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SimCity is a game I desperately wanted to find mind blowingly awesome. The fifth expansion in the series followed a ten-year gap and I was hoping it would be on par or even better than XCOM: Enemy Unknown, that did most things right with its 10 year later sequel and it would not be a Diablo III or Duke Nukem Forever, both of which did so many things wrong. It didn’t pan out that way. SimCity had a some serious launch issues as a result of the always on-line requirement, but two weeks post-launch most of the server issues seems to have been resolved and accessing the game is no longer the main concern for most.
I have built more than a dozen cities with various specializations across different regions both public and private ranging from a few thousand to over 100,000 inhabitants and my experience has for the most part been one of frustration and disappointment. It comes so close at times to being an unforgettable and compulsive game, the one that Russ Pitts at Polygon managed to play with his preview copy, but that never materialised for me, something perpetually went wrong: the cloud save lost my save, yesterday my city stopped functioning and I was provided the option to either reset to 24 minutes into its existence or abandon it altogether, a twitch of the finger accidentally plopped an expensive building on top of my most prized residential skyscraper and traffic jams have become the bane of every city’s existence.
Etching out tiny cities with less than perfect tools to create Miniatureville filled with u-turning vehicles and public services that always have room to cover neighbours, but cannot cover their own turf whilst a zoning builder constantly tells me to zone more residential (I don’t have space!), no, zone more commercial (I still don’t have space!), no, zone more industrial (They’re packed like sardines, I tell you, nothing else is fitting into this city!) has not been the experience I was anticipating from a series so well-loved as the SimCity franchise.
Reasons to play it
Small scale building is still fun
Despite all its flaws and it does have a ton of them, underneath the dumb AI lies a versatile building sim that can create beautiful urban landscapes. The moments when SimCity works for you are great. The first few hours in particular play quite well, and if you can get past the very prevalent bugs of the game, you can still built a pretty little town. Just never zoom in on the traffic.
The user interface is very user friendly
SimCity is pretty, not just the buildings and avenues, but also its user interface and tutorials. SimCity’s design succeeds here, it is just unfortunate that it comes with so much baggage that I would not recommend it to either fans or newcomers.
Room for Improvement
My wishlist of features are long and unfulfilled – I want bigger plots or the option to expand, I want more control over the underlying infrastructure and not have it just follow the roads, I want to use all the tools, not be stuck building grids because all feature buildings are rectangular or square. All of these pale in comparison to the bigger flaws detailed below. At times I wasn’t even sure if I was playing a working game.
Underwhelming AI creates a simulation fraught with errors
The biggest problem with SimCity has been the AI who seems to come with a very small brain. The more you zoom into the game, the more the cracks show. Traffic follows the shortest route, disregarding traveling time and road types and although this has been upgraded, I still cannot get my traffic to flow properly.
There are many pathing errors, grid errors and whenever moving away from the mostly barren and flat plots that abound, you are punished with hills that resist cultivation. Road layout fails for no apparent reason, zoning refuses to apply to some roads because of bad vibes. Sims are obviously a magical people scared of a great many things and so they should be, with zombies crawling out at night, alien abductions and frequent meteor showers or Godzilla decimating their towns. Houses land on the middle of roads, vehicles make imaginary u-turns for no obvious reason and buildings refuse to spin 90 degrees to fit into a plot, doggedly persisting that they won’t fit (yes, you will, just turn!)
A small home computer cannot simulate anywhere near realistic data, but it should at least try to emulate a realistic snapshot. It doesn’t. The simulations are illogical and very frustrating to deal with.
“Just build smaller” doesn’t cut it. The tiny plots wouldn’t be so bad if only you didn’t have the inter-city traffic traffic jam problem. SimCity’s cities are designed to be self-sufficient. Your main aim is to get Sims to remain in their city, so you have to balance industrial, commercial and residential zones within each city. Try anything creative and everything grinds to a halt in the onslaught of traffic. Your aim is to get your Sims to move as little as possible and live out their lives in tiny squares as they walk to shops, walk to work and take the bus home when they are tired after a long day.
Once your population reaches over a certain size, SimCity seems to self-destruct. Everything dries up, including ground water, all systems are overloaded even at maximum capacity and there is no space to build further expansions. I have a garbage lot and recycling plant in each town and city and yet garbage is a constant problem. I can’t put any more down, there isn’t any space. I have to upgrade fire stations, police stations, build a hospital and generally expand services and each requires a block of my city. Once I start adding multiple train stations, bus stations, streetcar depots and ferry ports, there isn’t space for sims to work, live or shop. I keep playing with the feeling that I am doing something stupidly wrong as all my cities start falling apart once they reach 100k residents.
Multi-city ownership is a red herring
SimCity could have been incredible, if one of two things were different. Option A: Bigger cities with an offline single player option Obviously, Maxis chose not to make that game. An alternative then. Option B: A decent regional interface without load screens and less punishment when trying to do something different. Building a city is quite simplistic and a pretty short game, but building a region could offer an incredible challenge for dedicated players looking for more complexity. My first days in SimCity was plagued by the need for a regional screen. I wanted a list of my cities and options to set and view their specialities, budgets, shortages, excesses and balance resources between cities without the zooming in and zooming out followed by the one minute load screen business.
