from the neighbouring city would occasionally show up when someone had left the gas on.
(As a small aside, that house fire was beautiful to watch, in a non-pyromaniac sort of way: the house initially started to smoulder, and then as the fire took hold, it erupted into flame, sending billowing black smoke up into the sky.)
Specific technologies are also extended across the region: when I built a Department of Utilities in one city, after upgrading my City Hall, the buildings that were unlocked as a result were also unlocked for other cities in the region, which meant they could all upgrade their water pumping stations, or put in a recycling plant, without having to sacrifice a rare City Hall upgrade slot in that town as well.
As you play, citizens will let you know what they think of your city, via little thought bubbles that will appear from time to time. Someone may think "gee, I wish we had a park around here", while someone else might vent their frustration at how crowded the bus trip to work was. Other citizens will be more direct, and present you with small objectives or missions to complete. These could be as simple as to "place a park", or it could have more far-reaching consequences, such as to turn your city into the criminal headquarters of "Dr Vu". Of course you're free to ignore these if you wish, but they do add a bit of direction to the game.
Also giving your city development some direction are the different city specialisations you can choose from, such as tourism, mining, gambling, and education. In selecting a specialisation, other buildings and technologies are unlocked, which allows you to further develop your city in new and interesting ways.
Focusing on education, for example, unlocks the University building, which in turn affects the tech level of your industrial area. Universities also provide the opportunity to research new technologies, which then unlock different upgrades (such as an ultra-efficient new wind turbine.) It's these ripple effects that make the city specialisations so interesting and compelling to play with.
It is for this reason that it's all the more frustrating that the aspects of SimCity that feel the most "forced" are precisely those that drag down what could have been a great singleplayer game. Because for every awesome moment in the game, there was another that made me want to throw my keyboard out the window. And it appears that anything to do with connectivity, or getting data from the cloud servers, appears to be flawed.
- If the servers are down, you can't load your city. If they go down while you're playing, you'll have a grace period of 10 - 15 minutes, but after that you'll be kicked from the game.
- Users currently aren't able to trade, claim abandoned regions, or send each other presents.
- Selecting an established city in a region displays a population and wealth of zero.
On top of this there are a raft of other bugs and controversies that do little to inspire much confidence in the game. Furthermore, EA's attitude and response to some quite legitimate concerns by players is troublesome. (They are now offering players a free game as an apology, in an attempt to regain players' confidence in the company.)
To be honest, it's all a little bit heartbreaking. There are some lovely aspects to the game, that have been developed from the earlier experiences that so many people knew and loved. There's a great soundtrack, and the game has a polished look about it that makes you want to love it. But underneath, there is so much that's broken, that I currently wouldn't recommend the game - as I experienced it - to anyone not willing to go through the pain for a glimpse of the game they once loved.