With a new expansion coming out, we examine SimCity with fresh eyes.
By James Pinnell on November 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm
SimCity has come a long way, in terms of both content expansion and damage control, since its disastrous launch back in March. Even putting aside the complete mess around servers, multiplayer and DRM for a moment, there were still huge concerns about the sheer number of game breaking bugs, alongside the claustrophobia of a tiny square patch of land where I’m expected to build Sydney inside Canberra.
I could count on my fingers the number of features that worked correctly as opposed to the ones that didn’t — traffic, RCI, resource sharing, chat, land claims, global market — all originally touted as next-generation city-sim features which instead became the stuff of embarrassing memes and gifs, plastered across the heavily traffic’d front pages of Reddit. Maxis and EA fell on their swords, dropping freebies of DLC and EA back-catalogued sweeteners to keep gamers on side. It was a two pronged attack — making sure people didn’t punish EA in the long run, on top of keeping player populations active — because without a community, there really is no SimCity.
Cities of Tomorrow aims to turn over a new leaf, not only by introducing a plethora of new systems and new resources, but also attempting to salve a lot of the frustration that comes with the territory. However, this doesn’t mean that Maxis have abandoned their original design ethos. If anything, they have strengthened it. SimCity is still every much online, but it’s a thousand times more stable, faster and streamlined than before. There are now a glut of new servers (26 at last count), an almost comical amount considering the obvious drop in player numbers, including new super swift Oceanic options for those of us who like our latency low.
You still need to choose a region and claim your plot (although you can still use your original city, more on that later), but the original issues with false claims, lag and error messages are gone. Unfortunately, if you choose a new server (one of the Oceanics, for example) you’re still forced to go through that tutorial again. AGAIN. Sigh.
Amusingly, SimCity welcomes you back with a host of status prompts alerting you to the number of DLC bribes you’ve been granted just for logging back in again, before letting you know that Cities Of Tomorrow has been activated. It’s a smooth transition — there’s no campaign or forced setup here — since the changes are mostly in the form of new City Specialisations (The Academy and OmegaCo), as well as Transport, Waste Removal, and so on. Although you can simply load up an old project and start “futurising” your environment, as the game likes to call it, it’s much more fun to start a new city to exploit the new advantages. These are fed primarily in the form of two new types of resources, the first of which is “ControlNet”, a sort of city wide communications network powered by your citizens, which allows for the use of clever clean machines, like a Sewage Plant that recycles waste into clean water, as part of “The Academy”.
The second, “Omega”, is a dirty synthetic substance that feeds industrial and commercial buildings, allowing you to feed off enormous profits if you are able to provide continuous and incredible amounts of power, water and fossil fuels. How enormous? At one point my Omega profits easily eclipsed any other method of city funding, including gambling, to the point where I could purchase entire police and fire precincts every in-game hour that ticked over. The problem, however, is that Omega creates enormous pollution problems and can stifle natural growth – forcing you into a tentative hybrid battle with Academy technologies that nullify much of the damage in order to continue to fund and fuel your citizens never-ending needs.
It’s a clever tactical conundrum and it certainly keeps you on your toes — but there are still problems. Omega requires ridiculous amounts of ore and oil, two resources that aren’t found on most tiles at the same time. Unfortunately, ordering from the global market is still automated, ridiculously slow and completely random — meaning the game expects you to trade manually with other players. This can be a bit difficult when there aren’t any to trade with.
But that’s okay, because you can still have heaps of fun with the host of other new improvements. My favourite is the MagLev — an above ground fast-rail system that can be built on top of existing roads, almost completely alleviating some of the more serious traffic concerns. Maxis have made dropping this transport system as easy as building new roads – perfect for augmenting existing road networks without ripping up half of your painstakingly organised urban landscaping. Then there are the augmentations to power stations to supercharge their output, the ControlNet amplified buildings that trade cost and maintenance for a tentative reliance on keeping workers inside your Academy and other “booster” buildings, instead of inside Commercial or Industrial buildings. The new parks and improvements that transform existing structures to funky, neon laced “future” buildings are great, too. But the coolest part? OmegaCo’s drone fleets that sail around your city, putting out fires and arresting criminals, albeit with an enormous cost to waste (they don’t last all that long), pollution and resources. See a trend here?
If you think this eco vs. capitalist counter-balance sounds a lot like Anno 2070, you’d be right — while the game doesn’t share that particular title’s excessively deep economic and trading system, it has definitely taken on a lot of the same themes. For every benefit, there is a heavy cost — you may be making 20,000 per hour, but how much are you spending on environmental repairs and healthcare costs? Sure, your city is a clean and safe utopia, but where’s the fun when you don’t have enough funds to build your pet project or decorate your mayor’s house with a new (completely useless) helipad? It makes things much easier now that your city actually “functions” properly. Cars go the right way down streets, clear out properly at peak hours and take appropriate, fast routes to get places. Emergency services now route directly to separate events, rather than clustering together while fires on the other side of the city run rampant.
At the same time, the difficulty in managing events has gone up — likely because the GlassBox engine is now working as it was (largely) designed to. Fires spread much more often, and more quickly. Crime is now a major concern, especially since regional access now works, almost too well in fact. Within an hour of him founding in the region, my gambling spec’d neighbour had created a criminal spawning slum that basically streamed arsonists, murderers and armed robbers in and out of my city indefinitely. I was in a perpetual crimewave, and it was glorious — I relished the new, completely unexpected challenge of tackling a crime problem that was completely out of my control. Natural disasters also tend to happen more often as well, although they don’t really do a lot of damage, especially if you are in any way prepared from them.
Those of you who were hoping for an expansion in plot sizes will be disappointed, but Maxis have introduced a new feature, known as Megatowers, that allow enormous Judge Dredd-esque structures to be constructed, slotting thousands of residents inside a single building, complete with offices, parks and even schools. Along with a very welcome tweak to RCI demand, it’s now actually possible to grow your city without needing to build another one beside it, or get ridiculously creative with road placement — which, let’s face it, spoils any form of creativity in city design. At the same time, MegaTowers aren’t all that creative either — they end up being entirely necessary in late game, and while there are a number of different types and interesting transport options to go with them, unless you want to build a replica of MegaCity One you’re still going to feel a little sore. On top of this, you are now given a host of cool stuff to play with… but nowhere to put it.
I can only imagine what the morale must be like within Maxis — there have been 8 enormous patches since the initial release and the game still isn’t entirely fixed yet. RCI still needs work, trains are still bugged, traffic continues to have brain farts and sometimes, building enormous, integrated public transport networks does nothing to alleviate city-wide gridlock. But credit where credit is due — SimCity now is a thoroughly different game than it was 8 months ago. During my 14 hours of play for this review, I did not get disconnected once. I was able to trade on the global market, chat with other players, and share resources. I didn’t see a single error message and my whole experience felt stable and structured. Cities of Tomorrow isn’t just DLC – it’s a fresh start for Maxis, and a new opportunity to bring disillusioned customers back into the fold. It’s far from perfect, but if you’re willing to give SimCity another chance, you may find yourself having fun.
- SimCity is significantly more stable, solid and feature fixed
- The new systems and resources gel well with the existing ones
- You can basically build your version of a Blade Runner city
- Giant Robots
- There are still unresolved glitches and bugs, some of which are brand new
- Player populations have suffered over the months
- Some of the resource juggling is ridiculous and unfeasible
- A lack of space is still a prime concern, especially all your new toys
SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow is available on Origin for $29.99.
This review copy supplied by EA.
Screenshots used in this review supplied by EA.