After a few days I realised that giving me a regional control panel would be very misleading. SimCity isn’t meant to be played as a regional simulation, it’s built as cities in isolation with the option of a very limited helping hand from 3 neighbours and a one or two tenuous bonuses if far off cities within the region expands and adds a specific department to their city hall. The more dependency between your cities, the bigger your traffic headache gets. Build your cities self-sufficient and balanced or fail.
Always on-line resulted in disabled features
The features that have been disabled due to high server load are vital to the enjoyment of SimCity. Cheetah mode, the third and fastest speed setting seems like something small, but once cities reach a 20-30k population, more and more of my time was spent doing other things whilst SimCity churns away for minutes on a second screen. I have walked away from my desk more than once for up to 30 minutes and come back to a city very much the same as I left it only with a much bigger bank balance.
I don’t care much for achievements, but I do find it annoying that I keep earning them with a splashy pop-up only to land on a frozen trophy page that has been disabled. Achievements have been frozen and are no longer recorded. If they weren’t there in the first place, I would not have noticed, but they are there and its not something I want to be continuously reminded of.
Leaderboards, one of the principal features of the always on-line multiplayer nature of the game, have been disabled.
The multiplayer aspect is terrible
I have to admit that multiplayer has not been something that appeals to me greatly. My friends aren’t playing SimCity and grouping up with a bunch of strangers made me wonder if this will turn out like my Facebook news feed of old filled with requests for elixirs, sheep and other odd things that friends need from me in a game they are playing. I tried the multiplayer, because many things in life come despite personal reservations. I loaded up the game, clicked on the “Join region” tab and spent the next hour scrolling through regions that were all full. There is no option to select regions that have space for you to claim a plot. I then went on-line and found that people were networking on forums and through social media, starting a region then shouting out for the first few lucky souls to provide the rest of the bodies. I didn’t want to friend some strangers on Origin just so I can join a region and so I moved on to the next option.
I went to the “Create region” tab and set it to public. Nobody came. I considered heading over to forums and social media platforms to garner some mayors for my region, but decided that that was too much work for something I didn’t want to experience in the first place. I wouldn’t object to the multiplayer aspect, if it at least had some matchmaking capacity so that I could find others through the game rather than the internet. I also wouldn’t object if it was optional.
I guess my biggest objection is that the multiplayer SimCity actually has very little multiplayer in it. Although regions contain up to 16 cities, a maximum of 4 can be neighbours and only neighbours can send neighbours some of their trucks. Never send money, it doesn’t get there! The most prevalent aspect of multiplayer I have experienced over and over, hour after hour is this: Crime/fire/garbage is rampant in your city, expand your coverage. I expand my coverage with one upgrade of a single new building. Congratulations! You now have coverage available for neighbours! Great, except that crime/fire/garbage is still a problem in my city. I’d like the extra support to be deployed in my city. Next message: Your fire trucks arrived too slow and a house burned down. Great, that’s because the new fire station sent all their trucks to the city next door instead of staying here.
Photophobia (Light Sensitivity)
SimCity is very accessible if you have photophobia, a common symptom of migraine, autistic spectrum disorders, cataracts, colour blindness, dyslexia or traumatic brain injury. It has almost no flicker, flash or other bright visual effects.
“It is moderately accessible if you suffer from simulation sickness, motion sickness induced by video games. There are some minimal triggers that cannot be avoided regularly throughout the game. The biggest culprit is the panned camera zoom when you move from city to region view, or load between cities or when your camera is automatically zoomed in when you click on an icon. Using the scroll wheel to zoom in and out and movement is reasonably smooth, but might also create problems for those severely affected. There is no way to minimize or turn off the effect as it is integrated into the game.
Low Vision and Visual Field Defects
SimCity is moderately accessible if you have blurred vision, visual distortion, tunnel vision (peripheral field loss) or blind spots in your visual field. The menu system and UI is well designed and uses standard text against a reasonably high contrast background. In-game elements are easy to discern when special view modes are applied, but can be difficult to spot when an icon is the only indication. For example, in a large city with many police cars, it can be difficult to find a police station as identical icons flash up all over the place for both patrol cars and buildings. The UI is not adjustable and the audio cues are cosmetic rather than particularly helpful.
Colour Blindness (Colour Vision Deficiency)
It is not very accessible if playing with a colour vision deficiency and there is heavy reliance on colour alone. There are a host of Daltonizing filters available that will make it easier for some, but colour remains the only way to distinguish the different zones.
- Screen Resolution: Large selection from a drop-down menu
- Fullscreen with tick box to enable
- Lighting: 5 settings
- Textures: Low-medium-high settings
- Shadows: Off – low – medium – high – ultra settings
- Geometry: Low – medium – high
- Animation Detail: Low – medium – high
- Tilt-shift: Less – standard – more
- Anti-aliasing with tick box to enable
- Framerate Cap: Off – 60 FPS – 30 FPS
- V-Sync with tick box to enable
- Brightness: Controlled with slider
- Filter: Drop down box with various effects including three colourblind options
Subtitles & Closed captioning
All communication is text based and the multiplayer aspect of SimCity is text based as well.
