Developer: Maxis Software
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 5, 2013
SimCity 4 came out more than a decade ago, and people are still playing it to this day. It’s not hard to see why: Maxis delivered on the dreams of gamers and wannabe civil engineers, giving them both a sandbox and a toolbox to build the sprawling metropolis of their dreams. Fans of the series have been waiting a long time for a new SimCity, and it’s finally here. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this latest release will satisfy their simulation hunger.
SimCity is a city-building game in the most traditional sense. You’re combination mayor, city planner, industrial mogul, and god all rolled into one. Every city starts out as an empty plot, a blank canvas on which to paint your ideal version of society. You’ll be in charge of zoning residential, commercial, and industrial areas, as well as providing basic services to your miniature citizens. The game adds the concept of city specialization, a focused industry that lends your town a sense of personality and a healthy revenue stream, but beyond that it’s mostly similar to previous titles in the series. But when we come to the quality of the game, the similarities end.
Let’s start with the positive: SimCity looks and sounds really nice. It’s clear that a lot of care was put into the aesthetic qualities of the city and its citizens. Structures have a crisp, modern look when you’re zoomed far out or when you get up really close. The data maps are simply stunning, providing colorful and informative view into your city’s minor details. You’ll hear sound effects appropriate to the level of detail you’re currently viewing, and the layers of sound whoosh in and out as you zoom. Chris Tilton’s fully orchestrated score is a jovial contrast between epic and subdued, playing appropriate cues at just the right time.
These sights and sounds really enhance the satisfaction of building and managing your city. Plopping down buildings and adding on enhancements to them all happens quickly and easily, and everything snaps together like LEGO bricks. This building block formula is easy to get dazzled by, and you could easily sit enraptured for the first few hours of your city, clicking, dragging, plopping, snapping, and bulldozing. But then the problems start.
Perhaps the game’s greatest failing is its unforgivably small city size. With your city advisors and citizens constantly demanding more, bigger, and better, you’ll run up to the limits of your city borders quite quickly, left with few options for increasing your city’s revenue or aesthetics. Fans were excited to hear that this new entry added curved roads, but when building space is at a premium, you can’t afford to lose the efficiency of a simple, boring grid. Above all, it really feels like a slap in the face when you zoom out and view a varied and lush region view, only to be confined to a cramped building plot. Those dashed lines might as well be a steel cage.
Even if you did have more space to work with, those needy Sims still pose a problem. At first, the feedback they give can seem valuable. Giving your citizens a voice and a personality to express their needs is a clever solution to a difficult problem. Or it would be, if it actually worked. Residents of a high-rise apartment will clamor that there’s not enough shopping while a big box electronics store across the street will complain that they don’t have enough shoppers.
And yet, despite all the complaining, none of it seems to matter much. And that’s the real flaw with SimCity: ultimately you have very little impact on what actually happens in your tiny borough. No matter how much your city is demanding more attention to a certain area, you can ignore that suggestion completely and still build a thriving, financially viable city. It practically takes a nuclear meltdown to make Sims want to move, and sometimes even that’s not enough.
The lack of impact in the simulation is very real, and it’s baffling that Maxis shipped this product with their name and legacy attached to it. Did they not think that hardcore fans of the series wouldn’t dig into the numbers and charts and specifics of the city’s inner workings, or did they just not care? There may be enough simple fun here to keep casual gamers entertained for a short while, but simulation fans will be sorely disappointed by the lackluster strategy.
The addition of multiplayer in the form of region play is SimCity’s greatest undertaking, but it fails to provide a compelling reason to play with friends or strangers. Instead, you might find yourself claiming all the plots in a small region yourself and managing them independently. This multi-city play is one workaround to the small plot sizes, albeit a rudimentary one that shouldn’t even be necessary.
Keep in mind that I’m coming at all this as someone who has not spent much time with previous Sim games, and I’m not a huge fan of simulation games in general. And yet, even for me, SimCity is too shallow. There’s just not enough interesting stuff to do before you run up against barriers and problems. Building your city requires so little thought and effort that you’re essentially playing a slower-paced version of Tetris. Because of this very nature, it’s hard to get invested in any one city, so you won’t feel bad about trashing your ailing city and trying again.
All of this is without even commenting on the fact that for nearly a week after release, SimCity was completely and utterly unplayable for many. The game’s always-on nature has its benefits, but when it doesn’t work, you don’t play. For now, things seem to be going more smoothly, but as of this writing, vital game features are still turned off to reduce server load.
SimCity’s server downtime seemed like its biggest problem, but unfortunately that’s not the case. The game’s poor simulation and lack of personality leave it feeling dreadfully shallow, despite charming music and clean visuals. It’s sad to see the SimCity name on a game so devoid of strategy and planning, but it’s downright depressing how much this game will fail to satisfy the series most hardcore fans.