Review: SimCity rebuilds the sandbox game

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At a Glance
  • Electronic Arts SimCity

Building a city is hard work. Armchair urban planners have known this for nigh on three decades, ever since 1989’s SimCity introduced us to a game world of zoning regulations and budget balancing. ­­

It’s been a long time, but SimCity has been reborn. Powering the experience is developer Maxis’s GlassBox engine, which attempts to dynamically simulate conditions in a city. You can track individual citizens as they shuffle about your city, filling residential areas as they move in and causing traffic jams as they attempt to commute to work. While much of the gameplay has been simplified (no more laying down power lines and water pipes), new complexity has been introduced through a focus on multiplayer cooperation and specialized cities.

The end result is a visually striking homage to a classic series that takes city building in bold new directions, but troubling business decisions and technical snafus ultimately hamper the game’s ability to eclipse its predecessors. Is the new SimCity worth your hard-earned simoleons? Let’s find out.

Moving on up

Cities in the new SimCity are decidedly smaller than previous entries in the series; the sprawling metropolises of yore have necessarily given way to a focus on careful planning and design, largely because of the GlassBox engine's hefty computational requirements. The new SimCity keeps the familiar Residential, Commercial, and Industrial zone trinity, but the classic approach of plopping down low-, medium- and high-density zones to balance your city’s development has given way to a more organic approach: buildings start small, and only grow when they have enough money, happy residents, and space. Roads are the lynchpin to a thriving city: power and water flows along your roadways, which are themselves available in low, medium, and high capacities, ultimately determining how large your zones can be.

Subtle guidelines like this edge-of-zone marker give you information about your city without being obtrusive.

The game’s simple, fluid tools belie an astonishing level of depth: you can lay down roads in traditional (boring) grids, or give the new curved roads a try and paint asphalt down at your leisure. These tools are crucial if you want to make the most out of your space, as building too tightly will result in zones that don’t have enough room to grow. As you lay down roads, helpful guidelines give visual cues as to how much space a particular zone will need to fully expand.

Green is good

SimCity has always been a data-driven experience, but the bevy of graphs have largely been replaced with colorful bars that give you a quick idea of where problems lie.

I’ve always been a rather reactive city-planner, and that causes me problems in this game. Citizens want more places to shop? Toss down a few commercial zones. Low-income citizens need a place to work? Pile a few more factories into my pollution-riddled industrial quarter, home to hastily erected garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants. The resulting urban sprawl works about as well as Los Angeles does: skyscrapers grow and the wealth pours in, but traffic is a mess and I always find myself scrambling to address the congestion my lack of foresight has created.

Green is good: happy neighborhoods become dense, valuable real estate, and you can track your citizens' satisfaction with real-time color-coded maps.

Fortunately, no city is an island (even when they’re on an island). The focus on multiplayer plays a central role here, and it’s difficult for a single city survive on its own—if you’d like to see any variation, that is.

 A titan of industry

Here's an example of what I mean: Let’s say we’d like to create an industrial powerhouse. Factories need employees, so we’ll need plenty of residential zones with low-income citizens looking for a humble nine-to-five gig. But our factories will also need places to sell their wares—that means exporting goods to the new trade depots and ensuring there are plenty of commercial zones available. Factories also cause quite a bit of ground and air pollution that drives down land values (and make your citizens unhealthy), keeping wealthier business and residents at bay. We’ll mitigate that by ensuring there are plenty of schools and libraries to educate our populace: educated citizens can become skilled managers, resulting in high-tech factories that emit less pollution.

We’re almost done. Factories are fire hazards, so we’ll need comprehensive fire coverage. And we can’t all be mid-level managers, so we’ll need a stable supply of low-income residents. Even with high levels of education, low-income areas generate crime, which means having comprehensive police coverage.

Fossil fuel factories are fire traps, so make sure to keep your fire stations close.

All of these buildings require power, water, and—most importantly—lots of space, if they’re going to grow. A thriving city also needs a sensible road layout: larger roads are more expensive, but can ease congestion in larger cities—our police and fire departments can’t do their jobs if they’re stuck in traffic.

The prudent industrial city planner needs to cram plenty of city services (don’t forget public transportation for your low-income citizens!) into the same space as residential neighborhoods, commercial plazas, and industrial corridors. Add a few power plants and water towers to keep everything humming along, and our city will quickly be packed to the gills. And all of this only accounts for the bare essentials. There’s gold in them thar hills: we can strip mine parts of your city for resources like coal and oil, and use them to fuel power plants, trade on the global market for cash, or refine into advanced materials for use at advanced factories. Wealth is at our fingertips, but only if we can find enough space to fit everything in.

