The city that never sleeps, but always poops, needs water, and more electricity: PAR plays SimCity
SimCity is back. There’s no number or subtitle this time, and for good reason: this SimCity is an introductory adventure into city management and construction, and feels tailored to beginners.
Like any reboot, SimCity is likely to prove divisive. While long-standing fans may not take favorably to the multitude of changes reboots bring, they’re made to freshen up an image and re-approach old designs for a new age, and SimCity excels in this area.
An old dog learns new tricks
Previous SimCity games – and many simulation genre titles – can feel a bit like playing a video game version of Microsoft Excel; overwhelming amounts of statistical data, spread across various charts and graphs. SimCity keeps all that in the background so it can focus on making the act of building your city smooth, intuitive and fun.
It feels good to stretch out a piece of road and connect it to that new shopping district you’ve been working on. It’s satisfying to click, click, click, and zone out new residential, commercial, or industrial areas. When your citizens come to you with a complaint about the lack of access to education and you plop down a school and then extend said school’s influence with bus stops, happy faces sprouting up in a ripple, you can’t help but feel pride.
Yeah, enjoy that boardwalk on the beach full of upper-scale shopping. I gave that to you!
While not everything is pointed out for the uninitiated – I had to do some digging to figure out how to give myself a Department of Utilities and clean up the water pollution problem I was having – there are plenty of tips to follow should you find yourself stuck, and you can always pause or slow down time to assess a situation.
None of this is to say that the number-crunching has been totally dissolved, either. You’ll still have to work within your budget, and you can open up a panel that will detail exactly what’s costing you money, and what’s bringing in the dough. You can adjust taxes, take out bonds, and more. All the data is still there, it’s just in the background.
What is the city but the people?
SimCity forgoes the philosophy of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Indeed, if SimCity had a philosophy to preach, it may be that there can be no whole without the sum of its parts. Everything must work in tandem for your city to succeed, from forming alliances with neighboring communities, to making sure John Harrison can make it to work on time in the morning, while also making sure his children make it to school.
SimCity brings a top down focus to a city’s systems. You can zoom into a single household and follow a citizen on their daily route, learning their concerns and problems so you better understand what your city needs. It’s one thing to see a bar representing demand for a fire department on a graph, it’s another to see a citizen of your city get into his car, make the commute to work, only to have his business burn down while he’s inside.
The trade-off is that SimCity forgoes much of what felt like actual “management” in the previous SimCity games. Civil buildings – fire departments, police stations, medical clinics, waste disposal facilities, etc. – no longer have individual budgets, for example. So, instead of starting small and thus, funding small, you might end up placing a police station that can serve your city for some time. Instead of increasing that police station’s funding once the city expands, you instead add onto it via modules.
Modules work by expanding your already-existing structure to accommodate your expanding city. So, in the case of a police station, instead of building more stations or funneling more money toward it as in previous SimCity games, you can simply add more squad cars to increase the station’s effectiveness.
Simplifying isn’t always a plus, though. While I could tell that the difficulty had been raised from the beta Ben and I played, it never got overwhelming. I overreached in the early moments of my first city, and went deep into the red. I hadn’t even laid down any roads at this point other than my main road which broke off from the highway, and the game gave me several options. I could ask for help from other players – which wasn’t possible due to the early code I was playing – I could start a new city, or I could ask for a bond.
I opted for the bond, and was given a hefty sum of $25,000. This allowed me to expand further inland, where I placed my industrial zone, and also helped me develop a small suburban community for residents. Soon, I was back in the green, and paying off my bond without worry. The bonds are like “lives” in a more traditional game; they allow you to try something, fail, and come back at the problem, albeit with a minor setback.
While that may sound appealing to those who don’t like the stress of simulation games, SimCity feels like it has a decreased sense of challenge, and I almost wished some random disaster would strike so that I could be sent scrambling to help my city recover. I threw a tornado at myself once or twice, but that’s like trying to tickle yourself: it’s just not as satisfying when you know it’s coming.
Always on, never necessary
SimCity requires a constant Internet connection, which feels unnecessary. Since I played the game prior to launch, I didn’t run into anyone else, but I never felt the need to, either. Theoretically, you can lean on your neighbors for resources, but clean energy was attainable and simple, meaning I was self-sufficient from the get-go. I never needed coal or oil; solar energy, son!
My lack of contact also means that I didn’t get to experience creating one of SimCity‘s new features, the Great Works. Great Works are huge structures built with the cooperation of multiple cities, and each Work will bring a specific benefit to the area. The airport brings in tourists, and also helps ship freight, boosting your industrial strength. The arcology grants a bonus number of people to work in your factories, study in your schools, and shop at your malls.
Maxis set up a space center for pre-release reviewers to check out, and it was impressive; I look forward to contributing my own resources to such an endeavor.
Having an always-on Internet connection also all but eliminates the ability to take on SimCity in bite-sized chunks. Building your city and running it effectively can get tiring, and it would have been nice to be able to take the game with you on a laptop, pop it open for a quick 10-minute session and close down, but now you’ll have to make sure you have Internet access wherever you go, and you’ll have to account for the time it’ll take you to connect. It feels like a hassle, and it is.
I have no doubt that some people will enjoy this new multiplayer aspect of the game, but it feels unevenly implemented. Star Wars: The Old Republic suffered from the same problem; sure, you can play with other people, and you can make yourself dependent on them for your survival, but you don’t need to, so why are you being forced to adventure alongside them?
I also worry about the fans who will be left behind by this move. The SimCity community was never exactly begging en masse to be linked up with other users, and the beta forums are full of threads like this one, where people simply weren’t able to play the game they’d been invited to test, because the download was too much, and their Internet connection was too slow. The United States’ Internet infrastructure is abysmal in many regions, and while I myself never had any issues with the servers, I’m not playing on dial-up, nor was I playing while potentially millions of other customers will be.
We built this city on rock and roll
SimCity may feel too shallow for long-standing fans. It lacks many of the series’ previous standard features, like the ability to terraform, no more power lines or water pipes, and cities just don’t build into the megalopolises they once could.
Maps are also constricting, and it will take one or two tries before you get a sense for scale and how far apart your roads really should be from one another. My city started out looking like a nice, spread out little village, but once I started adding higher density streets and the zones began to evolve, city-puberty hit me like a ton of bricks, and I could see my layout for what it was: awkward and half-grown, with too many blemishes.
Newcomers to the SimCity series should feel more than welcome, as the game’s user interface and designs feel intuitive and easy to grasp. Handling sewage in real life is a shitty, complex undertaking. Handling sewage in SimCity is endearing, full of red globs going sploosh and drainage sound effects. I have no idea how to run an effective police force in the real world, but I can look at a simple overlay of what’s green and not green on my city’s map and understand: Oh. Police department goes there.
The game even features a mode for colorblind gamers, a feature that was, among others, highlighted by the AbleGamers Foundation, who focus on gaming’s “includification.” It’s a highly accessible title.
If SimCity 1 through Societies were collections of graph paper and spreadsheets of information, then the SimCity reboot is an artist with a blank canvas and set of brushes, told to interpret said data. It’s not as technical or satisfying to the mathematically-minded, but it is a challenge to create something both beautiful and efficient, and therein lies its charm, challenge, and addictiveness.
SimCity will be out for PC on March 5, and will be coming to Mac OS X later this year.