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SimCity review

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AT A GLANCE
  • Wonderful visual style
  • Watching Sims go about their lives is great
  • Social and online functionality is innovative
  • Glitches sometimes destroy cities
  • Server issues compound design flaws
  • Small city size might be a turn off

SimCity, like an actual city, only succeeds when everyone and everything works together. And when that happens--when absolutely every system functions exactly as intended--it's one of the most satisfying experiences that exists in gaming. Completing basic tasks like carving streets into the world is an incredible sight to see, and watching houses pop up and populate with miniature people is met with awesome reward. SimCity, at times, is nothing short of brilliant. But its balance is a precarious one, and the moment something doesn't work--when there's even the slightest hitch--everything comes crashing down.

On its most fundamental level, SimCity has you slipping into the comfortable loafers of a mayor, tasked with drawing roads onto a plot of land, coloring around them with residential, commercial, and industrial districts, and surrounding them with government buildings. All the while, you'll need to juggle the wants of your citizens, listening to their demands and reacting to make them happy and productive. SimCity upgrades the basic city building formula at every turn in the form of beautiful visuals, curvy roads, and a new engine that completely changes how you approach building a city.

"SimCity, at times, is nothing short of brilliant."

Maxis named the engine that powers SimCity "GlassBox" because it aims to be transparent. Whereas other games hide their inner workings, GlassBox puts them on display. This transforms everything that happens, from a building fire to a power outage, into bits of helpful, actionable information. It's because of this that the result of your work is immediate and apparent. Drop a park and you can see the land value increase, causing houses to immediately upgrade to larger, fancier estates. Create a new water tower and you can see the water traveling down the streets, spreading throughout your city. The people that live in your town look alive, and you can follow them as they go to work, shop at stores, get stuck in traffic, and return home. It's remarkable, and makes it nearly impossible to stop playing once you've started.

Everything you do is instantly visualized, creating an incredible feeling of accomplishment whenever anything happens. And if something is going wrong, that's apparent, too. SimCity's a remarkably dynamic puzzle, constantly shifting and evolving to challenge you in new, fun ways. It's fulfilling to observe a problem--say, a traffic jam--and find unique ways to fix it. You'll look inside the GlassBox, analyze the issue, and resolve it, feeling as though you've truly accomplished something. But then there are times when things really go wrong, and it's here where SimCity's whimsy and brilliance fall apart.

"It's remarkable, and makes it nearly impossible to stop playing once you've started."

This applies not only to the game's servers, which were barely functional at launch due to the always-online aspect of the game (and the fact that they were overloaded), but to the basic gameplay itself. Because everything is so clear--so transparent--it's frustrating when you're given contradictory information. When one graph tells you to build more houses because there are unfilled jobs, and another one tells you there's an unemployment problem, you're inevitably going to get annoyed. Sometimes you can learn how to deal with the problems and ignore the game's advice, but it's frustrating when SimCity spends so much time screaming at you to fix things that aren't broken.

SimCity often misdiagnoses its own problems, giving you solutions that actually compound the issues. If a fire truck doesn't arrive in time to put out a blaze because it was stuck in traffic, the game may tell you to build more fire trucks--which, in actuality, will create even worse traffic. Other times, things simply break. You'll sometimes wonder why your police force or firefighters have vanished, and wonder why building new stations won't create any more. Because the game is always-online, and because there's no saved games, this can mean that your city is literally broken. Sadly, these types of problems aren't all that uncommon, and even a small glitch left unchecked can destroy hours of work.

This same system of potential toppled by issues causes problems with the game's Districts. Instead of creating massive, sprawling metropoli, you'll be building multiple small cities in a large area, breaking the zone into manageable chunks. It's a strong concept, making for more intimate, personal affairs and allowing for further specialization, as there's less pressure to turn every city into New York. You can opt to go all-in on a gambling town, focus on industry, or attempt to strike it rich by mining resources--and the ability to join into Districts with friends creates a truly social SimCity experience. While some might dislike being forced to focus on multiple small towns (or to interact with others online), make no mistake: SimCity posits creative connectivity ideas that move the sim genre forward.

