That's mostly due to a design decision made by EA and its subsidiary Maxis, the studio responsible for the “SimCity” series. While all of the previous entries were single-player affairs, the developers wanted the reboot to focus heavily on one of the biggest buzzwords of our time: connectivity. That concept permeates the game, from the way the cities you build interact with those constructed by other players, to the fact that you need to have a functional internet connection just to play.
It's the latter requirement that has caused all of the trouble. Cynical gamers suspect it was a call made by EA to battle piracy and enforce DRM. Maxis insisted as far back as last year's E3 that the social features were such a vital part of the game that it didn't make sense to build in an offline mode. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but hands-on experience makes me tend to lean slightly toward the cynical crowd.
So let's get this out of the way right off the bat: “SimCity” has important multiplayer elements, but it is not an MMO. You certainly can play it online at the same time as other players, with your decisions affecting their cities and vice versa. But there's nothing inherent in the gameplay that requires an always-on internet connection, and much of the human interaction can (and does) happen in asynchronous fashion.
Instead of just creating cities on random patches of land, this “SimCity” has you select a region. This isn't a new concept–“SimCity 4” explored the idea of multiple cities in large geographical areas a decade ago–but the way it incorporates others is. A region can contain between two and 16 building sites, each of which can hold its own city. The game gives you a rundown on the natural resources present at each site and a few hints on what kind of industry and development might make sense there. Any site can be your starting point, and regions can be made public so random people can join you, or private so you can invite who you want.
Your first task is to build roads to reach the highway that links all of the sites in the settlement. Maxis made roads more important than ever, as nothing can be built without being attached to them. Residential, commercial and industrial zones are created by simply painting them alongside roads, and all of the water, electricity and sewage is assumed to run underneath the roads. It takes some getting used to if you've played the game's predecessors, but it streamlines things in a logical manner.
Once you've got roads, the proper zoning and some basic services set up, people will start to move in. As mayor, your job is to meet as many of the needs of the citizens as possible, balancing the expenses of things like health care, education and fire protection against the revenue brought in via taxes and other means. Natural resources can help provide another source of income, making mining and oil drilling both worth a look depending on your site.
The bigger your city grows, the larger the issues can become. Sure, you had sufficient water for 20,000 people, but what about 80,000? It's great to go green, but is that wind-powered generator going to cut it when your city is five times as big? Finding solutions to those quandaries is a big part of the fun, and that's without the series' famous disasters striking without notice. Every decision matters, sometimes even in ways you won't immediately notice. Perplexed by why you have two large fire stations but buildings are still burning down? Maybe it's because you did a lousy job laying out roads, causing the fire engines to be snarled in traffic.
Fortunately, you can call on other cities in your region for aid–at a price, of course. If your neighbor on one side is pumping out more power than he needs, you can purchase the excess to ensure the lights stay on. At the same time, you might be sharing your abundant supply of drinking water with the city on the other side in exchange for some extra simoleons. And if you're determined to go it alone, you can still claim one of the other sites in your region and create a symbiotic relationship between two or more cities on your own. Great Works like an international airport or a space launch site can only be constructed if multiple cities are sending resources.
There's also a global market for trading assets like ore, coal and oil. Since it's supposed to be a living economy based on supply and demand among all of the players, this is one of the features that Maxis points to when questioned about the need for an active online connection. That makes some sense, but you can't shake the feeling that it could have been accomplished with only occasional calls over the internet to check current prices, or even simulated locally on a temporary basis when offline.
Another new twist is that cities can be specialized to favor specific industries like gambling, culture and mining. Choosing a specialty gives you access to new structures, each with their own requirements to unlock. They can give your city a unique feel, though there's a danger in over-reliance in a single area.
Do your job well enough and you may eventually face another problem: running out of room. In a change from previous “SimCity” titles, you don't have the freedom to let your city sprawl to your heart's desire. The sites are all bound to equivalent areas, and cliffs, rivers and other natural geographic features take up space in some of them. Mitigating the effect somewhat is the ability to upgrade roads to allow for higher density buildings to be constructed, making six and seven-digit populations entirely possible. Still, longtime fans of the series definitely seem to be rankled by the thought of being constrained in any way.
Graphically, “SimCity” is undoubtedly a triumph. You might need a higher end system to enjoy the views in all their glory, but there's plenty to enjoy even on a more modest computer (my three-year old laptop, for instance). The buildings look great from any distance, and there are excellent data maps that give visual representations to much of the information at your fingertips. Individual citizens or vehicles can be followed to see where potential trouble spots might be, and the game's GlassBox engine means that these are actual agents that react to conditions in the city instead of proxies for the data running under the hood.
All of this would be great if it worked the way it was intended, and EA and Maxis would probably be writing their PC Game of the Year acceptance speeches in advance. But it didn't, and as The Bard would say, there's the rub. That makes it impossible to finish the review without delving into the service behind the game, and that's not a pleasant place to go.
Attempting to play “SimCity” within the first 48 hours of its launch was an exercise in both futility and masochism. Imagine every kind of server connection problem you know, and there's a good chance it was present. Sometimes the launcher would tell you the server was full, dumping you into a queue that would only check every 20 or 30 minutes to see if you could get in. Other times you could get past the launch screen and not be able to join or create a region. Most maddening of all were the times you could get in only to get dumped out mid-game, progress unsaved. Oh, and you might have to wait in the queue again to see if your city was lost or not.
It's not worth rehashing all of the reactions to the state of the game early on, but it is worth noting that EA and Maxis took several ham-handed steps to fix things. One of them was to disable leader boards and the highest speed setting (known as Cheetah mode) to ease the strain on the servers. I fall into the school of thought that even if this was a necessary move, the game isn't complete without the features it had at launch, and they still haven't returned as of the time I write this.
Some of the PR spin was a bit tone deaf as well, basically sounding like it was the game's fault for being so good, and thus making tons of people want to play it right away, that caused a load too big for the servers. Again, there's a kernel of truth in there, but that's not really a great concept to try to present to paying customers who are angry because they can't play the game they bought. I get that the companies can't go hog wild on servers because the launch is likely to be the most traffic the game will ever see, but after “Diablo 3,” it kind of behooves the developers to plan for a worst case scenario.
Sadly, that's exactly what happened. And I'm still not convinced it needed to be this way, that some compromise couldn't have been worked out between security, connectivity and reliability. Somewhere in the “SimCity” experience is a great game, one that lives up to the hype and anticipation that built up over the last few years. It's just too bad we can't talk about just the game and have to spend time and energy discussing the larger issues surrounding its release. So, so meta.
5.5 out of 10
Infuses the classic SimCity formula with new life thanks to interactions between cities
Streamlines play in sensible ways without removing any of the challenge
Graphically impressive, even on lower settings
Launch was an unmitigated disaster, and the active internet connection requirement backfired
Some launch features taken down and still not reactivated a week later
City plots a tad bit on the small side
Nick Tylwalk covers video games for Gamezebo.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Nick_Tylwalk.