Because EA is selling this new SimCity as an online game, we’re not quite ready to give you an official score until we’ve spent some serious time with it after its long-awaited launch tomorrow. But I can tell you right now what I think of the couple of dozen hours I’ve spent playing on the review version, both by myself and with others: so far what we have here is a gorgeous and incredibly detailed city simulation that occasionally trips over its own staggering complexity.
First off, an unfortunate dealbreaker for thousands of PC gamers: you’re going to need a permanent internet connection in order to play SimCity. Even though it doesn’t need moment-to-moment updates from Maxis’ servers (so lag isn’t an issue), it does need to phone home in order to save, even when playing single-player. Maxis insists that requirement isn’t simply for DRM purposes, but who’re they kidding? Of course it is. Also, EA’s Origin client is required and must be installed in order to play. In fairness, it’s been pretty well-behaved for me, other than a couple of loading issues that EA promises won’t happen with the live version. I’ll keep you posted on that.
I know those restrictions are big problems for some of you, and it’s a damn shame that they’re even something we have to worry about here. Because this SimCity is, in many ways, magnificently ambitious and an enormous improvement over the last real SimCity game from 10 years ago. For example, just watching one of these cities run and knowing that each and every one of its tens or even hundreds of thousands of Sim citizens is individually tracked, and can be followed from home to work or school to the store to parks or shows or other activities and then back home again, is genuinely impressive when you think about it.
What kind of stalker-ish creepy mayor are you?
While they generally number fewer than the denizens of old-school SimCitys, those games are effectively just guessing about which Sims are where using some fuzzy math. This one knows. You can click on one person in a crowd of hundreds on a busy city street, and that person has a name and things that he wants and things that have recently made him happy or angry. It’s completely insane. So are they, sometimes, like why my citizens felt the need to protest in front of City Hall when I had an 83% approval rating, or a bus driver fails to enter a school parking lot and shuts down traffic for blocks, but on the whole it’s really cool to watch.
On top of the simulation, SimCity is super-dense with rich art and style. It starts with the elegant, mostly intuitive interface, and extends to graphical nuances like sunlight reflecting off solar panels and the unique ambient sounds that play every time you select a building like a police station. The music that accompanies everything is delightful, a cheerily optimistic and industrious tune that shifts enough to avoid becoming monotonous. It all made my first hours after founding a city a constant stream of astonishments at the level of attention Maxis has slathered over every inch of this thing.
Those little Sim people don’t look like much – they’re little more than colorful digital stick figures even at the closest zoom level – but the cities we can build for them are beautifully diverse. The new curvy roads may be inefficient when it comes to packing in as many people and buildings as possible, but they’re a great option for sculpting picturesque layouts when the mood strikes, or when the stubbornly un-editable terrain of the pre-defined maps demands a road go around it. Dozens of different building designs and color schemes sprout up on their own wherever you create residential, commercial, or industrial zones, and you can zoom in close enough to see the green garden hose hooked on the side of a suburban home. Different education and wealth levels all have unique looks, and high-tech buildings in cities with fancy education systems look dramatically different from their low-tech equivalents. Zooming in and flying through a bustling street for some sightseeing definitely hasn’t gotten old yet.
Welcome to SimBurbia.
City specializations – a somewhat strange concept of mayor-run businesses – add both further visual differences and some welcome changed-up gameplay. One map I played on had a motherload of oil underneath it, and when I plopped down a field of pumping oil wells and a trade depot to automatically export black gold to the global market, the amount of cash it brought in felt almost like a cheat code. (A more advanced city could refine that crude into even pricier gasoline, but I’m not there yet.) Other specializations, such as casinos and tourism, are about attracting out-of-town Sim tourists – a process that, like several of SimCity’s late-game concepts, isn’t explained terribly well. You can get by on tax revenue alone if you don’t care to bother with that stuff, though.
For all its technical ambition, however, there’s one place SimCity really doesn’t push hard enough. Maxis says it named this game engine GlassBox because it shows off the inner workings of the simulation machine, but it took on another meaning entirely when, far sooner than I’d expected, an invisible wall prevented me from continuing to expand my city. Just as I felt like my economy was picking up the momentum I’d need to really grow this thing, space to plop down large buildings like community colleges and recycling facilities became hard to come by. The route to further growth is to increase the density of the city, not the area, and that feels a bit constraining. EA says there may be larger maps in the future, but there’s no word on when or whether they’ll cost extra. To be fair, my biggest 100,000-population city never could manage to slow down my PC, which is running a three-year-old Core i7 and a GeForce GTX 570.
