Feels like I should get this out of the way right off the bat: I have yet to see a server queue. I have yet to see the error message that has so plagued players on SimCity‘s first few days of release—if internet vitriol and Twitter buzz are any indication. My servers have always been open. I have played in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Not once have I been booted or denied entry. That’s not to say, of course, that these things don’t happen. That’s not even to say that they are not continuing to happen. It’s only to say that if I am basing this review of SimCity on my own experience, I will have nothing of note to say that involves the words “servers”, “always on”, or “disconnected”.
All I know is that every so often in the couple of weeks since it was released, I opened up my laptop, double-clicked the SimCity icon, it started up, and for the most part, I had a blast.
As someone who has not played a SimCity since the 2000 in the title meant the future, it’s almost shocking how naturally SimCity plays. You zone residential, industrial, and commercial sections, just like always. You plop police stations, fire stations, power plants, and airports, just like always (SimCity even calls it “plopping”, in a nice example of common parlance turning official). Your population becomes increasingly needy as your city grows, just like always. And you are nearly helpless to avoid the various disasters that can befall your happy little sims.
Just like always.
What sets this SimCity apart from previous iterations, then, is a matter of scope; whether this is a positive development for a given player depends on whether that player was more prone to gravitate toward SimEarth or SimAnt, back when those were both, you know, things that existed. Those looking to build sprawling metropolises that dwarf modern New York or Mexico City or Tokyo will be sorely disappointed because this is city-building on a small scale.
As in previous SimCity iterations, you start with nothing—nothing, that is, except a highway into town. This is important, because everyone and everything who visits your town—at least until you have a seaport and/or an airport—will be using this highway. The roads also stand in for the sewers and electricity, and serve as the framework upon which all of the familiar residential, commercial, and industrial zones can be built.
Any great city built in the SimCity of 2013 depends mightily upon the roads. Plan the roads carefully, and everything else will fall into place.
Once you start to build up and play for a while, however, you’ll find yourself up against an invisible wall. A city in SimCity can only exist in what equates to something like a four-square-kilometer space, which means efficiency is a must. There is no urban sprawl possible here; you can’t build out, so the only way to build is up. Build bigger roads and you can accommodate bigger residential buildings, at which point you can accommodate more commerce and industry, at which point you can, say, put in an airport, at which point you’ll need bigger roads for even taller residences.
What keeps this approach from feeling stagnant is the ability to coordinate your cities with other cities in a predefined “region”. This is the stated reason for the “always on” requirement that is in place for SimCity, which seems fine until you realize that you can handle all the cities in a region yourself if you like. This aside, the use of the city/region system makes for some extremely interesting situations, particularly if you end up in a situation in which you’re collaborating with people you don’t know. Handshakes that have you loaning out ambulances in exchange for energy sources (for example) make for a tense game that exists as much as a social experiment as it does a video game. Your city will work best if you are with two other people willing to work toward a prosperous three-city region. Your city will find itself flailing if you put too much faith in another city that flames out.
While it’s easy to look at and lament the limitations placed on your cities, the actual creation of your city is a very living and involving process. As your city is built up, you can see the individual sims who inhabit your town and get a look at what each of those inhabitants is doing (or trying to do) at any given moment. When you see a sim walking-while-puking its way to the hospital, for example, the urgency to build a new, closer hospital feels much higher than simply seeing a number on a chart that says “x sims think the hospital is too far away”. This is the first SimCity game in which it feels as though real, actual people are in those tiny buildings and driving those tiny cars, and playing with simulated sentience gives the moral choices involved in city-building—you know, like flipping a coin between building a school or a casino—that much more weight.
Look too closely under the hood, and problems begin to arise. After a certain point, SimCity attempts to simulate the numbers involved in population growth rather than trying to extend the simulation to hundreds of thousands of tiny people, which breaks down when they try to apply the same numbers to things like taxes and power use. The sims don’t behave the way “real people” would. The game’s traffic dispersion (and, by proxy, power and sewage dispersion) algorithms, for example, aren’t ones that make sense in “real world” simulations. You notice traffic jams where there shouldn’t be any. You notice empty hospitals when people are crying out for health care. The “Sim” in “SimCity” seems to suffer more as the numbers get bigger, which is unfortunate when you’re trying to make your way up the leaderboards or going after some of the game’s many achievements.
There are, of course, ways to game the system, and finding these are key to “success”, if “success” is purely defined by population. What the creators of SimCity went for here was a definition of “success” that means more than that, though. Creativity and collaboration rule the day here, and the ability to work with other citybuilders means near-infinite possibilities despite the initially restrictive feel of the game.
At this point, many of the issues that plagued SimCity when it launched have been ironed out. Early adopters have been given a free game for their troubles, and although the leaderboards, achievements, and the sorely-missed “cheetah speed” are still disabled in the name of reducing the strain on the servers, the game that remains is an entertaining one.
Still, the sense that it remains incomplete is inescapable, and it’s difficult to become invested in an incomplete experience. Despite the game it may one day become, its legacy is likely sealed, its ambitions a little too grand for the experience those ambitions would eventually birth.