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I look at cities differently now. Streets that wind through the houses like arteries, pumping the lifeblood of power and water to their doors. I see areas zoned for living, allocated for shops and cordoned off for industrial use. It is beautiful in both its outward simplicity but also its considerable complexity. Cities, real cities, are living breathing beasts, infinitely intricate, evolving and moulding the land to suit their purpose. Meanwhile Sim cities, simulated cities, are simple toys. Imitations that remain fun for awhile but are ultimately left to languish on the pile of finished novelty playthings.
Toys do not generally require a constant internet connection either. Let’s cut to the chase here, since it has been plastered across all gaming news outlets. SimCity requires an internet connection. You must log on to one of the available servers to play the game. Your saved cities and regions are fixed to those individual servers, so to access the same game you must connect to the same server. If your internet connection is cut while playing then there is a twenty minute timeout that will kick you from the game, your progress lost from the moment your connection failed. It is not ideal and seemingly unnecessary.
At launch attempting to play the game was a nightmare. A complete gamble filled with queues and random disconnects leading to more queues. Admittedly the situation is far better now, with fewer problems or disconnects, however many servers, particularly in the USA, remain full and inaccessible. It has been a PR and marketing disaster caused by thinly veiled DRM and nothing more. Indeed, so much so that EA have as a gesture of goodwill offered a free game to those who purchased Simcity at launch. However we cannot judge a game purely by the frustrating packaging it is encased in, for inside that hazy mess of networking is a toy worth playing.
It all starts with a road. After selecting an unclaimed plot of land in a region you must build roads outwards from the intercity highway. Once a handful of offshooting roads are laid down you then paint your designated zoning areas onto their edges, ensuring an ample mix of residential, commercial and industrial. Power plants, water tanks, waste disposal, sewage and all the rest of the city’s utilities are then plonked down, always adjacent to roads, in systematic areas to ensure the best coverage for the least cost to land value. No-one wants a dirty coal plant in their back garden. For anyone familiar with the series it immediately feels natural and even those encountering the world of SimCity for the first time will most likely feel in control in less than an hour of play.
There is such a simple elegance to it. Roads are laid down with ease using a variety of tools to shape them as you choose, then your zones are strapped to the roads with similar ease. Somehow the mix of placing roads and zones feels rather like painting a picture, with automatic flowing lines, and there is a definite relaxing attitude to the game’s style and presentation. Graceful and therapeutic music guides you along as you watch your city turn from rural tranquility to urban sprawl. A far cry then from the statistical block-filled jumble of the previous incarnations, now those arcane numbers are converted to warming coloured overlays showing the levels of crime, healthiness and all manner of useful information. It is wonderfully natural and exceedingly simple.
Yet, this may well be SimCity’s greatest weakness. By catering for the lowest common denominator, with helpful advisors popping up at every moment, and always urging on the side of simplicity the game feels weak. Cities grow and even flourish to a degree with the most basic of input and there is a sense that everything is just a little too nice. And since everything tends to work on the first attempt the sense of achievement is severely diminished.
Perhaps the most frustrating problem any mayor has to overcome is the ludicrously small plots of land they are given to build their metropolis. Even the most flat and water free terrain (which cannot be altered) is covered within a few hours play leaving the player with the extraordinarily tedious job of maximising the space they have available. Once room has run out, that wonderfully relaxing feeling that is present at the start is lost, as instead you become a mayor of clinical efficiency. Roads must be formed in dull blocks to maximise the area and the city ends up looking like every other city in the simulated world.
There is reason to this madness. Apparently. The size restrictions on each city ensures that they cannot promote all areas of industry and must instead specialise. Mayors can concentrate on mining, oil farming, electronics or tourism but attempting to target more than two of these areas will simply result in a cramped city filled with industry but space for residents or shops. It may focus the game more but if destroys those dreams of constructing a sprawling metropolis providing for everyone and everything. It is a mystery to us (though Maxis claim it is to do with resources) why these desires could not have been catered for in some alternative game mode.
Each city lies within a region containing other cities ranging from a small peninsula with just three other plots of land to huge countries with a dozen other potential cities. Regions can be made private so a single mayor can take multiple cities (which has its own frustrations as we shall see), but most games will be played with randoms. The idea is to focus each city on a specific economy, particularly if the land is wealthy with coal or oil deposits. These cities can then take full advantage of the resources pushing the economy forward. Each mayor can send any resource or municipal services (such as garbage trucks, police or ambulances) to another city to help out, and this can raise money of its own.
The idea is to create a happy thriving region, within which the cities can work together to build the great works (a very similar idea to a wonder in Civilisation) such as a solar farm to provide almost infinite energy or a disturbingly science fiction arcology where a massive population of eager workers can live. Sadly, as with most things in SimCity, it rarely works out this way. Instead, particularly in public games, players will concentrate on their own city and construct whatever they wish. Cooperation is not impossible, but too often it is a mess of cities being left to rot by long departed players or worse it dissolves into a bizarre war of unhelpfulness. We had one city that was being completely stripped of the recycled waste it was producing (recycling being an excellent source of valuable materials) by an army of recycling vans invading from another city. And there was nothing we could do to stop them, save send in our own fleet to clear out the opposition’s city. This is alleviated by attempting to play in a private region, but if you own more than one city then the loading times when swapping between them becomes infuriating.
Then there are the bugs and the inexcusable flaws. The existence of which have spread like a virulent disease through the shady underworld of the gaming media. We all now know that the citizens of the city, whom you can zoom in on and get a short summary of their life, are created on the fly and vaporise when they go inside buildings. We have discovered that labourers do not head to the same place of work every day but instead just turn up at the closest available place of employment, causing bizarre issues such as educated workers disappearing into cheap labour and hi-tech industries complaining of an unskilled workforce. Not to mention the crazy traffic that will simply block up roads with parked cars or firemen who let houses burn down because they have been driving up and down the same street all day.
Admittedly, many of these problems have little effect on the overall city building gameplay and those that do are being ironed out by the developers with constant patches being applied almost weekly. It is a shame however because beneath all the problems, the restrictions and the overwhelming simplicity there is a game worth playing. Those early moments when you first start building the city, laying out your grand plans, are blissful. It feels like a much nicer and friendlier game than the Simcity franchise has ever managed.
Someone far more astute than I pointed out that the game feels like a Facebook game and it was at that moment that everything that is wrong with SimCity clicked into place. The always online requirement, the pleasantness, the restrictions, the simplicity, the overwhelming emphasis on community over the individual. SimCity is a game that seems ripe for the casual social networking infrastructure, but has instead found itself unfortunately released onto the mainstream market. While we’ll probably never know if this was ever the intention of EA and Maxis, this idea frames the game perfectly. If you have no problem sitting online playing with your friends and randoms in a nice if rather dull environment then the game is ideal, however anyone wanting the depth and intricacies that are usually associated with the genre may do well to return to the gaming relics of the past.