EA has been rebooting several franchises as of late. Since ten years separate the latest SimCity from SimCity 4, it is only appropriate that the franchise goes back to the drawing board. In some ways, it works phenomenally well: detailed graphics, building customization not seen in past games, and a variety of different road types.
Unfortunately, not all is positive in the land of SimCity. The game is hampered by a fatally flawed always-online DRM scheme, extremely small maps, and a multiplayer component that feels broken. If you can get past these considerable barriers, there is plenty of fun to be had and long hours of city planning to be spent well into the early morning.
Let's start with the positive. The first thing that you will notice is that the game looks brilliant. The level of detail goes down to the signs and bricks on the side of buildings. The shadows of these structures move with the position of the sun. Street lights and lamps inside of houses come to life as dusk approaches. You can witness the morning commute and rush hour in real-time as your Sims go to work.
Seeing your city spring to life is an exciting experience but it also serves a practical purpose. Itís a powerful tool to find out where traffic congestion is located. The game lets you upgrade streets from low-density to medium and eventually high. I usually plan avenues out in advance since you cannot upgrade a street (even a high-density street) to an avenue due to the large width of avenues. In this game, the widest avenue supports streetcars, which replace the subway system from SimCity 4.
The street system plays another important role in the game: it controls the flow of power, water and sewage. Of course you need the necessary buildings to provide services, such as a power station or water tower, but as long as your Sims have access to a road they will receive the services that they need. This removes the hassle of having to build lines of water pipes or power cables making it a definite improvement, albeit a minor one.
Zoning is quite a bit different this time around. There are still the three primary zones of residential, commercial and industrial, which themselves include low density, medium density and high density. However, the density of your zone is now completely determined by the density of your street. So if you zone an area along a low density street, the game will only build low density structures. Logically, it makes more sense and is easier since you can just upgrade the road if you want higher density buildings to organically begin construction.
Eventually your citizens are going to demand more than just the bare necessities of shelter, water and transportation. At this point in the game you should have a large enough city to accommodate a school, police station, fire house and clinic (I usually build them in that order). Education is obviously a big part of any strong economy. If your city only has uneducated Sims then the most development you will get is dirty industry and low wealth commercial enterprises.
The first step is building a grade school, which will provide a basic education to your Sims. Eventually you will want a high school and finally a community college or university. Grade and high schools can be expanded if there is enough space to include additional classrooms and a gymnasium. You will also want to take advantage of the bus system, which allows you to cover the entire area of the city rather than having a set radius like in SimCity 4. The university has a number of different schools, such as law and medicine, which can improve the lives of your Sims through a better health care and legal system.
It should go without saying that you will need a police force, fire department, clinic (or hospital), and garbage/recycling collection in order to keep your Sims happy. If your Sims are unhappy, especially ones that have money, they will move. As is true in real-life, poor Sims cannot just pick up and leave but their wealthy neighbors certainly can and will if you do not provide them with safety and amenities such as parks, cultural centers and good education.
Most of that is not new to the SimCity franchise. However, Maxis made some notable changes. City Hall and Mayor's Mansion can be upgraded by adding on new wings. This is especially important for City Hall, since these wings are required to unlock certain services. For example, the Department of Education is needed to build a high school or university. A university is needed to conduct research, which in turn unlocks goodies such as improved nuclear or wind turbine technology. This makes SimCity feel oddly similar to a real-time strategy game with its tech tree.
The good news is that you don't have to upgrade the City Hall in each individual city. Once you build a department building, the unlocked benefits are made available throughout the region. This gives you some flexibility in where to build things, which will prove very important later on in the game when you are quickly running out of space.
Collecting tax revenue is also a little different from past games. The default tax rate is 9-9-9 for residential, commercial and industrial zones. While you can still adjust the tax rates for these three different zone types, if you want to change the tax rate for a specific group (low, medium or high wealth) then you first need to build a Department of Finance. Again, this is part of the tech tree. Some people might find it annoying, especially since you have to meet certain population limits to add each of these different departments onto your City Hall, but it's a twist to the formula that ultimately makes the game more challenging.
Now that we've established the basic elements of the game, what has been added? Aside from the already mentioned road and zone changes, the developers added a streetcar system as the primary method of mass transit. Natural resources play a huge role. No longer can you plop down a wind turbine just about anywhere and expect wind energy. Specific parts of the map (or in some regions, no parts) are good for wind energy. The same is true with coal, which you now have to mine or purchase from the global market for an additional expense. Water is likewise a precious resource.
