GamesBeat

A ‘big data’ experience revives the glory of SimCity (review)

simcity big

[We played the game with early access review code and tested the interaction between cities in a group with other journalists. We did not play on launch servers. –Ed.]

[Update: I played the final retail game early Wednesday morning and had no problems logging in. Others have reported server problems, and EA has said it is working to resolve the issues.]

If you’ve been there from the beginning like me, or if you’re brand new to city-building games, you’re going to enjoy the new SimCity.

SimCity fans have had to wait a long time for a quality remake of their beloved franchise, which game designer Will Wright created in 1989. The series hasn’t had a real blockbuster version since 2003, and last year’s SimCity Social was a pretty stripped-down version of the city simulation experience.

But the new SimCity for the PC from Electronic Arts is something you can sink your teeth into for hours. A decade of improvements in computing power and networking technology have enabled EA’s Maxis division to take this city simulator into the age of Big Data, where you can delve into all of the reasons why your city is or isn’t thriving or your citizens, known as Sims, aren’t happy — on a house by house level. It simulates everything, down to every kilowatt of power used in the city. You can manage it as if it were your own “smart city.”

At the same time, it’s a game. It’s fun to play and isn’t just a tool for educators or architects. If your skills as a mayor are lacking, your citizens will let you know by marching in front of city hall. The game’s ambient sounds and music from Christopher Tilton give you constant company, even if you’re playing in a solitary experience.

simcity 4What you’ll like

A good tutorial

Fortunately, the developers included a good tutorial. In it, you’re appointed mayor of a sinking city. The previous mayor was run out, and you have to save the town. Protesters carry placards in front of city hall to tell you they’re not happy. You can deal with them, or blow them off.

The administrator of the city shows you what to do, like building a road to the outside world. She then shows you how to create zones for residential, commercial and industrial development. Like the original SimCity, it’s an easy game to play, even though there is a ton of complexity running under the simulation.

Your administrator tells you the crime in your city is high. You can build a police station and then see it go into action. You see some robbers go into a building and then a character, or Sim, screams. Police sirens wail and multiple police cars show up. They have a shootout with the robbers, and then arrest the survivors and take them to jail. The whole scene plays out in front of you. It’s a scripted sequence, but it gets the point across about why it’s important to build police stations.

The tutorial also shows you how to interact with the rest of the world in a multiplayer experience. You can learn how to purchase goods and services from another city. Everything is easy. You no longer have to string power lines, since the roads themselves connect both water and electricity to a zone. When you’re building roads, a grid appears to suggest to you just how far apart they should be.

The city advisors  also regularly generate missions for you to undertake such as expanding your police station. Those missions break up the monotony when nothing is happening, and they contribute to the overall ease of use.

simcity 8Immersive graphics

These graphics are amazing, with so much attention to detail. The 3D graphics for the game allow you to maneuver and view your city from any angle. When buildings appear, they magically rise from the ground in an animation that is fluid and fun. And the buildings aren’t just generic. Each building home, and store is different. They have unique names and you can drill down and find more information about them. You can insert beautifully rendered landmarks into your city. You can make streets that have curves.

The game has indicators like happy faces to tell you what your citizens are thinking. You can zoom in or zoom out with ease, and you can absorb what is happening in your city on a number of different layers, such as the view of the water situation or the power grid. When you zoom down to the level of the individual Sims, the graphics leave a little to be desired. But the very fact that you can do that is amazing.

Everything is connected

The whole world is simulated. You can click on a person and he or she will reveal their feelings. You can click on a building and see what the owner’s needs are. Then you can take action based on the feedback. There are so many layers of data that you can drill into in order to gather intelligence about your Sims and their businesses. The Maxis team did this by creating a brand new game engine, dubbed GlassBox, that enables an intricately connected world where one piece of the simulation can impact another and build a huge butterfly effect. GlassBox simulates everything from the ground up, so it knows whether any given Sim that you click upon is happy or sick.

Consider what happens when you try to bring power to your city. You can buy it from neighbors and become dependent on them. Or you can build your own oil-fired power plant. If you do that, it pays to look underground to see if there are any oil or coal deposits. If you find them, you can set up a mine or an oil well. When you collect the resources, you have to have them stored in warehouses in a trading center. Once you build up more than you need, you can export the resources to other regions. This chain of construction events flows from just one decision to bring power into your city.

