Call it SimCity 5, call it SimCity 2013, call it anything you like. It’s the original city simulation game, and it’s back for its first major instalment in ten years. But what’s it actually like?
It’s impossible to talk about SimCity right now without addressing the elephant in the room. “Nelly,” I say, “how do you feel about the fact that inadequate server support has left thousands of paying customers unable to properly access SimCity for days following the launch?”
Unfortunately, I don’t speak elephant, but it’s clear from all the stamping and trumpeting that no one, person or pachyderm, considers this an acceptable situation. And while EA has been sufficiently humble regarding their failures, they’ve only addressed the botched implementation of the mandatory online component – the fact that it exists at all could provide enough fodder itself for an entire article.
But let’s accept that one day (probably quite soon) the servers will have the capacity to support the game and all of its features for every player. And let’s assume that if you’re actually interested in playing the new SimCity, you’re okay with online DRM. From that vantage point, what do you actually get when you play SimCity?
The answer is a good SimCity game. One that both looks stunning and has a deeper level of simulation than ever before. When you see traffic build up, you’re seeing actual traffic. When people go to work, you see them actually going to work. In a way, it’s almost too finely detailed: who can find the time to care about one guy’s trip to the shops when there are commercial land value problems to worry about?
One of the more frequent complaints from hardcore SimCity fanatics concerns the limited size of the city maps – but don’t be worried, you quickly adjust. Nor is it the restriction it might seem, for while cities are small, the “regions” system allows multiple cities to trade and share resources. Play a region alone, and you’ll have acres of space to build on and manage as your own. No foul.
But further than that, the thing that SimCity wants isn’t for you to relentlessly pursue your expansionist dreams, but to fine-tune your construct. This is a SimCity game for the Limited Resources generation, where every scrap of land demands to be carefully managed. You can precision-place everything from flagpoles and signs to extensions on the mayoral mansion. Roads can finally – finally! – be drawn curved, leading to more interesting design possibilities than ever. The fun of SimCity was always in sculpting your own slice of suburbia, and this game takes that to heart.
It doesn’t get everything right: the big problem is that your citizens are always eager to whine, but only ever do so in generalities. Finding solutions to their problems is too often down to guesswork and frustration. When a Sim complains about the lack of shopping (and they do, frequently) it could point to a lack of spending opportunities, poor access to the existing ones, or even just the wrong type of shopping. You’ll never know until you fix the problem – assuming it doesn’t just disappear as part of the game’s natural churn, which can’t ever be ruled out.
But most of our criticisms are still aimed at what features they left out rather than any they got wrong. The lack of subway transport is disappointing. The inability to turn off disasters (except in the restriction-free “sandbox” mode) is irritating, especially when Godzilla turns up and smashes your most expensive building into rubble mere minutes after you bankrupt yourself constructing it (true story). And the single-track of music, which starts off jaunty, atmospheric and evocative becomes a brain-chewing mutant earworm after a few hours through sheer lack of alternatives. But none of these things ruin the experience; they just make it a little bumpier than it could have been.
It’s easy to praise SimCity’s technical achievements as being the most impressive and ground-breaking yet, but the game itself only lands somewhere around “good”. It’s fun, fascinating and addictive in equal measure, and the online components (once they’re straightened out) should prove acceptably transparent. It’s easy to get into and endlessly rewarding. But it doesn’t do anything sufficiently new with the game. That said, after the disaster that was SimCity Societies (the 2007 “reinvention” of the franchise) it feels like it’s on the right track, and if you can stand to play it for half an hour you’ll be hooked. It might not be the best SimCity, but at least it’s worth of the name.
SimCity is out now on PC.
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