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24 July 2014

Taking a look at SimCity

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It's been over a month since Maxis released its latest version of SimCity and boy what a month it' been. The city builder game many of us have been waiting a long time for is finally out, and I’ve had a full month to get to know it better. Does it live up to the franchise’s legacy of being the best city builder sandbox game out there? Yes and no.

 

I’ve been playing SimCity since the SNES version back in 1991 and I continued with SimCity 2000 in 1994, SimCity 3000 in 1999, and SimCity 4 in 2003. I consider myself a veteran of the franchise, even though I didn’t particularly like any of the offshoot Sim games like SimCopter, SimAnt, or SimCity Societies. We’ve been waiting almost a decade for the next instalment in the franchise, so veterans like myself were expecting something epic that we would be playing for years to come. Unfortunately, I feel let down with this version and I’m definitely not alone in feeling this way. When a game is a sequel or remake to a franchise, you can’t help but to compare it to its previous release, in this case SimCity 4 and its expansion pack, Rush Hour. This latest version I’m sad to say does not live up to standards set by SimCity 4, and you will find out why in the paragraphs below. On a positive note, I have not experienced any issues with the always-on requirement, even with my wireless 4G internet connection. I have also not run into any issues with my cities failing to load or getting rolled back, but I can’t ignore the fact that some people are still experiencing these issues at the time of this writing.

Interface

The interface is actually quite nice. It's displayed along the bottom and contains everything you need to build your city. The icons are all laid out pretty logically, so you can easily find what you are looking for. Each section has its own set of data layers (agents) and looks very sleek and shiny. Instead of looking at a bunch of numbers and values to determine what is going on in your city, you are given a more visual set of tools in which to work with, and it’s all displayed with pretty 3D graphics and animations. It feels very smooth and polished and I can’t really find anything wrong with it.

Gameplay

I’ll be reviewing many different facets of gameplay with both positive and negative remarks for each in this section. If it seems like I have more negative comments than positive for a particular gameplay element, that’s because I do, and they are sometimes game breaking issues and worth mentioning.

Public Transportation

Buses

Buses are your first step in combating traffic congestion. You are given two options to use, a bus depot (smaller, van-like buses) or a bus terminal (the big buses we are used to seeing). There is a glaring issue with buses however in that the AI is pretty dumb when it comes time to do their job and pick up passengers. Buses will often form conga lines and circle the same city block for hours of in-game time. On top of this they often get stuck in a loop at a bus stop where they just sit there without picking up or dropping off anyone. While the bus sits there, traffic usually gets backed up quite a bit and the only fix for it is to delete the road or bus stop to get the bus moving again.

 

Rail

Plopping a train station is all you get to do with this feature. Once it’s placed you have no control over how it works. Trains come in at random and you don’t earn any income from providing your sims this service. One of my maps, Sawyer’s Crossing, didn’t even have a connected rail line as you can see from the picture below. Since I had planned on this map being a tourism hot spot, without an actual rail connection to work with, I had to abandon the region until they fix the section of the rail that lies outside of the city boundry, which I cannot edit.

 

A broken rail connection in Sawyer's Crossing Source: www.imgur.com

 

Streetcars

Just as the name implies, this adds streetcar stops to your road. It works much like the buses, in that streetcars share the same flaws. Other than setting up stops along the road, you have no direct control of their actions. Streetcar avenues are the highest tier roads you can build, and they are heavily used. Be aware however that traffic can interfere with the trains and vice versa. 

Boats

As with most of the public transport options, after plopping down the terminal, you have no control over when ferries will arrive, nor do you earn any revenue from it. There are two types of boats, one for regular workers and sims, and the other for tourists. They don’t follow any set schedule in terms of when they arrive with passengers, boats are it’s just as uninvolved as the rest of the public transportation options. Ports snap to water instead of roads, which makes some sense, but it does not help you at all when it comes time to connect it to your city's road network.

Air

I don’t have much experience with this feature, but the experiences I do have with it is hit and miss. The only time I used an airport was when some of the sims in my city suggested I should build one. In theory, an airport is supposed to be used used to bring medium and high wealth sim tourists into your city as well as for shipping cargo from industry. It doesn’t really function as just another way to transport your sims though, it’s mainly just for tourism. The only time I did use one, at the suggestion of my sims mind you, the airport just sat there doing nothing. Hardly any passengers used it and after the first initial rush of goods needing to be transported, it didn’t ship anything else.

