One of the great quandaries of the game reviewer is whether to judge a game based on its features and faults at release, or if it is indeed right and charitable to give some consideration to subsequent patches. In some cases, however, the writer is released from such ethical struggles by virtue of the fact that no amount of patching, updating, or feature-adding will salvage a wreck which should never have seen the light of an optical drive in the first place. SimCity Societies, which was released last November by Electronic Arts, has been updated five times, the most recent of which was released in May. The updates have contained increasingly substantive improvements, including rebalancing, improved mechanics, and a whole new mode of play. While the changes have generally been for the better, Societies remains the unattractive and mentally questionable bastard child of the Maxis game family.
Developed under the oversight of Tilted Mill (Children of the Nile, Caesar IV), the game has already been alternately flayed and praised for departing so sharply from the intense city-management complexities of SimCity 4. Will Wright, the creator of the original SimCity, has been working on Spore (due out this fall) and therefore reportedly had very little involvement in the Societies project. Still, one cannot blame Tilted Mill for adulterating Will Wright’s pure vision for his line of city simulators. Societies plays very much like an all-grown-up version of the all-but-forgotten SimTown, and in fact echoes some of the graphical and social-engineering elements of the cancelled 2001 Simsville project.
Basic gameplay is fairly straightforward. Buildings are placed individually—including homes and offices—so the player decides that the software studio goes here, next to the high-rise condos, with an ice cream parlor in between. Each building either generates or consumes a variety of resources, which must be kept in balance: workers with jobs, citizens with “venues” (places to have fun), businesses with patrons. Additionally, each building either produces or requires one or more “values”—productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge. If you build a Liberal Arts College, for instance, without the requisite combination of creativity and knowledge, the building will not function (and you’ll get something like a no-power zot flashing above it). By building objects like decorative murals, playgrounds, public libraries, and elementary schools, you can increase your creativity and knowledge scores sufficiently to support more and more buildings. As your total score for each value increases, more and more buildings are unlocked.
Gone are the days of finding the right tax rate balance, zoning large tracts of land and hoping people move in, and micromanaging city services. Gone, too, are the mundane details of transportation planning, the endless color-coded mini-maps, and the overlapping circles indicating police and fire coverage. The game takes care of these things for you. The problem is, many of us die-hard SimCity fans like micromanaging. Playing Societies for three straight hours recently had the net effect of making me desperately wish I had just played SimCity 4 for three hours. It also inspired me to buy a used copy of SimTown for my son, so perhaps the best that can be said about Societies is that it reminded me of a much older game that was actually fun.
Societies would not have been so disappointing were it not for the sheer brilliance of the concept behind it. As an anthropological experiment, devising cities that display differing sets of values to compare the end results is a truly compelling idea. However, the value sets are extremely limited, and, more to the point, have very little impact on the individual SimCitizens’ behavior. A “creative” city won’t demand different types of venues and jobs from any other type of city; the differences are mainly cosmetic, especially at early levels. And once the player decides what type of city he wants to build, the process is rather formulaic: build x buildings in order to unlock y; lather, rinse, repeat. Most of the player’s time is spent in what can best be described as tech-tree grinding, not in the rich and dynamic resource management that has characterized earlier SimCity games.
The place-your-own-buildings mechanic marks another sharp departure from the traditional SimCity formula. It was the driving force behind SimTown, which was aimed squarely at the 6-to-10 set. While user-placed buildings would seem to give the player more control, it turns out that zoning an area and seeing it fail to develop is an important piece of feedback for the player, especially in the learning stage. It seems that Tilted Mill was so preoccupied with simplifying the game mechanics that they, in fact, made it too simple—by disallowing failure, Societies is stripped of the joy of success.
Gameplay improves significantly with the addition of the five updates that have been released at simcity.com. The earliest updates merely patched a few bugs, but the fifth, which was released in May, actually added considerable functionality to the game. The whole finance system was re-balanced, and as a result, I actually—gasp!—ran out of money in the early stages of my new city, those hedonistic days when a girl can still build like nobody’s watching and bulldoze like she’s never been hurt. It was rather pleasant, actually, to feel like my choices had consequences, a factor that had been missing in the unpatched version of the game.
Update 5 also added policymaking to the mix, which allows players a bit more control over the impact of certain buildings. Schools can be granted the power of indoctrination; universal health care will increase the capacity of medical buildings. Yet the policies available lack depth and nuance, and except for the option to issue a bond, most of them are designed to augment certain types of cities, but don’t really work in others.
The most exciting aspect of the May update, however, is without a doubt the addition of scenarios. Fans of the old-school SimCity 2000 will remember scenarios as pre-built cities with some kind of concrete goal attached to them. There are six available, ranging from “relaxed” to “nightmare” in difficulty. I played a medium-difficulty scenario in which my goal was to create a happy, highly spiritual society of no more than 800 people. I reached most of the goals easily and early, but found myself frustrated by a lack of feedback about why I always seemed to have one or two pissed-off sims even though everyone else was deliriously happy. My frustration grew exponentially by some new bug introduced by the patches (!!) that caused Societies to crash about once an hour, forcing a hard restart each time. Fortunately, Tilted Mill was aware enough of the potential for such issues to include an auto-save feature, so I never lost more than ten minutes’ worth of progress. You’ll pardon me, I’m sure, for not awarding kudos on that particular brand of foresight. Their inclusion of an auto-save feature is roughly akin to a used car salesman offering complimentary airbags on a car with no brakes.
Electronic Arts seems determined to make the best of a bad go, having released a box set on June 23 which retails for $39.99. The set includes Societies and its inexplicable expansion pack, Destinations, which brings commercial tourism into the mix; SimCity 4 and its indispensable expansion pack, Rush Hour; and the bizarre, exorbitantly titled, yet oddly satisfying puzzle game The Sims Carnival SnapCity, which is something like the love child of 1989’s original SimCity and a high-budget Tetris knockoff (SnapCity is also available at Yahoo! Games for $19.99; the one-hour time-limited demo is free). I may consider trading in my standalone copy of Societies for the boxed set, but mainly because it’s the cheapest way I can think of to replace my long-lost and sorely missed copy of SimCity 4 and get a neat arcade-style puzzle game while I’m at it.