"Other times, things simply break." 

But just as is the case with the cities themselves, Districts crumble when things don't line up. You'll stare in confusion as your citizens refuse to take open jobs in other cities, or wonder what happened when donations you offered to neighbors fail to show up. Some of the blame can be heaped onto the game's servers, but other issues come by design--it's simply too difficult to accurately work with neighboring cities, even though it feels like the game was built around it. When Districts work well, you'll be met with the most customizable, adaptable SimCity yet. When they don't, the game is outright dysfunctional.

SimCity's a mess of moving parts, occasionally clicking into place and allowing for brilliant experiences before coming undone and tearing everything down. With updates to both server stability and the game itself, SimCity's wonderful moments may be able to overtake the bad ones to create the best game in the series. But if those don't come, EA's bustling metropolis may end up a ghost town.

More Info

Release date: Jun 11 2013 - Mac
Mar 05 2013 - PC (US)
Available Platforms: Mac, PC
Genre: Simulation
Published by: Electronic Arts
Developed by: Maxis
ESRB Rating:
Everyone 10+

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30 comments

  • kingsmikefan - March 4, 2013 8:24 a.m.

    I think waiting for the game to go live is a smart idea, considering it's always-online.
  • dontlookimpoopin - March 4, 2013 12:18 p.m.

    yea, thats what the guys over at www.digitalwhip.com are doing too. hopefully they can post something soon!
  • Z-man427 - March 5, 2013 2:48 p.m.

    "Hey you know what would be great? if the game was online all the time!" "That's an awesome idea, Gary! That way if the servers aren't ready by launch, which is a very real possibility since we're EA and have to screw people somehow, then no one can play the game we made." "That'll totally boost sales!"
  • bass88 - March 8, 2013 3:50 a.m.

    Gary is a dickhead.
  • Boonehams - March 8, 2013 9:42 a.m.

    Gary was hoping to make it online all the time to help with the social aspect of the game. However, he made his suggestion temporarily forgetting that he worked at EA.
  • bass88 - March 8, 2013 2:25 p.m.

    "I got a better idea, Gary." "What?" "How about, instead of funding a game, we travel to a load of random gamers houses, press our balls against their living room windows before proceeding to piss through their letterbox." "I like the assholerly but do we make money out of this?" "No. But I could add armed robbery to the plan." "Perfect."
  • Person5 - March 5, 2013 4:45 p.m.

    I want to get this, but I'm in a conundrum, I don't want to give EA money, nor deal with Origin. I'd wait for a sale but I forgot that EA actually has a moral objection to sales.
  • thereptilehouse - March 6, 2013 12:42 p.m.

    Can I just get this straight? EA have released a game, at full price, which many people have bought, and it's a total mess and is basically unplayable. And because of this, you aren't going to review it? Ten years ago if this happened it would have been a 1/10, avoid-at-all-costs review. That is the right thing to do, because part of being a reviewer is performing a public service - you bring to the attention of the public the best and worst of what is out there. As it is, you've buried this story waayyy down on the title page of the website, and the result of that is that people will waste their hard earned cash on what is a currently a broken game. What you should be doing is shouting it out from the headline - "Sim City 5 is a pile of shit!". You would have thought after Skyrim on PS3 the games press would have learned something. Obviously not, because the whole always-online system is doomed to failure, and always has been.
  • Sinosaur - March 7, 2013 5:32 p.m.

    Part of why they aren't giving an actual review is that eventually the game should be working, and at that point in time, anyone who checks out the review from now will get information that's no longer relevant. They're putting up notes that you should not buy the game now, which easily covers the fact that the game is a broken piece of crap right now, but doesn't give a false impression to people who might look it up a month or two down the line. ...Unless the game is still broken a month or two down the line.
  • thereptilehouse - March 8, 2013 5:46 a.m.

    Fair enough - the second update to this article hadn't appeared when I wrote my comment, although that says to me that they could also easily go back and edit a review when and if EA ever get the game working. I suppose I'm just generally having a rant about the way reviewers seem to pander to the publishers these days. Mind you, we live in an age when many gamers consider 7/10 to be a bad or average score, and go mental when a AAA title isn't awarded a 10, so I suppose we get the gaming journalism we deserve.
  • ParagonT - March 9, 2013 5:21 a.m.