City Services

 

Fire

Fire service are there to put out the fires your uneducated sims keep starting. When your city is small they work just fine, but after your city grows a bit and requires more than one fire engine, things start going wonky. As you can see from the picture below, often fire engines will all respond to the same fire and end up blocking the lower density roads. There are two levels of fire stations, a small station and a large one with helicopters and ladder trucks. I haven't used any helicopters to put out fires yet myself, but I hear that neither the fire or police choppers work correctly.

 

SC5 Fire Truck Bug. Source: www.tinypic.com

 

Police

The police service works just like the fire service and it shares its faults. It also has two levels of buildings, a small police station with a few patrol cars and a large station with helicopters and detectives. You have to unlock the detective wing with the university however.

Healthcare

There isn’t anything bad I can say about healthcare, as it works pretty well compared to the other services. It only works because ambulances don’t roam the city like other services, they only come out when someone is injured, but do not pick up the sick. Again, there are two levels of buildings, clinic and hospital. The bigger hospital will offer bigger rooms along with wellness vans and a surgery wing you can unlock with the university. Pollution can contribute to poor health for your sims, so keep your city clean and your hospital beds won't be overflowing.

Education

Education helps your sims start fewer fires and recycle more, and it also increases your industrial tech level. You get a grade school, public library, high school, community college, and university. Each has various upgrades to handle more students, with more buses and classrooms. The university unlocks researchable technologies to help your city. As with regular buses however, the same AI issues apply to school buses. I didn't delve too much into the inner workings of the education system, so I am not really sure what else education level does other than give you side perks (high schools make your sims recycle more, community college increases industrial tech level and universities do the same as the community college, but with added unlockable perks that you can research. Attendance is hit or miss, as I personally do not know why my sims won't go to school to fill those jobs that demand higher educated sims. 

City Utilities

Trash

Your city will eventually need a garbage service to clean up all the cans your sims pile up outside. That is when the trucks that are supposed to pick up the garbage actually do their job instead of using the same drivers as the buses and fire trucks. You will again see rows of garbage vehicles all focusing on one block of your city, and if you are lucky they may even stop doing u-turns long enough to finish the job. They usually start at 5am and work until 3 PM. Sometimes they will ignore any garbage still on the street and head back to the dump at 3 PM and sometimes they will ignore the time and just keep working until it’s all picked up. Overall they usually finish their job each day regardless of their quirky AI behavior. 

Recycling

Plopping one of these will get you a service that can actually make you money, but first you should have a high school to give you that added boost of making your sims more likely to recycle. They are quite expensive to place initially, but they will pay off in the end when you export the resources they recover from the trash. Plastic, Metal, and Alloy are what you can salvag from trash and if you export these goods, you can make a nice steady chunk of change to help you advance your city further. Recycling centers are good to use on maps that don't have any raw ore resources or when your original resources run out.

Water and Parks

Water now flows along roads instead of travelling underground through pipes. This may or may not be a good thing depending on your tastes for how deep a simulation should go. Water doesn't last forever either, and you'll soon be scrambling to decide which building(s) you want to bulldoze to plop a tower or extend your existing pumping station (assuming you planned ahead and left enough room for it to expand). You can of course just buy some from your neighboring cities if they have any for sale. If you play long enough, given that cities are in a frozen state when not being directly played, your cities will just plain run out of water. Maxis says they are going to tweak the tables to remedy this in a future patch.

Parks play two roles, happiness and wealth. Actually they serve a 3rd purpose in housing your homeless if you fail to bulldoze a building in time. There are three tiers of parks, with a bunch of different layouts for each. Placing them near residential zones will both make your sims happy at the same time as raising your land value, which in turns increases their wealth status. Different parks come with different coverage areas attached to them so you will likely be using the same types for maximum coverage across your map.

City Specialization

Mining, Drilling, Trading, Electronics, Culture (tourism), Gambling, and Great Works are what you have to look forward to after you’ve established your initial town. The specializations are meant to turn your city into a specific type of city that focuses on one or all of the categories above.

Mining will have you extracting ore and coal to be turned into metal or alloy, which is used in electronics later on. Resources do not last forever,  so spend them wisely.