Given the limited city sizes, I appreciate how the second city I built in the same region, Dan Jose, could mooch off the technology and excess resources of my first (Dan Francisco). For example, when I founded Dan Jose I didn’t have to build a power plant at all because Dan Francisco had a nuclear reactor, and I could simply buy whatever wasn’t being used. The same goes for unlocks – if a City Hall add-on exists in Dan Francisco that allows a hospital to be built, Dan Jose gets all the benefits too (and vice versa). That system both saves precious building space and ensures that starting each new town isn’t the same monotonous procedure of putting down exactly the same electricity, water, sewage, trash, police, fire, medical, and education structures every time.
That kind of inter-city cooperation is also the foundational idea of multiplayer, where you can share a region with up to 15 other mayors. It does work, and with lots of coordination it can work well, but in the multiplayer sessions I’ve played so far it had nearly as many drawbacks as advantages. While it’s excellent to be able to ask a friend to build a City Hall upgrade you need but don’t have a slot open for, or to send you a shipment of refined alloy so you can get your highly profitable computer chip factory operational, it’s a pain when I suddenly find the power or water supply I was relying on has dried up because the player I was buying it from expanded his city without also increasing capacity. It’s a problem that’s avoidable with enough communication, but this isn’t Left 4 Dead – you probably aren’t all going to be on voice chat the entire time calling out for second-to-second needs. I won’t, anyway.
Maxis wants us to be team players, like these guys.
I’m going to go ahead and predict that, much like Blizzard found with Diablo 3, Maxis will soon discover that the majority of SimCity players will want to play by themselves most of the time. The good news is that it’s a totally valid way to play, and no significant options I’ve seen are closed off to those of us who play in private regions and single-handedly run all the cities therein. Progress is a little slower because you have to switch between cities, but it’s definitely doable. It’s very much like playing The Sims 2, which allows you to control multiple households, but in order to switch between them you have to go through a loading screen.
Solo players might have a tough time managing a Great Work — regional projects like a major airport or power plant that benefits all the cities in a region. They’re so ambitious that I’ve yet to even get one off the ground after more than 25 hours played. I’m sure you could build one in that time if you know what you’re doing, but so far that’s proved too ambitious for me as a new player.
I’ll get there soon enough though, because so far SimCity is the kind of game that makes me wish it had a real-world clock displayed on the screen so I know when to stop to eat. When I get engrossed fine-tuning the inner workings of my public transportation system it devours time like nobody’s business.
Remember to check back here at IGN for ongoing impressions as the week goes on, and if you want to see it in action on launch day, be sure to watch Greg Miller’s epic nine-hour SimCity livestream tomorrow!
Who could possibly have predicted that SimCity would experience launch day problems due to its online requirement? Right: everyone. Everyone predicted that. And EA’s Origin servers did not disappoint them, delivering slow download speeds, spotty connections, and log-in queues upward of a half hour. It’s definitely not a disaster on the scale of Diablo 3’s Error 37 fiasco, as I was able to get in and play within a half hour of the official launch, but far from smooth. This morning I woke to reports of problems deleting regions and Origin not allowing friend invites, so it hasn’t yet been sorted out. I just fired up Origin myself and was greeted by a “Slow network: your games library could not be loaded at this time” message for a few moments before I was even shown my list of games. Attempting to download it failed outright – fortunately I have a disc to install off of. Pretty sure that problem wasn’t on my end.
One thing’s for sure: the specter of always-online DRM has once again failed to chase off enough interested people that the servers weren’t overwhelmed. Even though we all know what’s coming, we just can’t resist the urge to try to log in during those first moments, like a horde of Black Friday shoppers beating down the Walmart doors and trampling each other in the process.
But in spite of it all I got in several hours’ worth of play last night, and other than the Origin social side, things worked fairly well. Right now Greg Miller is livestreaming a full nine hours worth of SimCity gameplay, and that’s working too. (No, he’s not playing on some magic journalist-only server.)
I had to start over since the review version ran on a private server, but I’ve already got a pretty good thing going. I’d built it on a plot of land with coal deposits, which, once I’d built the coal mine and trade depot, funneled a steady stream of $4,100 payments into my account at regular intervals. That’s enough to allow a city to grow extremely quickly, and get free coal resources for a coal power plant (which provides much more juice than a eco-friendly wind farm). To counteract my dirty coal economy, I focused on education so that my industrial buildings wouldn’t pump out even more pollution.
As I built, I noticed several minor improvements in the way roads are drawn that happened between the review version and the release – they’re welcome changes, and they make drawing a curved road or snapping to the guidelines which help you draw roads an appropriate distance apart feel snappier and more accurate, but they still haven’t eliminated all of the frustrations that come from roads sometimes glitching out and being unable to build where they look like they definitely should. Because SimCity has no undo button, having to change plans can be very expensive.
Everything went really well until I got up to 120,000 citizens. That’s when a zombie outbreak hit my medical clinic, wiping out about a third of my population – and apparently most of my educated workforce. Not only did I lose the tax revenue from 40,000 wealthy Sims, I lost the businesses they’d run, too. All at once they complained of a lack of an educated workforce and closed up shop, leaving my once-proud city a husk of empty buildings that, when moused over, gave me messages about how they’d either shut down or were “devoured by zombies.” Thus began my struggle to rebuild… and it wasn’t pretty.