    The other reason besides what Sinosaur said is that websites can't pay their bills and employees on goodwill alone. To be honest, most commercial sites have some form of deceit or a non-consumer friendly agenda in them, its just to what extent is acceptable for you to keep coming back. If you give too many games of the same publishers low scores; guess who will remember that and never let you have early access, free games, or information again? So sometimes its not just about what Sinosaur explained (which in this case might be more true), but its a mixture of many things that contribute to decisions we see as irrational. Just because we understand the underlying reasons still doesn't mean you as a consumer has to put up with it though, that's not your job, so your entitled to any opinion you want my friend.
  • thereptilehouse - March 10, 2013 1:59 p.m.

    I agree 100% with what you're saying. I just don't think it has to be this way - Gamesradar already features a lot of advertising, and is owned by Future Publishing so we aren't talking about a small operation. I started reading games magazines in the mid-80's, and since then the industry and the associated press have gone through a lot of changes - not all of it for the better. I get that as the industry has moved from small scale to mass entertainment the junkets have gotten bigger, but what you're talking about is corruption. Obviously the same things go on in the movie industry and the music industry, but even they have to review what they can see and hear, and if a film is unwatchable or a CD unlistenable, they don't say to their readers "we couldn't review it in its current state, tough shit if you've paid for it, but we'll wait until we get free copies that work because we're terrified we'll have to pay for our games otherwise". They tear in to it, and big records and blockbuster films regularly get slated for much less! It's ironic, I suppose, that the games industry wants more than anything for it's products to be treated like "serious art", and at the same time the level of criticism (which is vital to progress within the arts) has been so debased. There was a time when very few games would get 9/10 (and 10/10 was unheard of), and now it's any old shit. Sad times.
  • JohnnySpazwhacker - March 6, 2013 4:24 p.m.

    I was thinking about getting this for the UK release on Friday, and if server problems weren't enough to put me off it costs £45 on Origin! I wouldn't pay more than £40 for a brand new boxed 360 game, never mind a digital copy of a PC game, so what the hell EA? I can buy the boxed version from Amazon for £35!
  • Shadow Of Death - March 6, 2013 6:37 p.m.

    I liked it up until the point it decided that what I needed was more fires. FIRES EVERYWHERE! I swear the game decided to punish me for doing pretty well by setting everything on fire at once. You know what would be EXCELLENT? Government-only roads. That is to say, roads only police, fire, and medical services can drive on. The game already has a road upgrade system, why not make a designated road system?
  • GR HollanderCooper - March 7, 2013 3:46 p.m.

    Or, you know, making the AI let government trucks onto the road. I had a firetruck that couldn't get anyone to let him onto the road for 48 full hours.
  • shawksta - March 7, 2013 9:08 p.m.

    They are literally refusing Refunds, and instead of updating, they tweeted about same sex in their games EA, YOU FUCK UP BIG TIME
  • FemJesse - March 8, 2013 12:22 p.m.

    Making sure your company is not called bigoted is WAY more important that releasing a working product.
  • mafyooz - March 8, 2013 2:07 a.m.

    I don't normally buy PC games but was toying with the idea of getting this because I've enjoyed previous games, but don't think I'll be getting this, or any other EA game, in future. As for the refunds issue,there may be a case (here in the UK anyway) to force a refund through Trading Standards, as everything about it seems to point to it being sold when not fit for purpose!
  • Zeapron - March 9, 2013 2:48 a.m.

    If EA publishes the game in the EU, and it still has all of those problems, they are gonna have a lot of trouble with EU trade legislation.
  • APerfidiousDane - March 11, 2013 11:45 a.m.

    Maybe they should have had a less restrictive beta so that players could have actually caught some of their issues? I've never seen a "beta" that was so short and so restrictive. They just wanted get hype for it so more people would pre order it. Thankfully I didn't pre order so I guess I'll just wait and see if they actually fix any of their issues.

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