Last weekend I got the chance to play the closed beta for the new SimCity, and found out something incredibly unfortunate: the game is everything I wanted in a new SimCity game.
(As a side note: this post is very short on photos because, quite honestly, I didn’t know I’d be making it when I was playing the beta. All shots snagged are as-credited, not my own).
To review a beta is something of a poor choice, so this isn’t so much a review as it is a look at what has been changed. Immediately after the beta was over, I still had the newly-revitalized itch to simulate a city, so I booted up my old copy of SimCity 4 to satiate my need. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized everything that they’d done right. Going from the new (amazing) engine to the now-dated, clunky SimCity 4 engine was a jarring experience to say the least. The beta felt like I’d gone to a dealership to test drive a new Ferrari, knowing full well I’d have to drive my old scrap heap back home when I was done.
For starters, the new visual data graphs are nothing short of the single best feature ever introduced to a SimCity game. While every iteration has had its fair share of data made available to the player, never before has it been laid out so exquisitely or made so easy to work with. Problem spots for every possible demographic are now easily handleable and you can watch how your city changes along any heuristic just by activing that graph and letting time pass.
One of the “features” that a lot of people (myself included) initially blasted when it was announced was the fact that everything is now completely based off of roads – zones, plot points for infrastructure buildings, water, power, etc. What that sounded like a few months ago was a removal of depth, which feels like it has become a staple in modern sequels. In a way, yes; it did remove some of the depth, in that you can’t make alternative city layouts anymore, built entirely off subway systems or other means of getting things going. However, as I played, I found that it truly had a minimal effect on my playstyle. Maybe this is just a result of me getting older (and thus automatically more casual), but being able to drop a quick grid system (the new road tool, in addition to curved roads, allows for automatic rectangle drawing) and simply control-click zones into the cells sped up the initial structure of my city by an order of magnitude. And it was great.
Simplification is not always a bad thing. Often it is, but not here: it really feels like the game designers behind SimCity put a lot of effort into making sure all the most important concepts were left untouched by the streamlining of these new features. Only once did I feel like I was truly missing something from an older version (and I’ll get to that later). I didn’t miss setting up power lines and pipes, and worrying that one of my grids might not be technically connected to the power grid, inevitably ending up investigating tiles to make sure they have the right resources. Everything worked and it was as amazing as it sounds. My worries about removal of depth hurried out the window even quicker when I saw varying amount of structures and roads – most not even in the beta – that opened up an entirely new set of options.
The pre-planned density levels of zoning are now a thing of the past, replaced with a slicker system that grows as your city does, while simultaneously creating demand for lower wealth areas for new citizens and businesses. This aspect of the game, while I’m sure is open to some improvement in regards to rate of growth and calculation of need, worked very well and made the city feel like an organic operation in a way previous games haven’t. I could feel my city growing and reacting to the changes across the land, as wealthy people moved to nicer neighborhoods and crime sprung up around casinos. It created a sense of pure enjoyment as I watched my city grow from a few initial settlers who could barely fund their policemen to a thriving community of overpaid tennis professionals (seriously though, I couldn’t be bothered to learn each of their jobs – though you can find out quite easily by clicking on an individual sim).
Buildings now have a “module” system, through which you can attach extras to the building. This lets you simply improve an existing building to meet your needs, instead of saving up for expensive duplicates that take up valuable planning space. It also feels a lot more like what a real city does; when schools fill up, there’s not always a new one cropping up, they just expand the old one. This has the most profound effect on your city hall, which can now be upgraded when you reach milestones within your city. But on top of that, new levels unlock new departments that you can add, which seem to greatly increase the amount of control you have over various aspects of your city. Adding a department of finance gave me absolutely granular control over taxes, letting me maximize both happiness and income without impacting either as severely as mass tax changes would. Sadly, most of the other expansion sections were locked out of the beta, but seeing the changes from just those got me anxious to try them.
The UI as a whole is a massive upgrade from all previous SimCity efforts. It is very easy to find everything you need without flipping through half a dozen menus of options, and alerts are clear and clickable to find emergency needs. I’ll admit to not being the best simulation player, so this may have just been my failings in the past, but it felt much easier to control quick situations on the new engine.