I saw this happen when I noticed a few citizens complaining about the high taxes in my city. I had built them up to 14 percent so that I could generate a profit and still add a wide array of services in health, police, fire, garbage, and sewage. But while the Sims had tolerated the 14 percent tax rate in the past, they now turned on me, one by one. I had the game running at triple speed and didn’t notice that they started moving out of my city.

simcity 2City management

The game creates big challenges that test your abilities as a mayor. Once you get your city into financial trouble, you have to turn it around by cutting services, borrowing money, and getting more businesses and citizens to move into the city and boost tax revenues. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. When your city is in trouble, you have to act. I lost about half my population in a short time and saw whole blocks become abandoned. I had to bulldoze those buildings or run the risk of homeless moving into them, which caused even more outbound migration. I should have known better than to ignore taxes, since the original SimCity hammered that point home years ago when I first played it.

The game gives you lots of alerts to avoid insolvency. If you’re in the red and you are running low on cash, your advisor will tell you that. You can then pull open the budget menu to see what the hourly and monthly finances look like. You’ll want to make sure you don’t get into a tough fix where citizens demand services that you can’t afford. The lessons is that you have to build a balanced city, with all of the right controls.

Once you build all the way out to the borders of your city, you might be stuck. The only solution is to bulldoze your streets and start over again with higher density zones. In past games, you could choose between low, medium, and high-density zones.

But the clever solution in this game is that you don’t have to choose the type of zone, beyond whether it is residential, commercial or industrial. All you have to do is widen your streets. You can do that simply by clicking on a street and spending the money to instantly turn it into a medium or high-density street. If you build a high-density street, the simulation assumes you want high-density development on that street, and then the Sims will automatically develop that kind of property. That’s an enormous time saver when it comes to converting your city from a bunch of single-story buildings to a metropolis. It’s a big investment to widen all of your roads, but it’s worth it once you see the growth really take off on its own.

simcity 3Regional gameplay is more social

Your simulated city isn’t just by itself in this game. It is part of a multiplayer region that can thrive or decline based on the actions of everyone playing in neighboring cities. This raises the opportunity to specialize as a city. You can play with other people, or you can create up to 16 different cities of your own at the same time. I created two, one that served as my practice city and one that looked prettier.

You can create a gambling city that draws tourists from all over, but you’ll have to deal with the crime influence that comes with it. You can build a coal manufacturing city that provides resources and electricity to the whole region, but you’ll also pollute the air and make your neighbors sick. I played in an environment where my fellow game critics built cities around me.

I put my extra resources out on an open market, and the nearby cities could make use of them. I could also buy resources like coal or services like garbage pickup from the other cities. To engage in such commerce, you have to connect to the larger transportation system via highways, rail, or ferrys.

You can compete with your rivals and see who shows up on the leaderboard, which tracks who is ahead on a global basis in population or whose city is the wealthiest. It also tracks specialties like gambling, trading, electronics, petroleum or metals. Your city can be a leader in pollution, or it can be the greenest city. If you build a university, your city could be a contender for having the most educated Sims. In the future, EA will issue challenges via its SimCity World, allowing for regional or even global competition.

simcity 4

That layer of regional competition adds a lot of social features to a game that was previously a solitary experience. A CityLog sends you messages about your friends’ achievements. You can send gifts to your friends and get together in a Great Work, such as building a major regional airport. All of the neighboring cities have to contribute resources or the Great Work won’t get finished. I set to work on building an Arcology, a sci-fi style ecological haven. But I didn’t get far without contributions of metals, alloys and, of all things, televisions.

An endless amount to remember and learn

“Running things ain’t easy,” as the gangster said in my favorite movie, Miller’s Crossing. The tips for this game are plentiful. You have to have an adequate water supply to keep industrial centers humming. Those centers provide jobs for your residents. But they also pollute the water supply, and if you place a water tower on top of polluted ground water, you’ll make all of your residents sick.

When you place your garbage dumps or sewage pipes, it pays to remember which way the wind is blowing. If it blows across your city’s borders, that’s OK. But if it blows stinky odors over most of your city, you’ll make your Sims very angry.

These interconnections between actions and their consequences will teach you a lot. I liked the fact that every major building is modular, so you can expand a firehouse by adding new fire truck garages, so long as you can afford it. You can add the expansions and sit back and see if they have a desired effect.

