I’ve never taken to simulation games besides a single flight simulator (Sierra’s Red Baron) and Theme Hospital. I tried playing SimCity a little but it was far too complex for my liking. That was almost 10 years ago. A few attempts at playing The Sims didn’t bear fruit either. It became rather boring to focus on the lives of a few people. When SimCity launched more than a week ago, I watched the launch with interest partly due to botched servers and a company not understanding the economics of moving a game to the cloud. Somehow it mirrored the Diablo 3 experience.
Did I mention economics? Much has changed since my last attempt at playing SimCity (3000). I am nearing my graduation and am now near the end of a 4 year degree in Economics. SimCity is not just a city planner’s dream, it is a perfect sandbox for an economist. An experimental platform, a way to put all those urban topics and theories to a test. Of course, budget balancing, building for a select market, etc all came into play too.
SimCity is not just a city planner’s dream, it is a perfect sandbox for an economist.
I wouldn’t have bought SimCity if not for a Reddit post where you could get a rough 40% discount if you bought SimCity from the Indian Origin Store. What was to be a S$64.90 investment in a game I wasn’t too convinced that I would enjoy became S$39.90. I bought it just in time before EA pulled the plug on this legal loophole.
I’ll begin my review by stating that in the past 4 days of owning this game, I have placed over 35 hours into it. I have not done so for any fresh game before. Please also note that this is a newbie’s perception of the game. I have almost no experience in the SimCity series. I dabbled in SimCity 3000 a little but found it boring. The maximum time I spent on 3000 was no more than an hour. This review is not for those who are top end seasoned players. I have no idea what SimCity 4 was like and here is a fresh look at the new SimCity.
It will be difficult to find another game in the market that can rival the detail and breadth of city simulation that SimCity provides. Every element you can build on a map has so many relationships tied to other objects that it can be overwhelming at times to a newbie. I didn’t know what the difference was between a street and an avenue. I couldn’t tell that there were just basically 2 types of roads. Each of them upgradable in 3 tiers. Through trial and error and also choosing to completely ignore any short tutorial that was offered by the multiple in game advisers. I picked up the game within an hour.
I found out that the city needed 4 basic ammenties – Power, water, sewage and refuse collection. There are 3 main types of buildings – housing, commerical and industrial. More importantly, roads (and only roads, not railways, etc) are the lifeblood of the town. There’s nearly nothing you can build without a road. And so, lectures on urban economics kicked in. I needed to get the highest densities in the center. There was no way I could gauge demand and density. No way I could find out how far the roads should be apart. Everything was trial and error and that was exactly how the game hooked me in. It was a playground that I could impose whatever crazy plans I had, see if it worked and if it didn’t, I’ll send a disaster to wipe out the mess I created. Do real life economists in planning divisions do that to us? Maybe not the disasters part.
Placing water pumps and sewage dumps next to each other – what could go possibly wrong?
I suck at making up names and my first city was thus named Gotham. Gotham was a mess. I didn’t expect that there would be a whole environmental mini game in SimCity. Showing symptoms of OCD, I decided to place all the amenities in the same area. Placing water pumps and sewage dumps next to each other – what could go possibly wrong? Also, I realized that the wind actually mattered. Economics 101 thought me that heavy industries are better served away from the city center and close to regional transport lines. But I never imagined that the direction of the wind will significantly carry pollution to areas where I wanted buildings to have high land value. Gotham was essentially the ‘real’ Gotham. A horribly planned city rife with crime and pollution. The entire city spun out of control as demand for residential areas spiraled and I started haphazardedly placing homes everywhere while attempting to maximize road densities. Quite a few Sims were made to live next to refuse dumps. At the rate I was running Gotham to the ground, they might as well have been living in one giant dump.
What I also really liked is that you could zoom into detail on each individual Sim and find out what life like is on ground zero. It is great to be able to watch robberies with cops chasing in pursuit firetrucks rushing to the scene all from a ground level view. This area of simulation is not bug free but it works wonders for a game attempting to fully simulate all aspects of city building.
Not Just Cities
I needed a refresh, a reboot and this is where the whole regional thing comes to play. SimCity is not just a city simulation game. It is a game that emphasizes connections between different cities. I have no idea what SimCity 4 was like but judging by reactions from friends, previous SimCity versions seemed to be centered on one giant city that you could build.
The latest SimCity is very different. Your city size is tiny and you will run out of space very quickly. Instead of endless lateral expansions, you are forced to optimize land use and increase densities as quickly as you can. In short, this felt like how planning Singapore would have felt like. Even though, all the buildings are nice and tall, its the same – ‘Not enough land!’ and ‘I wish I could reclaim land!’ You are then forced to build up a new region.