The air isn’t great, but we’ve got plenty of jobs!

EA’s SimCity present a “convenient” solution: team up with someone else. Every region offers a number of cities to build in, and cities in a region form a cohesive unit. It’s still called SimCity, but SimOrganism is closer to the mark: each city serves as a kind of organ, and successful cities (and thus, regions) will share resources intelligently.

SimCity makes it easy to keep tabs on where your citizens are going and how they're getting there.

Sim citizens commute freely, looking for work, an education, or the occasional tourist trap in any other city in their regions. Our industrial city can attempt to cram as many residential zones as their polluted haven can reasonably support or simply offer ample public transportation by rail or municipal bus for a neighboring city’s cash-starved denizens.  That neighbor can take care of educating their citizenry (and ours), and offer plenty of commercial venues for our factories to ship their wares. Their police departments can volunteer officers to patrol our streets, and while we’ll want to keep our own fire department to keep things in check, it can never hurt to have a few ambulances sent our way to deal with sick Sims. We get the services we need without sacrificing space, and they get a decent chunk of change — sharing resources isn’t free, of course.

Success has its costs

I love this new approach. SimCity has always been something of a sandbox, and while our digital playgrounds have gotten a bit smaller this time around the ability to create specialized cities and tag-team with friends and strangers adds a refreshing new level of complexity to a classic experience. And there’s always the option to keep things private, keeping an entire region to yourself and designing a region as you see fit.

But all of this is only neat if you can actually play the game.  I’ve done my fair share of griping about the woeful state of SimCity’s launch, and while things have admittedly improved over the last week, being able to access the game “pretty often” just isn’t good enough.

Lengthy server queues have kept many players from enjoying the new SimCity, which cannot be played offline.

Progress is saved on EA’s servers, so if your particular server is down you’ll lose access to the cities you’re working on—this includes losing progress if a server goes down in the middle of a game. The lack of save games makes sense from EA’s perspective: city and region progress is tracked on leaderboards, so you wouldn’t want folks cheating their way to the top. But it also means being unable to unleash disasters on your city for the occasional experiment (or giggles) or even sample different road layouts without spending loads of cash, much less unleash a disaster on your city just for the hell of it.

Get away from the bustle of the big city

And now we’re back to that multiplayer-first focus, which will be the hardest hurdle for fans of the older games in the series to get over. The relatively small city sizes means you’ll need to design a city that thrives with a particular focus, and then building complementary cities alongside it. If you’re playing by yourself and have settled into a comfortable, profitable rhythm, things will get repetitive—fast. Playing with others naturally throws new wrenches into the works, as you attempt to goad others into accommodating your master plan or deal with mayors who aren’t very organized (like me).

The SimCity experience is also ultimately tied to EA’s whims. I’m not talking about the all-but guaranteed torrent of downloadable content we can expect to arrive in the coming months. No, it's all about the online-only experience: even once the troubled launch is behind us, the future of SimCity lies in however long EA is willing to support it. At some point in the future, SimCity will inevitably be shut down—and your cities and regions will disappear alongside it. While this is simply a fact of life in the brave new world of cloud gaming, SimCity has always been the sort of gift that keeps on giving—there are still legions of fans playing SimCity 3, SimCity 4 and even SimCity 2000.

SimCity has its share of problems, but it still scratches that itch to build bustling and bucolic little cities.

Is SimCity worth your time? It depends. I’m having a blast: the last week has not been without its share of woes, and the focus on playing with others coupled with server issues necessarily limits the thrill of carving a thriving metropolis out of digital soil. But there’s potential for a singular experience here, once you’ve found a solid circle of friends or strangers to work with. But it's out of reach until the server situation is sorted, and after a few necessary bug fixes. And it's gone once EA decides to kill the servers.

Bottom line: EA and Maxis haven’t rested on their laurels here. Their risky experiment in bringing a classic franchise into the future is bold, and fun. But if you can’t stomach the crippled single-player experience, and don’t want to leave so much of your entertainment power in a company’s hands, you’ll want to steer clear—or at least wait until it’s on sale. But don’t let the rough launch turn you off—there’s a lot to love in this game, and it’s worth taking for a spin.

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At a Glance
  • SimCity is a visually striking homage to a classic series that takes city building in bold new directions, but troubling business decisions and technical snafus spell trouble.


    • Gorgeous.
    • GlassBox simulations give a sense of a teeming, thriving city.


    • Required online connectivity is at the mercy of EA’s server uptime.
    • Small cities limit single-player potential.
    • Crippled single-player experience.
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