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SimCity review: They built this city to shock and troll


I've written five different openings to this SimCity review over three days. Some felt ignorant of the game's disastrous launch, an element I openly wrestled with before writing this review. Others were too aggressive and awkwardly angry. I fired blindly with some fluffy paragraph about the fun of building, but that seemed disingenuous. I'm unlikely to go back to SimCity for some time. The game simply isn't fun.

Like 2003's SimCity 4, this new SimCity uses a regional map divided into playable zones that interact with one another, transporting commuters and allowing for a level of specialization in particular zones. Unlike SimCity 4's sprawling megalopolis created from a massive grid of connected tiles, the new SimCity's region zones are separated by gaps (think of a subway map where you play the stations but not the lines between). The current region selection supports as little as two and up to 16 zones.

SimCity is very user friendly and a hallmark of modern interface design and simulation transparency. I must stress that I'm speaking specifically about when players are in their particular zone, not when they are trying to discern anything from a regional perspective. Pipes and electricity now run along roads, removing two dull mayoral duties seen in previous games. Crime, pollution, education, and just about every other chart is no longer presented in some tiny pop-up window, but is instead delivered in full graphical glory as an overlay on the main game screen. It's also great that players can now expand on buildings, like giving the police more cars or adding classrooms to schools, but this also begins to highlight the cramped size of the zones.

Gallery: SimCIty (02/19/2013) | 4 Photos

This SimCity isn't about building a sprawling megalopolis. It's a specialized experience per zone, where the game tells players what the zone is best suited for and we take it on the chin. The imagination and joy of building the city you want takes a backseat to the needs of city specializations. This might not have been the case if we were playing a single-player game, but, let's be honest, this isn't a single-player game. SimCity is an "always online" experience, a subtle cue from mommy Maxis to go out and play with the neighborhood kids.

Those expecting a modern SimCity, a refined experience with a hook of nostalgia, will be disappointed. Honestly, this new incarnation feels like the multiplayer mode of a larger game. SimCity Online. SimCity: The MMO. The smaller plots in particular really drive the feeling home. A single-player game should be grander, but the required multiplayer experience of SimCity shoehorns us into these smaller experiences.

An ore-rich city becomes a manufacturing hub. A location without natural resources becomes a residential area. Although it's nice to be part of an assembly line in a city factory with friends, the realization soon kicks in that you're just a cog in the city manufacturing machine and, along the way, we've lost core features we've come to expect from the series.

SimCity review We built SimCity to mock and troll
The game currently comes with eight regions. Terraforming, a staple of the series, is totally out. Players are no longer able to create or edit the land in their own regions and zones. It's a piece of user-generated content found in previous incarnations that's been taken to the shed out back. Although it's obvious EA/Maxis will add more lands over time, it does feel like a significant feature of the SimCity universe has been removed, and its absence directs attention to the smaller scale of the game.

The promising gameplay found within the game zones falls apart when zooming out to discuss the mechanics behind regions, the glue that's supposed to bind all these broken little specialized pieces together. As noted, multiplayer – whether you play with others or decide to build multiple zones by yourself – is forced upon the player. With such an emphasis on playing a region as a group, it's a shame the tools to communicate between players in separate zones are lacking.

The key communication tool between players is the "Region Wall," a fairly unnoticeable blob in the top left of the screen, which can be expanded into a chat window. When minimized, the region wall does not ping when written in, so requests from other players in the region can easily go unnoticed. It auto-generates text when another player in your region creates a regional upgrade or earns an achievement, but it doesn't automatically notify you if a neighbor needs you to expand schooling or other necessary upgrades. Sure, you could always use a voice chat application like Mumble, or even Origin chat, to communicate with other players, but using outside subsystems to fix core problems is not a solution – it's highlighting the issue itself.

SimCity review We built SimCity to mock and troll
There are other issues that aren't worth entire paragraphs on their own, but let's get them out here: Emergency vehicles don't bypass other vehicles when dire events are happening. Adding to the calamity is that emergency vehicles also have noticeably awkward AI, clustering around an event and ignoring other problems until the first is resolved. Income fluctuations are ludicrous thanks to income loss while buildings upgrade. Natural resources like oil, coal, ore and water also appear to be finite. The logical conclusion is that a region's economy will eventually collapse in on itself.

A much more fundamental flaw is the inability to kick a player who has abandoned their zone in a region, and that's simply bad multiplayer design. The best you can do – and I wish I was joking about this – is submit a complaint to EA's online support to have them removed. This was particularly problematic during SimCity's first week, when a glitch allowed random players to join private games. As of this writing, I believe that loophole has been resolved, but these are the risks we run playing an always-online game.

SimCity isn't a good simulation, strategy nor sandbox game. It's not a game you tell friends about. There's no sense of discovery, like finding a hidden lava cave from Minecraft, or explaining the ludicrous way you helped El Presidente solve his latest dilemma in Tropico. And it's not like Maxis is a stranger to the sort of games that inspire water cooler conversations. Ask somebody who plays The Sims to tell you a story and they'll go on and on. Heck, I could tell you about the time I made Central Park in the old SimCity games, or the majestic Lake Sliwinski. All of that is gone now.

For all my issues with SimCity's lack of soul and unsophisticated multiplayer communication tools, it's worth noting how pretty it is. The city's transition from day to night, as the little sims drive around, go to school, go to work and live their lives, is magical. It's what any fan of the genre would giggle over and developer Maxis doesn't disappoint. Charming presentation certainly isn't a salve for the rest of SimCity's problems, though, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

SimCity in its current state is ... academic. It's conventional. Playing the game is like being handed a piece of paper and checking off a to-do list. The old games weren't much different in this respect, but this is supposed to be a modern game and it's lacking in stories to tell your friends. A city is millions of people living together in harmony and tension. It's a human achievement and it's messy. SimCity is gorgeous and bland.

This review is based on a retail copy of SimCity for PC, provided by Electronic Arts. The game was played a week after launch.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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