For one thing, this education system. Despite having two fully-upgraded elementary schools, a high school, a community college, a university, and even a public library, people just didn’t seem interested in going to school anymore. Desks sat empty while businesses complained of an uneducated work force, and there was nothing I could do short of yelling “Stay in school, kids!” PSAs at the screen. Meanwhile, crime and fires ran rampant. Buildings were being abandoned and reduced to rubble faster than I could bulldoze the ruins, and even more were shutting down because of too much crime. Tax revenue declined, and even with the huge influx of cash that my recycling center brought me (who’d have thought that could be more profitable than coal?) I was in a downward spiral. I was forced to shut down most of my education system – which, to be fair, wasn’t being used anyone – and take out $150,000 worth of bonds just to stay afloat. It was a downward spiral.
I should mention, by the way, that I’ve got the Limited Edition package that comes with the superhero Maxis Man. When you build his headquarters you can pay him $500 to go heal some sick people; after a $40,000 garage upgrade you can pay him $1,000 to go catch some criminals every few minutes. That’s not very heroic… more like a mercenary for hire. Batman doesn’t charge Gotham every time he goes out on patrol! Also, Batman is actually effective at catching criminals. I paid this idiot a small fortune thinking he could do a better job than my overstretched police force at collaring crooks, but the results were terrible. I eventually just shut off the power to his lair and saved myself the $900/hour upkeep fees. I’d have to handle this one myself.
What did save me was the Police Precinct building, which I finally managed to scrape together the hefty sum to set up. The real heroes of SimCity allowed me to get back on my feet for a bit, and my population climbed back up over 100,000. That’s when things started going weird, and very possibly broken.
People started complaining about sewage. Which was odd, because I had a huge sewage treatment plant that should’ve had ample capacity to handle my city’s needs. But it wasn’t working, citing a lack of water. Which was odd, because my water pumps were also more than enough. Clicking on those, they said they couldn’t run because of lack of electricity – which makes no sense. I had a coal plant and a finite but still healthy supply of fuel still being extracted from the ground, so in theory I was good for power for the foreseeable future. And yet when I clicked on the plant it reported it was running out of coal, and power output had been cut in half. Checking on my coal mines and storage facility, they were both full to capacity. So for some reason, the delivery trucks had simply stopped running, and building additional delivery trucks didn’t solve it. Some glitch had apparently caused the drivers to go on an unofficial strike, and it was crippling my city from top to bottom.
I tried everything I could think of. I turned facilities off and on again (which fires and then rehires workers, and sometimes frees things that have gotten stuck somewhere), I bulldozed some roads and improved my traffic as best I could with the limited resources I had to clear the roads for the truck drivers, but nothing worked. Eventually I quit out and reloaded, and that seems to have reminded them they’re being paid to move coal around.
This isn’t the first time an inexplicable sequence of events has ground life in my cities to a halt. Some of them, I’m sure, are a result of me just not fully understanding the way this incredibly complex virtual machine operates. Much of it, I’m sure, will be answered as the community sorts things out and tells us how to run them in SimCity Wikis, but Maxis hasn’t done a fantastic job of making it clear. I’m actually really disappointed by the lack of documentation here – the “manual” that pops up when you push the “Game Manual” button on the Options UI isn’t even working right now, but when it is it’s just a two-page PDF of default keybindings. The Help Center button, right now, is doing nothing at all, but earlier it just took me to the forums.
On a technical note, at least, I’m impressed: SimCity has yet to crash on me, it’s run at a steady framerate even under heavy load, and it alt-tabs to and fro (and runs in a Window) like a pro.
Again, I want to make it clear that overall my experience with SimCity has been rocky, but I’m still absolutely fascinated by its complexity and its beauty. It’s one of those intricate games that I’m willing to put up with a lot to tinker with. If your threshhold for this kind of frustrating shenanigans is low, though, you definitely want to wait at least a few days before you join in. Let us early adopters figure it out first.
9PM on Launch Day
If my review takes longer than expected, this is why:
If only it were just 10 minutes.
This, by the way, is the third time around this 20-minute clock. Each time I think I’m getting close to playing, I’m booted back again. And this is after EA added a second server to both the US West and US East regions, both of which are at least as full as this one. If you held off and waited on this purchase, give yourself a pat on the back. If you didn’t, I advise thinking twice next time. Remember: if you really want to make a game publisher sweat, tell them (over Twitter – believe me, they’re listening) you’re not preordering because you’re concerned about launch issues. They’re all about that these days.
Now that it’s been 24 hours since launch, EA is quickly running out my very generous grace period.