Still Playing: SimCity

When SimCity was released in March, it didn’t work as advertised. For many, it didn’t work at all. Developers Maxis severely underestimated the number of servers needed for their online-only city management game to function, and the result was thousands of gamers, including myself, unable to play something we’d paid £44.99 for. It was like being locked out of your house and seeing the glint of your keys through the window.

Problems weren’t over once the front door finally swung open a few days later. Cities suffered snags with non-critical features, like leaderboards, achievements and region filters, and deep-rooted ones too, like AI pathfinding, playing space (devastatingly limited), and time itself (‘cheetah speed’ was disabled altogether). In short, it was a fiasco. Maxis co-founder Will Wright later called the situation “basically inexcusable.”

Four months on, what’s changed? Well, now you can actually play the game without queuing. The city you’ve sweated over probably won’t be wiped. You can speed up time, unlock achievements, browse Global Markets, and search for regions to join. However, fundamental problems still linger – and they can’t be fixed by any patch.

Of all SimCity’s failings, for me, limited plots are the lynchpin. “Build anything you want,” Maxis say, “as long as it fits into this tiny square.” The restriction isn’t true to a series which, since 1989, has given players a massive expanse to maintain. This was a title to visit day after day, week after week. One architecture student spent four years developing his perfect metropolis.

In contrast, my latest playthrough ended with me essentially turfed out after five hours. My docks, schools, parks and casinos soon jutted up against the boarders of my designated space, with no room left for so much as a bus stop. The idea, of course, is not for players to create one vibrant city, but an entire interconnected region of them, specializing in gambling, drilling, mining, electronics, culture or trade, and sharing resources such as oil, coal and water in return. Unfortunately, it’s a metagame that requires you to constantly start over, establishing fresh cities on blank slabs of grassland and abandoning your previous hubs of culture and commerce to endure as statistics in menus and specs on the horizon.

You may trade resources with others in the region, but what if they stop playing? On one occasion my electricity-dealing neighbour disappeared and cut off the supply, quite literally leaving me in the dark. My options were thus: bulldoze parts of my city to allow for new infrastructure, or start a new one entirely from scratch. Neither sounded incredibly appealing.

Small city sizes wouldn’t be so detrimental if there was an end in sight, but the balancing act between residential, commercial and industrial district is an infinite plate spin. You simply can’t satisfy your citizens’ perpetual demand to expand, and mixed messages don’t help. When highlighted, one household might say: “There’s great shopping in this town!” while one literally next door offers: “We can’t find anywhere to shop.” You’re given plenty of coaching from the talking heads of firemen, cops, foremen and teachers, but they rarely tell you what you didn’t know already.

Five patches since release have addressed hundreds of micro issues, like vanishing commuters, missing money gifts, rain clouds failing to replenish water towers, and slow fire truck response times, but I found the effects negligible unless I went looking for them. Cars can make right turns and sewage now takes a more direct route to outflow pipes – so what? That’s like fixing the paint in an office block built on quicksand.

And yet SimCity isn’t awful. In fact, it’s an excellent game, just one that’s been taken in the wrong direction. I adore the detail. A citywide pan of the camera might see students chilling cross-legged on campus; thick smoke belching from a chimney stack; criminals fleeing a bank with bags of swag; fleets of ferries bringing brightly-dressed tourists to town; and news choppers hovering to and fro.

A clean, economic visual philosophy extends into the interface, which translates considerable raw data into an easily readable language. The complexity of this game is immense, and yet I never feel alienated. That’s a feat of engineering in itself.

The very act of creation is satisfying, too. Buildings snap into place like Lego bricks, electricity crackles and fizzes down pipelines, and drinking water pools under towers before sloshing towards housing estates. It’s fun – a quality too many strategy games simply overlook.

SimCity’s a better game than it was at launch. The connectivity that ruined its arrival is, ironically, better helping smooth the bumps after it. But the game needs more than a sticking plaster. It needs a bulldozer to destroy what’s there and a ready council to rebuild on the vacant lot.

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