There was a day when you could tell someone that one of your favorite games had to do with virtual city planning and they'd look at you with a cocked head. Today though the SimCity franchise has a rabid fanbase and the Sim franchise overall has expanded into two dozen games and equally as many expansion packs. But after 10 years the game that started it all has been dormant for far too long - EA has revived SimCity giving it an almost complete remake. It's controversial, it's different, and at times, is brilliant. But does it work?
Let's get this out of the way right now - the "always online" requirement for SimCity is, right now, the game's greatest strength and greatest weakness. We've documented the launch issues on this very site - thousands of people unable to play the game because of server troubles. It also calls into question as to what happens four, five, or six years down the road if and when EA decides to shut down the servers - something we've seen from EA among other publishers for their multiplayer titles occurring far to frequently. The worst part about it in this case is it would not only kill multiplayer, but singleplayer as well. This sort of "feature" should never be an absolute - giving players options is always a better choice.
There's another interesting problem that occurs because of this - the ability to experiment is essentially killed. No longer can you test out an idea in your city and if it fails, simply reload. If you spend all of your money on an replica of the Eiffel tower only to have your city go broke the next day, you can't go back and fix it. Cities are saved instantly to the server and there doesn't seem to be anyway around it.
Those weaknesses aside the social and online design of SimCity changes the dynamic of the game in a way that's completely different from previous titles. Players are no longer trying to build a huge sprawling city on their own - instead their city is part of a network of cities - a megalopolis of sorts - with each city affecting, supporting, and strengthening each other.
At its core SimCity is still the same. Players are tasked with laying out a city in any manner they wish - placing down zones of residential, commercial, and industrial - and watching their virtual terrarium grow. You'll supplement your city with police, fire, and health service as well as worrying about utilities like power, water, sewage, and garbage. It's a careful balancing act of controlling traffic through mass transit, keeping Sims happy by entertaining them, and bringing in the income required to actually grow the city further.
The strategy of SimCity isn't very apparent early on, you'll most likely haphazardly throw down roads and zoning, but that tends to bite you in the later game. City sizes are more restrictive, and while there's ample room to work with, once you cap out your land space you'll need to worry about optimizing what you have to continue to grow. In one of my regions as soon as I hit 100k citizens I started to run into trouble. On too many occasions I made errors of where to place sewage outflow pipes, or built key infrastructure right on top of an oil deposit - causing me to lose precious simoleons down the line while I demolished and rebuilt these. Things get further complicated because of the way SimCity requires you to "upgrade" your infrastructure instead of zoning ahead of time.
The biggest difference folks will find if you came from previous SimCity titles is that roads are you delivery system for everything. Water, electricity, sewage, and anything else are tied to it. When you zone an area it snaps to the edge of the roads and the size of what can grow there is governed by the size of the road. This replace the previous density types of zoning. The trick is - as your city grows these areas want to upgrade to the next density type- meaning you need to upgrade the road. If you don't plan for this eventual upgrade - leaving enough space for a skyscraper where a group of townhouses once were for instance - it simply can't happen. Special buildings are also modular allowing you to add upgrades to them like more patient wings in a clinic or more garages for fire trucks - once again you need to plan for and make room for these things when building.
So aside from some of this planning strategy there's so many details going on under the hood of SimCity I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the cities themselves and how they look and behave. Zooming down to street level showcases tiny little Sims running around their business - reminding me a bit of Rollercoaster Tycoon - and clicking on them will give you detailed info about where they are going/coming from and what they want. Making your Sims happy is how you grow the city so this is a very important aspect of the game. But beyond this there's simply so much life happening - police chases, kids playing, firemen putting out fires, baseball games at parks, people getting on buses. There really is a sim life happening here and you can SEE it - it's not something you have to imagine. It really is quite impressive and in a way it makes you care about the game - it gives it such style.
The biggest strategy change in SimCity is the fact that you don't have to do everything yourself. Your city can be supported by other cities - so while initially you might have to have a power plant - later on you can reclaim that space by purchasing power from a neighboring city and demolishing yours. Several core utilities like water and sewage can all be outsourced simply by going to the region view and clicking what you want and deciding which city to buy it from depending on the price.
So while all this is very cooperative in nature there are some pretty big shortcomings here. The biggest I've found is communication. Maxis has only given us a little chat window to do your cross city planning in - and because the game is asynchronous - it doesn't suit itself well to leave messages for other players. If I want my city to be the "power producer" it's difficult to let other players know this. There are other core upgrades you can accomplish that benefit other cities - like building a department of tourism so your other connected cities can build landmarks. It's just completely odd that there are several things going on in the bigger region view that aren't communicated as well as all the graphs and details you can get in the normal city view. Even the big group projects - called special works - which all players contribute resources too are difficult to get off the ground because it's easy to miss there's one even pending.
There's so much going on in SimCity that even after 30 hours of play and two cities later I'm still learning the ins and outs. The disasters are still here and they are more inventive and "fun" than before. The addictive nature of fine tuning roads so traffic can flow smoothly still exists. When you get lost in a game of SimCity hours can go by as you try to accomplish your own internal goals for the city - or one of the many challenges that pop up now for you to complete. While the always online nature of the game is currently a hindrance, once things start to run smoothly it should really open the game up. Hopefully Maxis will be able to improve the region view to allow better communication for co-op play and then we'll all truly be able to build our own megacities.