Drilling will have you trying your hand at being an oil tycoon. Oil fuels the oil power plant and can be turned into fuel (other than for great works, fuel really has no other purpose other than to sell/export). I can't really find a reason to even bother with this specialization until they add more features to it or your city starts to need it as a consumable.

Trading allows you to become a major trade hub for the rest of your region, with a small or large tier building. The bigger depot can connect directly to rail and water transport systems for shipments, which can really help push your goods to the imaginary cloud that buys it up. There is supposed to be some global market to determine value, but it is not currently enabled and it's set at the static maximum value until further notice. There isn't much of an explanation to this feature in the game, so either I'm just missing something fundamental or this is not what is supposed to be happening.

Electronics, which happens to be the specialization you can get the most money from, has you building microchips, TVs, and computers. They usually require a raw resource and there only purpose is to be exported to a great works site or sold to the global market. You can make a killing off exporting TVs.

Culture aims to make your city into a tourism hot spot using real world buildings like the Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House. All of the tourist building tiles I placed made money, which is always a good thing. There are a few choices of stadiums where you can choose a venue and really make a good chunk of change. I've only used the small stadium as they tend to take up a large amount of space on the tile, which is too small as it is. Be aware that events cause traffic backups, so make sure measures are taken to help circumvent the massive influx of tourists into your city for the event. 

Gambling of course turns your little city into wannabe Las Vegas, although with the size of the maps it'll feels more like Reno, NV. Be warned however that only the small gambling house really makes any money, as the Maxis developers have confirmed that the larger casinos are bugged and refuse to make money consistently. None of the higher tier casinos I placed ever made money, but they plan on fixing this in the next big patch. It looks like it'll be a fun feature to play with once it's working, and should be a real money making alternative to the other specializations.

A great work is major regional self-contained plot of the map where a major construction takes place (think about the great works like the Hoover Dam project during the Great Depression). The idea is to have each of your cities contribute resources to the site in order to build one of several different types of great work. These can range from a solar farm, a space center, arcology or international airport. Each of these requires a massive amount of resources to build. I have yet to personally complete a great work myself, so I can’t say whether there are any real benefits from completing one or not, but they do have some effects specific to each one. For instance, the Arcology is supposed to provide workers, students and shoppers to all cities in the region. The Space Center boosts education and tourism, and the Solar Farm provides electricity to connected regions.

The issue I have with the whole process is that information on the great work site is not in sync with what is actually being delivered. I can watch ten delivery trucks deliver five tons of metal each to the site, but the site will not display that I just delivered 50 tons of metal to it. It acts very randomly when it comes to updating how many resources have actually been delivered. This iproblem goes hand in hand with the other issues related to regional play, which I’ll explain next.

 Solar Power Farm. Source: www.simcityhub.com

 

Regional Play

Just as in SC4, you have an entire region of cities to play with. When you start a game you can choose which region you would like to play on. With eight regions to choose from, ranging from 2 – 16 cities each with 1-4 Great Work sites, and with varying access to rail or sea travel, there is a map for everyone. Each plot has its own resource values and mass transit options, so if a plot has a high amount of coal, chances are you will turn that into a coal specialization map. The next plot over may have a lot of ore that you can turn into metals which in turn can be used to make electronics. This is how Maxis/EA wants you to play this game, to develop each map to be a certain specialization that other cities in your region can take advantage from. Is one of your cities running low on cash? Send them a simolean gift to get them back on their feet. Your power plant is running out of coal in the next town? Send them over a shipment of coal from your coal city. You can even share utilities like power, water, and sewage on this mode, at a small cost. You can also share all of your services like fire trucks, ambulances, police, trash, recycling, and public transportation (even if you didn’t actually tell them to in some cases).

 

Regional View. Source: www.eurogamer.net

 

There is a lot of data available to the player in this mode. You can see how many citizens you have and where they are going between each city. The game will tell you whether workers are travelling to your other cities to work or if students are flocking in from all over your region to your university town. This information can be useful if you know how to read it.