I needed a new region anyways. Gotham was a smokey abomination with heavily polluted land and a crime rate that would make the old Somalia proud. And so, Gotbeef was born. More lessons were learnt, I needed to plan in the long run for services and supplies. I needed to invest in renewable energy. I needed to get the timing right to move my city from low wage jobs with uneducated citizens to one brimming with high tech industries and skyscrapers of graduates. At this point I realized that I had gotten my road systems wrong by ignoring regional pathways. I completely missed the railway track and the fact that I could have plonked a ferry terminal. Also, that airport option was too expensive to consider and when I was rich enough, I was reluctant to tear down high value industries for a budget sapping airport.
Gotchicken was then created with such pathways in mind. This time, the lessons from the past two cities led to some degree of success. I finally managed to pull off the right balance and within an hour got the city up and running with no long run issues ready to bite me from behind. It was at that point that I realized Gotchicken was sitting on a massive stack of ore. Again, the city’s design and layout had already gone too far down the planning and execution phases that I didn’t want to rip everything down just to build ore mines. I moved on.
SimCity is not just a city simulation game. It is a game that emphasizes connections between different cities.
Gotmutton was a oil rich area and I hastily got drilling facilities planted. It was at this point I realized I had no short term use for drilling. All my cities were on nuclear power and the only use for oil was its future (way into the future) conversion into plastic. That plastic would be useful for this area called a Great Work. I also finally constructed an airport. Gotmutton had it all, the city with the best means of transportation. Then I realized having an airport in on city will mean I have to do the same for the rest. It was sort of like a catch 22 situaiton. Mistakes in my past cities were slowing the progress of the newer ones.
This is exactly what the new SimCity is. It is planning beyond the realms of a city. Pulling off a well built city is easy and a newbie like me got it after 3 tries in 3 hours. Sure the stats I had wasn’t anywhere near what seasoned players will deem acceptable but the city was well run, the budget was healthy and growth was constant. I am probably way too deep in my first play to fix the mess in Gotham and Gotbeef. I have completely messed up natural resources and the potential I could have turned the entire map into by specializing each city and designate areas to be water providers or power plants. You can trade nearly every service available. Maxis wants you to. By constraining each city size to a really tiny area, you are forced to make bigger plans and ensure each city works cooperatively.
Some call SimCity a step towards a MMO and I agree with that. Ideally, you shouldn’t be playing the way I am and be controlling every city on the map. Each player should have a city of their own and find ways to trade and make deals with neighboring players. SimCity has a great potential to be compelling cooperative game.
SimCity has been crafted with a new vision. A vision of sharing rather than one of monopolistic control to the point you are playing god. In doing so, it has made the game incredibly newbie friendly as I was able to pick it up with zero background in an hour or two. The learning curve is steep but it has been gentle in punishing the user. Even though I purposefully skipped all the ‘Show Me’ tutorials, the tool tips and experimental nature of the game enabled me to quickly understand what was happening and how I could have better performed.
By constraining each city size to a really tiny area, you are forced to make regional plans and ensure each city works cooperatively.
Needless to say, I have overwhelmingly enjoyed the many hours of my first complete indulgence in SimCity. But there are some downsides to it as well.
Server issues have mostly gone away but are still present. In my 35+ hours of play, I faced one server hiccup which meant some of my game progress was lost. I was lucky as not much was rolled back but I can see why early adopters were furious. Besides that, it could be down to me playing at Asian timings on an American server which meant I might have avoided heavy load periods. Generally, I had no problems with the server besides that one distasteful incident.
Simulation while detailed is subject to bugs. Some pathing issues can be seen. Not all Sims are moving about the city intelligently. Maxis has issues to solve here.
The final and biggest downside is that the new game play alienates its loyal following. SimCity is not the same as the past. It is a radically different game and players in love with the old style will completely abhor this release. This version of SimCity can be viewed more as SimVille (as suggested by a post in Reddit) and I agree with that. SimCity is now no longer about building the biggest and craziest city you can while pouring hours into one single city. It’s now about cooperation, maximizing constraints and finding ways to push the boundaries. It is difficult to fail but is also relatively hard to do well. The goalposts have been shifted forwards. In some ways, arguments correctly identified the push towards branding SimCity as a dumbed down game or one that is too eager to adopt a social model.
The new game play alienates its loyal following.
I can see where these angry posts are coming from but what Maxis has done here is to open up SimCity to even more people than before. This game was not built to keep hold of its old user base, it was made to attract a huge mainstream crowd. The game has been made accessible to newbies like me and yes you can call that dumbing down.
Maxis has put out a stunningly realistic game with addiction levels that I do not wish to test the limits of. There are launch day bugs and early issues but the team has provided a relatively open response. While the new game play focus is positive for new players like me, older players that are used to the old SimCity games will not enjoy this. Maxis will need to strike a balance. But for now, the balance is just right for attracting a brand new player base.
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