SimCity: Building a better (though flawed) city builder

March 26, 2013

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The return of a long-absent, beloved series is usually cause for celebration among players. When SimCity arrived, however, server problems turned that celebration into a circus of contempt. Now that the servers are working, the game itself can finally be evaluated. Does it live up to expectations?

SimCity is, as the name suggests, all about building cities. In that respect, SimCity is the best of the genre. The building blocks of any city are the roads, utilities and building zoning. Thanks to one of the most intuitive and powerful user interfaces I’ve spent time with, plopping down each is simple.

When placing roads, you can choose from predefined shapes (such as circles or squares), straight lines locked to a grid pattern or, my favorite, freestyle construction. As you might imagine, that can lead to quite distinct city layouts. Since everything is dependent on roads to operate — power, sewage and water all use roads to travel — it’s a good thing that all the buildings you can place automatically lock onto it. It’s impossible to plop anything on the map in a location where it just won’t work. Even the residential, commercial and industrial zones automatically follow the layout of the roads.

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As in the real world, cities generally need to be a certain size to support such things as colleges or mass transit. The steady unlocking of new building options are your city grows gives a welcome feel of progression and accomplishment. The cities themselves look and feel like growing, organic entities as the buildings change, grow or shrink in complexity and size, based on the overall health of your city and the desires of its inhabitants.

One of my favorite additions to the city-building toolkit is the ability to expand and customize the various buildings you can place. Need more room for students and better school access? Rather than building an entirely new school, you can add more buses and classrooms. Hospital or jail overflowing? Simply plop some more wings to deal with the excess population. Just about every building is expandable like this, even the sewage and power plants.

Another is the city specializations you can choose from. Many of the city plots you can choose from lend themselves naturally to a different specialization. Want to build a seaside resort funded by massive casinos? Go right ahead. How about a rich mining town or a college town? There are so many different directions you can take your city that each time I start building anew, I experience the same thrill as I did the first time.

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Two design decisions in particular have drawn plenty of attention and ire, though I consider both to have positive and negative effects. First, all the existing city plots are much smaller than they were in previous SimCity games. Right now, massive, sprawling metropolises just aren’t possible, though you can create dense cities filled with hundreds of thousands of citizens. For those who simply wanted the status quo, only new and pretty, this can only be a bad thing. However, the limited city size is helpful in focusing your attention on the different areas of your city, rather than getting lost and overwhelmed.

The other decision was most likely linked to the shrinking of cities, and that is regional support. Regions can support two to 16 cities depending on their size, and every design decision was built around making regional interactions between cities worthwhile and an integral part of city building. As you would expect, residents can travel between cities for work, vacation and even education.

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Good neighbors

The regional aspects of SimCity work very well, since you can fairly easily export such utilities as sewage and trash management, though good neighbors are important to have when you do that. I was buying sewage and trash service from a friend in one of my first cities, but when he destroyed his city, all those services stopped. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long before my citizens got upset about the sewage and trash piling up in their yards and began leaving my city.

Additionally, cities can share, buy and sell utilities with each other, and even work together to build regional buildings called Great Works. These range from “arcologies” to massive airports and spaceports. These take vast amounts of money and resources that would be beyond the reach of a single city, but which will benefit all the surrounding cities when complete. This is ostensibly the reason why even single-player games require server interactions, so that at any time anyone can invite others to join their region.

Everything about SimCity is gorgeous. You can zoom in to see individual Sims going about their days or you can zoom out and gaze across the regional landscape to the distant skyscrapers of your neighboring cities. It all looks beautiful and as detailed as it should be. When zoomed in, tiny details are visible, but when farther away, the details blur together pleasingly. The sounds of city life and the ambient music give you the sense of being in a bustling town, just as you would want.

Just about everything SimCity sets out to do, it succeeds in doing very well, and as long as the servers are working, this is the best city-building game around. Unfortunately, that is one huge caveat to have to include. The simple fact of the matter is that this is an online-only game that is entirely dependent on working servers to be playable. And, as the first week after release showed us, that is an entirely too easy thing to take for granted. EA has fixed the existing server problem, but the threat of future outages or EA pulling the plug on server support entirely down the road loom too large to ignore.

SimCity is an excellent game with a plenty of reasons to recommend it to anyone and just one reason not to. It’s a big reason, no doubt, but not big enough to keep me from recommending it to anyone who wants to play mayor.

Pros: Beautiful visuals, expandable buildings, I can build roads however and wherever I want
Cons: My roads are a mess because I can build them however I want, requires working servers to play

Score: 4/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.

{ 2 comments }

Eric Albuen March 26, 2013 at 11:16 am

Your roads need more Jersey jughandles.

Shawn Vermette March 29, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Making any aspect of my cities like Jersey is something I refuse to do.