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Blowing the lid off City Hall: we review the new SimCity

Posted at 3:00 pm, March 21, 2013 in Technology
Time Out reviews the Sim City 5 game, released in 2013 by Maxis and EA. (Screenshot: EA)

If you’re of a certain age and disposition, you probably have fond memories of SimCity. Happy hours whiled away constructing the ultimate metropolis and then watching it fall apart in a devastating cycle of crime, unemployment, disease and volcanic eruption. Well, a decade since its last outing, SimCity is back. And is it bigger and better than ever? Not exactly.

The game gets off to a joyful start, at least. A concise but effective tutorial maps out the major functionality, before presenting you with a verdant paradise upon which to put up a parking lot. And it is truly beautiful. Everything is rendered in zoomable, scrollable 3D, buildings look gorgeous, and a tilt-shift filter gives your fledgling township a cutesy model-village look. The sound design is excellent, too – place  an electricity plant and you’ll get a satisfying whomm-whomm-whomm followed by a wave of circuit-breakers clunking on across the city.

The first few hours are a delight, as your city begins to sprawl across the map, and you start to place the schools, hospitals, police stations, bus routes, garbage dumps and the other municipal delights that keep the protestors off the mayor’s front lawn. The various controls and views are easy enough to master, and feedback is plentiful. As you progress and upgrade, your genteel suburbs start to sprout townhouses and high-rises, your corner shops become department stores and your scrappy factories towering industrial facilities.

SimCity screenshot. A traffic jam at night. (Photo: Maxis.)

But after that, joy gives way to frustration and disappointment. Each city can only occupy a small geographical area, and you’ll reach the city limits in no time at all, especially if you dare to include pretty, winding streets. (The screenshots might look appealing, but a tight grid of dual carriageways is really the only effective layout.) And your options for reinvention are limited, because deleting a road destroys all the buildings attached to it; although your huge university campus may abut several roads, bulldozing the one that touches its front door will flatten the entire thing.

SimCity tries to get around this by giving you the option to create extra cities in the same region. Zoom out, and there’ll be up to 15 other plots to build cities on. (These regions can also be shared online, with other cities operated by friends or random players.) Neatly, excess resources from one city should be shared with another, so your second town’s citizens can coast by for a while on the ambulances that race over your original city. Students can catch the bus from one city to the university in another, while workers can drive from their leafy hometown to the godforsaken industrial hellhole down the road.

Except you should forget all that, because this system is riddled with bugs and barely works. Players find their vans loaded with Sim cash disappearing onto the intercity highway, never to return. Building specialist City Hall add-ons like a Department of Transportation should generate region-wide benefits, like the ability to build a train station in every city. But in our case, these benefits simply never registered, so rather than creating a series of differentiated-but-mutually-supportive-cities, we could only create the same middlingly-successful city over and over again.

Even with single-city play, glitches gradually accumulate to fatal effect. Your gleaming, upgraded fire station will sit quietly while the house next door burns to the ground. You’ll find factories shut down for the lack of educated workers despite your full-to-the-brim college, or a college sitting empty in a neighbourhood of unemployed Sims. A sense of futility sets in and never dissipates.

SimCity 5 screenshot. A meteor shower strikes the city. (Photo: EA/Maxis.)

If success eludes you, there’s always the tantalizing option of creative destruction, right? Wrong. There’s no ‘undo’ button and no ‘save/load game’ buttons either. Every change you make is permanent, so you can’t experimentally raze your entire western quarter and try building something better in its place, because if your city’s economy collapses under the strain, there’s no way back. And who can enjoy triggering a spectacular meteor bombardment when you can’t revert to a less smoking-crater-filled version afterwards?

It’s all part of the designers’ vision of a relentlessly ‘social’, always-connected world of cities. (Much hay has been made out of the requirement to be constantly online while you play, but now the rocky launch phase has passed,  it’s doubtful most people will notice.) “In many ways, we built an MMO,” they say. In the process, sadly, they’ve denied introvert megalomaniacs a first-rate single-player experience.

All the materials exist in SimCity for a truly immersive game, capable of swallowing weekends whole. As it stands, the enjoyable part lasts just a few short hours. In a few months, it’s likely many of the bugs will have been addressed, and the experience could be as fun to play as it is pretty to look at. But games only get one review, so for now…


– Guy Parsons

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