Of course, no game is all sunshine and roses. There is the notably huge lack of terraforming, most likely due to the permanent-multiplayer state of the game (which was not really exposed in the beta). While I rarely customized my land plots much, knowing I could was a nice comfort when I wanted to lay down a certain type of city. What I missed the most, however, were subways; there was no sign that they would even exist in the new game. Undoubtedly, they’ll show up in a few months as a medium-price DLC, but I loved making subway networks to support growing transport problems. Speaking of transport problems, the algorithm for bus usage seemed to be off by an order of magnitude. No matter how many bus depots, buses, bus stops, and park-n-rides my city sported, the wait time continued to spiral out of control (at one point reaching an insane 500 minute wait). The constant harping of my traffic advisor to add buildings that weren’t accessible in the beta was no help either.
So, I love the game. Then why do I only want to buy it? Why not just go and pre-order it right this minute?
Because I can’t bring myself to it. I can hear the groans now as people close the page, ready to see the same DRM complaints they’ve already read everywhere else. Frankly, I don’t care; it’s a legitimate issue, and it needs to be discussed. Not only that, but it goes deeper than you might think. It is a marring scar on an otherwise incredible game.
As you most likely know, EA is going to require you to always be online while playing the game, due to both the fact that you are always in “multiplayer”, as well as it acting as DRM to prevent piracy. To say the game is catching flak for this move is putting it very lightly; Maxis has been in damage control mode since day one over the issue. Thousands are swearing not to buy it due to the issue, regardless of the track record video game boycotts have.
You might be saying right now, who cares? I’m always online anyway. Hell, even I’m saying that right now. This game is great. So I can’t play it offline? A loss for sure, but just the chance to play it when I’m online is almost enough for me to buy it. I’ll miss saving a copy of my city just so I can blow it to hell with every kind of natural disaster imaginable, but for a game of this quality, is that an acceptable loss? A lot of the multiplayer aspects are pretty neat (working out deals to share power and services with real people actually sounds pretty neat, if you ask me), and although Origin has a long way to go to reach Steam’s level of quality, it’s really not that bad. Only getting 10 regions or whatever (I’m honestly not clear on this part of the online restrictions) sounds bad on the surface, but will I really want to keep that many cities around before I decide to blow one up and start fresh?
However, the problem showed itself for what it really is during the beta weekend. Now, of course, server stability and stress testing was a big part of this beta weekend, and I fully expected issues going into it. What I didn’t expect was quite how the issues manifested. There was the expected issue of authentication servers going down, shutting you out of the game; the long auth times were just another symptom of that same issue as well. The problem really showed itself in two different ways. First, often when loading into the game, it would greet me as simply “~Username~”. During the beta, there was no city saving of course, but it made me wonder: if there’s a hiccup on the authenticating server when I log in, and it doesn’t even know my username, how will it know how to load my cities? They aren’t saved locally, they’re all tied to my account. Having to play games with a server just to get files is what I do during work hours, I don’t want to deal with that shit during precious play time.
Secondly, and much more importantly, every single resource and calculation seems to go through their server. There is little-to-no client side calculation or prediction going on, at least on the highly visible aspects (I imagine the simulation calculation for individuals and systems is largely client side); during the many, many periods of lag on Saturday, entire menus would disappear. Building icons on menus would be invisible, and placing them from this state would just empty a plot of land until I caught up with the server. Putting down buildings or passing time while this was going on would make my income and expenses calculate in bursts, completely throwing off my ability to plan out the finances. Is this going to happen every time their server gets a bit overloaded? What about if my connection just degrades a little – not a full disconnect situation, but say my wife is loading some high-def netflix and I’m downloading something in the background, will I suddenly lose the ability to control my city just because my internet is slowed a bit? To me, that’s a huge oversight in architecture and resource planning.
So, what is there left to say about SimCity? It’s a wonderful game. The new engine is nothing short of brilliant, and Maxis seems to have truly put their heart and soul into this game. It shows, in spades: this is what a sequel should feel like. An improvement in nearly every area. But then you have the EA side of it, the shadow cast by this behemoth of an improvement. How much enjoyability will I lose if my buildings suddenly don’t have icons for a few minutes?
The only answer I can come to is: I just don’t know.