Tuesday, March 19, 2013

SimCity: Discussion and Review

As a kid, SimCity 2000 was the first "real" (i.e., just too old for Oregon Trail) computer game I remember getting into, so it was with great enthusiasm that I pre-ordered the new SimCity (in a very iPad move, just called "SimCity"). I didn't have the chance to play it until more than a week after its release. That might have been the most serendipitous delay in the history of my video gaming career.

Much has been made of SimCity's failings in its first week, and since I never experienced them, I'm not going to beat that particular dead horse any more. The other head of the Ettin of internet rage over SimCity is its "always online" feature. I concur in part, but for a different reason. In contrast to how everyone else on the internet apparently feels, I'm intrigued by the interactivity, and I totally accept the "no city exists in a vacuum" premise of the game. (I don't at all buy the argument about using DRM to control player behavior.)

Where the "always online" feature can run into trouble is when the connection falters. Even in 2013, internet coverage is not perfect. Whether EA is having problems on their end, or Comcast decides to deliver me a hiccup in service, I can't always log in to Origin to play the game. It's a little frustrating that when an outage like that happens, I'm barred from playing the game. Worse is when the outage happens mid-game, which leads to your game instantly closing and losing whatever progress you made since you lost your connection. More sensibly, the game could make a local backup and upload it to the global game when the connection was restored, but this functionality doesn't seem to exist.

Once you're actually in the game, SimCity plays similarly to most of its predecessors, with a bigger emphasis this time around on the "region" or group of cities than just one city. Cities in the same region can cooperate by specializing: one might become a mining and drilling town, another might focus on culture and tourism, and a third might specialize in education and high-tech manufacturing. SimCity is all about identifying the optimal course to grow your town, so in many ways, it's a purer "game" than many video games like RPGs or shooters. It's filled with optimization decisions: immediate profit versus investment for the future, balancing the needs of your residential versus industrial interests, how much you can get away with taxing your businesses before they all get out of town.

Those decisions are not easy to make. Here's a representative story that well encapsulates my SimCity experience so far. I noticed that my approval among my medium-income residents was dropping like a rock, and the chief complaint had to do with how germy my town was. My favorite of the complaints was "get rid of the source of these germs NOW!" Of course, nobody bothered to tell me what the source of the germs actually was.

I eventually tracked it to a single garbage incinerator I'd installed on one of my dumps (to make my residents stop complaining that garbage was piling up). The air pollution was making my Sims sick, a reasonably predictable consequence. So I built up health coverage, but that didn't entirely solve the problem. Meanwhile, my Sims were getting less and less happy, which made them less willing to put up with the exorbitant taxes I'd forced them to pay, and it turned quite a few of them to crime, so I opened a handful of new police stations. Between the costs of health care and police and reduced taxes, my city started running at a massive loss, and I ended up abandoning the town.

In that case, I learned from my mistakes, and I'll be able to play less terribly next time. A few mistakes I haven't learned how to fix. In particular, it seems impossible to apportion the zones in your city correctly; I cover block after block of my town with residential zoning, and I still have a permanent worker shortage in my factories. And it's actually impossible to prepare for natural disasters. I'm not sure what kind of coastal city has two tornadoes run through its downtown in its first two years of incorporation, but I can't blame my Sims for not wanting to live there.

That's to say nothing of the zombie outbreak, which is the single most frustrating and debilitating disaster in the game. Though it was apparently modeled after a flu outbreak, no flu outbreak has ever destroyed 137 buildings in a single night and bankrupted a town the next day. Disasters do help to add some tension to the game, but they happen far too too frequently, and there's too little that can be done about them in advance.

Mostly, though, the challenges in SimCity seem like ones that can be overcome and that can be learned after playing enough. Despite the increased emphasis on continuous, interconnected operation of cities, SimCity might turn into a game I play more like a strategy board game, where I "play a game of SimCity" and see if I do better than I did last time, rather than "play SimCity" and continue the story I started telling before.

Though it appears at first that SimCity has little replay value, there is significant "end game" content in the very expensive "great works" buildings that can be built in cooperation with other cities in the region, and multiplayer with your friends could end up being a lot of fun as you discover new ways to specialize and synergize. SimCity had its issues, but it's worked through nearly all of them; it has its flaws, but most of its mechanics are solid enough--and there's just enough nostalgia there--that the game is worth playing.