Resources can at least theoretically be shared between other cities in a region. I say theoretically because every time I attempted to share a resource, the game would allow me to set up the exchange but would never actually follow through with shipments of said resource. Meanwhile my city was burning to the ground as a lack of power coming from a neighboring city meant no water pumps. Eventually I just gave up and purchased a nuclear power plant on the edge of the map, which I wanted to badly avoid due to its size.
Which leads perfectly into my main gripe about this game: the maps are ridiculously tiny. It is not at all inconceivable for your map to be filled within three hours, especially in terrain that is not conducive to building (i.e. mountains or lots of water). You find yourself constantly reorganizing buildings and zones to maximize space. In a sense, this is a good simulation of what it is like to be a real-life city planner in older American cities like Boston, Chicago or New York where redevelopment and finding ways to make the best use of space is paramount. This is definitely not a game that encourages urban sprawl. If you are hoping to have a giant concrete jungle, youíre going to be sadly disappointed.
The region that you find yourself in hardly lends itself to creating the image of a metropolis. Instead it feels like a disjointed mass of buildings that is abruptly cut off in a nonsensical manner. As you build up the city, it will not be uncommon to have mid to high density buildings along the edges of the map. Having open space for as far as the eye can see just beyond the imaginary white line that marks the city's cut off point is more than a tad bit ridiculous - it completely spoils the illusion of a thriving metropolis.
Further, fans will likely feel slighted by the exclusion of a few key features from SimCity 4. Gone are the subway systems that made mass transit such a viable option. Streetcars and buses are the only intra-city public transit options (although ferries, passenger rail and an airport will let your Sims travel outside of the city). Highways are gone completely. Connections to other regions are limited to pre-defined roads. Agricultural zones are no more. If seeing your town destroyed isn't your thing, too bad. You cannot turn off disasters in this game without going into "sandbox mode", turning off achievements, increasing the amount of money you have and unlocking all buildings in the process. Terraforming the land to fit your needs is not possible (the game automatically adjusts the land when you are trying to place a road or zone). Lastly, the developers stunningly removed city ordinances.
All of these complaints, aside from the size of the maps, can be mostly forgiven with nothing more than a grumble. In fact, the forced efficiencies that the game's limitations throw at you make for a challenging experience. But what cannot be easily forgiven is EA's desire to so vigorously attack piracy that they made the game literally unplayable for legitimate paying customers. Being forced to wait in twenty minute countdown intervals because a server is too busy is simply unacceptable.
I am not going to harp on the well-publicized woes of fans attempting to just get the game's servers to work but the reliability does call into question whether the $60 investment is reasonable. Requiring a constant Internet connection for what is mostly a single-player experience was idiotic to begin with. The problems could have been seen from a mile away had they only learned from rival Blizzard's equally pathetic rollout of Diablo III. I hope that the company realizes their mistake and will not repeat it. Better yet, they should remove the persistent online requirement completely.
Connection issues aside, the online multiplayer did surprisingly little to satiate fans anyway. Bugs have been found where users can visit a city within their region and place parks around the map when it was meant to be spectator-only. These things happen and it will get fixed yet it just goes to highlight the problems that the game faces online. Uncooperative neighbors are one thing. Having a person claim a plot of land in a region and then not develop it is an entirely different problem that can break the game. After all, you will be relying on those cities to at least theoretically work with each other. It would be great if you could work cooperatively, supplying needed resources and specializing like the developers intended but my experience so far has shown that it does not work that way in practice.
Ultimately, the shortcomings are a bit overwhelming. At the height of its dominance, SimCity was once the best city building game out there. Now it feels as if they are taking their cues from City XL, shifting the focus away from building the biggest metropolis possible and moving towards a compact, specialized city with exceptional detail. To put things in perspective, SimCity 2000 could support over 20 million citizens; SimCity 4 just below 10 million; youíll be lucky to top a half million in the latest SimCity. In fact, there is an achievement just to reach 2.5 million in the entire region. It's too much of a departure from the winning formula of past games for diehard fans to completely embrace. When you add that on top of the other issues, it becomes a game that falls short of its potential by leaps and bounds. You will find some enjoyment out of SimCity if you go in with an open mind and accept the fact that building a limitless city is not in the cards but that's only the case if you can log into the servers in the first place.