Reliance on auditory cues
Audio cues are an optional extra that serve a cosmetic purpose. SimCity can easily be played without sound.
- Music Volume: Adjustable slider
- Effects Volume: Adjustable slider
- Mute all with tick box to enable
SimCity does not need quick reflexes and instant reaction time and is very accessible in this regard. There are two speed settings as well as a pause button that allow players to control the speed at which events occur and thereby allowing plenty of time on slower settings for players who need it.
Precision (Manual Dexterity)
A high level of precision is needed to play SimCity. Building is done with an assisted mouse drag across the screen, but due to no save or undo button, if you twitch or misclick, the mistake can be extraordinarily expensive. Support options are available when drawing, for example there is the option to draw roads as either straight lines, curved lines, linear grids or circles rather than free hand, but the lack of an undo button when you make a mistake is a significant ommision.
There are some warning pop-ups that ask for verification before deleting paid for structures, but there is none for expensive sim-buildings that can easily be destroyed accidentally. Those who lack precise muscular control, particularly as a result of spasms or involuntary twitches, will find some aspects of building very frustrating.
SimCity is not a game with a time limit. There is no story or campaign to finish. You can build for as many hours as you want and divide your time between as many cities as you like. It can be played in short bursts or marathon sessions and lends itself well to unplanned breaks often needed by those with chronic fatigue or pain conditions.
The game saves automatically similar to an MMO and players do not have access to the save file.
Complexity of Controls
The controls employed by SimCity are simple and easy to use. It is primarily a point-and-click mouse heavy game, but there are plenty of shortcut keys enabling players to use a keyboard and mouse to play. Button mapping, controllers or other custom input devices are not supported, but could be added by players with a GlovePIE or AutoHotKey script. It can easily be played with one hand using a mouse only.
SimCity uses dozens of keys that are not remappable, however most keys are shortcuts and therefore optional, players can simply click on the UI to interact with the game. The controls are easy with single press mouse clicking and dragging being required the vast majority of the time.
- There is no in-game key mapping
- Windowed mode is available with various screen resolution options available in a drop-down menu. I personally found it easiest to play in a resolution smaller than my screen so that I could put other things in the gaps around the game and move my cursor across two screens without any issues.
- Pause any time, there is a pause button, or just hit escape to bring up the menu which also pauses the game. Be aware that moving to the regional view does not pause your city.
- Save is cloud based and players have no access to save files.
The language used is secondary school level and provided as text only. Text is quite easy to read in a standard size font and format, but on a timed display. Patch 1.6 did make it easier with a “UI improvement: We increased the length of time that system alerts are displayed to enhance readability”. Writing is not required at any point and is optional for chat.
SimCity is available in 4 languages, but be aware that “[i]f you purchased the Russian, Polish or Hungarian version of the game, you will not be able to install the game in English. If you would like to play the game in English, you will need to purchase the English game version from Origin or other online retailers.”
A decent memory is required for complex planning, managing budgets, resources and allocating support services. The more cities you build, the higher the requirement to remember which city has which specialization and where have you added which particular buildings or upgrades.
Calculations and Currency
SimCity requires a grounded concept and understanding of mathematics. Players have to manage and adjust their city’s budget and infrastructure, keeping tabs on how many schools, buses, police stations, hospitals etc they have built. Players also have to keep an eye on the power, water, sewage and pollution levels of their cities. In-game support is available with colour-based indicators, if you monthly income is negative, its displayed in red and if its positive, in green.
Complexity and Support
The game menu, mechanics, plot and game controls require a bit of a learning curve to master. In-game support options can make it easier. A good tutorial is compulsory at the start of the game and available to rerun at any time via the menu. There is no selection of difficulty levels and there is quite a lot of parameters to juggle, however, the game is mostly supportive, particularly in the initial stages. No navigational skills are needed to get around, but there is a zoom function as well as a top-down view option great for planning your city.
It is an always online multiplayer game, but all communication with other players are done via the user interface. You can send set messages to up to three neighbouring cities to alert them that you have water, power etc to sell or you can just send some of your vehicles their way as support. There is the option to start a private region only accessible by you and your friends.
SimCity’s cues do come from Sims, its NPCs, but they are a system rather than individuals and as such, as easy or mindboggling to understand as the traffic in your city. Your city thrives and survives on their likes and dislikes, so their opinion matters a great deal.
SimCity has been an exercise in curbing my frustration. I love the franchise and tried various ways to fall in love with the game, but the nagging problems that always cropped up made that impossible. Underneath its flaws, a hidden gem hides, but whether you or the developers through future patches, have the patience to extract it, I highly doubt.
Playing SimCity is a futile endeavor and I was looking for something that cannot be pieced together out of the good parts that are clearly there. I tried and failed. Maybe others will be lucky, I don’t know. SimCity has sold over 1.1 million copies and servers continue to be busy, but a month post release and after many hours playing, I cannot recommend it. It’s a game with much potential, but most of it is unrealized.