My big issue with the regions however stems from the fact that you actually have little to no control at all over what happens between cities. As soon as you plop down a bus terminal (top tier bus station), the game will automatically start sending buses out to your other regions even though you did not ask them to. The same can be said for most services as well. If you plop down a fire station, you will be given the message “fire coverage now available to other cities in your region.” Same goes for police, trash, recycling, and schools. When you start a new city with services already established in a neighboring city, they will often send one of these services over to help your new city out. “XXX city has volunteered to take some of newXXX cities trash.” Well that’s cool but I didn’t ask for that nor did I tell you to do that. What’s the point of having the option to send trash trucks from another city if the game just does it for you automatically? Now keep in mind that the passive garbage trucks will not keep your city clean by themselves. Eventually you will have to build your own dump or manually designate garbage trucks to come clean up your city. Don’t worry about them cleaning up the city they came from though, as that city doesn’t actually run if you aren’t playing it, so send all the service and utility vehicles you want (if you have the money).

 

Regional Data View. Source: www.makeuseof.com 

 

Multiplayer

I am, and likely always will be, against games that are online-only. I’m not talking about MMOs either, a genre in which this game claims to be but is clearly not. Not once in all the years of playing older SimCity titles did I ever think to myself how fun it would be to play SimCity would be with other people. SimCity has always been a single player game to me and many others, so Maxis/EA’s choice to make it multi-player AND online-only really doesn’t make sense to me at all. Regardless of our opinions however, Maxis encourages us to play on multiplayer and says that the game is meant to be played with others. So, even though I have no desire to play SimCity with others, I tried it out for the sake of this review. Tried is the key word here because I haven’t actually gotten a chance to play with anyone else. This is because finding a game to join that isn’t already full is an exercise in futility. Game after game in the list is full. I tried for an hour to find a game with an open plot of land to claim and I just couldn’t find one. I do not have any Origin friends, not that I want any to begin with, so it may be easier to find a game that way. I even tried creating my own public game but no one joined it in the 3 hours I played on it, creating 3 of my own cities just waiting.

 

 SC5 Multiplayer game browser. Source: www.imgur.com

 

Seeing how I could not find a game to join to try out multiplayer SimCity, I cannot speak on how it works or if it is indeed more fun to play with others. If Maxis would just include an option to browse for games with an empty slot I might be able to try it out. For now, there is nothing else I can really say about it. It's not like you can really do anything directly with other people anyway as it's more of a passive multi-player game that only lets you chat with other people in your region and send gifts to them which you can't control directly, and that's about it. This is why I don't understand the need to make it multi-player. While you can look at other cities and show off what you've done, SimCity at it's heart isn't meant to be played with others and it feels like there wasn't much thought put into it's design and it shows. 

Afterthoughts

SimCity appears to be a pretty decent game if you are not a veteran of the series. Newcomers to the franchise will most likely have an enjoyable experience with lots of attention grabbing graphics. Veterans will find it lacking in a lot of features, and they are the more vocal crowd when it comes to bugs and issues. Others have said that the game should have been called ‘SimTown’ because of the small map sizes and lack of any real in-depth features. With patches promising fixes to most of the issues on their way, the game should get better.

There is much hate for EA/Maxis at the moment of this writing, and rightfully so. Since I am one of the veterans of this franchise, I feel let down by the final product that was given to us. It feels incomplete and dumbed down for the masses. The issues this game has currently do deter people from picking it up and playing it, and I really can’t blame them. After playing it for 14 hours straight for this review (plus the 160 hours I’ve spent on it prior to this review), I grew bored of just staring at the $$/hr meter and waiting for enough money to afford whatever it is I needed for my city. This new SimCity has done nothing but piss veteran players off and make new players to the franchise happy that don’t know any better. While this may have been Maxis/EA’s goal to begin with, I feel it is a low blow from them as a veteran SimCity franchise player to release what they did in such a seemingly unfinished state.

Like most of the people that bought SimCity, I hardly play it any more in favor of other games that are better. These days I mainly just load up the game and play for 30 minutes before getting bored and quitting. Again, like many folks, I expected this game to last many years like it’s predecessors, but I don’t have very high hopes of this happening until things drastically change. At least I can play Battlefield 3 while waiting for that miracle patch to fix everything, which EA gave me as an apology gift for having purchased SimCity. The time to claim one of these free games they offered has passed however, so don't expect to get a free game if you buy SimCity today. 

Are you playing SimCity? How are you finding it? Let us know below!

Last modified on Thursday, 18 April 2013 18:06

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