If there’s anything you should know at the outset, it’s that bigger zones are better. They can spawn small houses in the beginning. But if you haven’t hemmed the residential zone in with streets that are too close together, they will eventually grow into huge multistory residential towers. You should also spread your services out so you can cover the largest parts of your city, and put them in place as you build so that you can head off problems in the future.

Humor 

SimCity has delivered a lot of comedy over the years. The Sims speak “Simlish,” a kind of gobbledygook that you can’t understand, but it always delivers the emotion the Sim is trying to convey. Protesters will gather outside your city hall to object to the presence of too many germs. An arsonist playing heavy metal music in his car will drive around setting fires. And if you get bored with your perfect city, you can let loose disasters in it. I didn’t have a chance to see disasters in the version that I played.

simcity 5What you won’t like

Being always connected

The problem with an always-connected game is that you’ll inevitably have some downtime as the servers occasionally go offline. Sometimes your friends will also go offline. When they do, you won’t be getting as much help from them. This happened only once for me while I was playing the game before its launch. But it’s likely to be a challenge for EA to keep the servers for the game up and running to meet initial demand. You’ll have to log into the Origin servers every time you play, and that means delays. On the other hand, you won’t have to download and install your own patches. Thankfully, your city is dormant while you are logged off.

It’s hard to recover from mistakes

Sometimes the game is too much of a simulation. When your city runs out of dollars, it’s very hard to turn it around. If you put the city on autopilot and run it at triple speed like I did, you may not notice that the city is failing. You can start cutting your budget or do what politicians do: borrow money by issuing bonds.The problem is that you have to then start making payments to pay down the bonds. It becomes an endless cycle as the debt payments rise and your citizens demand better services. You just dig yourself a deeper and deeper hole, and it’s best just to start over.

Sometimes, you just don’t know what went wrong. I built a Las Vegas casino in my second city. But no one ever came to visit my casino and spend money there. I added on new extensions like a blackjack hall, but still nobody came. I had to just bulldoze the casino and I added a recycling center in its place. But the recycling center didn’t collect any plastics or metals from the garbage. I once again had no clue of how to fix the problem. I bulldozed the recycling center and replaced it with an ordinary garbage dump.

simcity 9Limited expansion options and limited flexibility

At some point, you’ll run out of land. The patches of ground available to you are limited. That’s the case even though you may be staring at some beautiful regional property that you could expand into. The size of the cities you can build is limited. I recall building cities in SimCity 4 that had multiple power plants, but you can get by just fine with just one power plant in this game.

At some point, I would guess that EA would make extra land available as a microtransaction, where you pay money to get more property. This property limitation is one reason why you’ll have to start a new city or just stop playing the game.

It’s also a pain to be able to see the cause of fires — arsonists — or crimes and not be able to do anything about it. You can build your fire stations or police stations, but it’s up to the cops and firefighters to catch those thieves or put out the fires. When they don’t do that, you just want to scream at them to wake up.

I also had a cool island (pictured right)  just offshore from my city. I built a ferry on the island, but I had no electricity, and there was no option for generating electricity on the island, short of building a power plant on it. I couldn’t do that because the island was too small, and I couldn’t build a bridge to the island because of the steep cliffs on it. I put a Washington Monument on the island to see if it would generate some revenue, but no tourists could get to the island, since the ferry had no power.

Overall, I have no problem with some limits. You have to make a choice about your hometown when it comes to setting aside land for police stations or parks. But these limitations may mean that a player may drop the game as soon as it’s getting fun.

Summary

It’s a joy to see SimCity return in a better form than it has ever been. It is wonderfully complex, but very easy to play. The title is a massive undertaking and it has come together beautifully overall. Hopefully, EA will be able to improve the connected parts of the game, and the experience will become more fun with more players.

By the time you’ve mastered the game, you’ll get an appreciation of how hard it is to run a sustainable city. You can build it around ore deposits, but one day your mine will go dry and you’ll be left with a lot of pollution. The game is as enchanting as it was when it first debuted so many years ago.

Score: 90/100.

The game debuts via PC digital download on EA’s Origin service on March 5. It will be available on the Mac in the spring of 2013. SimCity is rated E10+ by the ESRB.