Review: SimCity

I can't recall a game in recent memory that so embodied corporate hubris, a distaste and distrust of fans, or a launch so bungled that it was the story not the game.

Which is too bad, because underneath all the noise and hate are pieces of a great game, one that I've played a lot over the last two weeks.

But you know what? Don't buy it.

I'm sure even non-gamers have heard of SimCity. The city-building simulator has been with us, in one form or another, since 1989. The most recent outing, SimCity 4 (not including the pathetic totally-missing-the-mark Societies), came out in 2003. So it's been a long wait.

Developer Maxis, over the past year or so, had done a tremendous job teasing the fan base with videos and a slow trickle of info that made the new game seem like everything we fans would want in a SimCity game in 2013.

Then, an oddity. Maxis revealed that SimCity would require an Internet connection play. As in, if you don't have always-on high-speed Internet, or you want to play the game away from Wi-Fi, you're out of luck. They swore this was because there were so many social features that you'd want to play with friends and the world. Those not swayed by marketing hype saw this for what it is: digital rights management (DRM) of the most draconian kind.

By requiring a constant connection to publisher EA's servers, they can check if you did, in fact, purchase the game. If you try to give the game to a friend, or try to pirate the game, they can tell and shut it down. Now don't get me wrong, I think people who pirate anything are assholes, but I also think punishing those who legally purchased a game is the worst kind of corporate stupidity. Let's be clear, here, this kind of consumer-unfriendly DRM is not implemented as a benefit to the customer (quite the opposite), nor does it have much to do with the developers who made the game (ask any company/person who has been a part of HumbleBundle). No, DRM like this is solely to appease the shareholders at the large game publishers against the ill-defined "threat" of piracy.

But let's not derail this article with a rant about DRM, let's talk about how DRM derailed SimCity.

Due to overwhelming customer complaints (and a 1.3-star rating from over 2000 reviews and counting) Amazon temporarily stopped selling SimCity.

By requiring users to always be connected to EA's servers, the servers themselves become a part of the gaming system. One that gamers can't control. Rarely in the history of games has a launch that required extensive server support gone smoothly. Most massively-multiplayer online (MMO) games are unplayable the first few days after release.

But with MMOs, there's an understanding that the game exists to be played on a server, with other people. SimCity, despite all the hype from Maxis/EA, had no such understanding. SimCity, is, and always has been, a single-player experience. The talk about sharing resources and trading with other players all seemed cool in this new version, but at its core, you're building a city, by yourself, for yourself.

So why can't I do that? That's the question asked by everyone locked out of the game not for the first day or days, but for the better part of the first week. EA/Maxis so incompetently underestimated the load their servers would take on at launch, most people who bought the game couldn't play at all for days. The roll out of new servers was so slow, over a week after launch there were still issues.

Now you may be asking, since it's more-or-less sorted now, what's the big deal? Well turns out the lockouts were only part of the problem.

The oft-repeated refrain by EA/Maxis regarding the always-connected nature of the game is that even if you don't use multiplayer aspects, many of the complex calculations performed by the game are actuall off-loaded to the cloud. Except... turns out this isn't true.

Then there's the "trading with the world" aspect, which turns out is only really the case with your immediate neighbors in the game. The social/multiplayer potential we were promised is largely missing. How is there no voice chat? Or real-time chat of any kind? If I'm required to be connected, why can't I talk with my neighbor to organize what she'll build and what I'll build.

Perhaps even more damming... the game doesn't need any of it. On launch day, seeing all the North American servers full, I logged onto the Oceanic server. There was no appreciable lag, but throughout the night I got constant warnings that my connection to the server was lost. The game played fine. I had no interest in playing with others, so I set my zone to private. By doing so, I removed all the "social" world stuff that Maxis had been hyping for months, and guess what? The game plays fine. You're not "missing" anything by playing by yourself.

So why, again, am I required to be connected to their severs?

Here's the best part: there are no local saves. All the save games are stored in the cloud. EA/Maxis says this is so you can log in and continue playing from another computer (odd, I didn't think they wanted me to install the game on another computer, isn't that "stealing"?). This turns out to be the most condescendingly insulting aspect to this always-on DRM. Not only is the game not yours, neither are your save games. Given how spectacularly EA/Maxis bungled the launch, what are the odds I'll be able to go back and resume a city in 5 years? There is no logical explanation why there can't be local and cloud saves. There is nothing about this game that would make for a noticeably lesser experience offline. (Update: Turns out there are local saves, but there's no way to access them in game. Instead they're used to sync to the cloud if you log out while the game isn't able to update to the server.)

Then there's the aspects of the game that are legitimately broken. Odd stuff too, stuff that you'd think would have been sorted during the months the game was in multiple betas.

Then there's the fact that in many ways, the game is a step back. Sure, the idea of multiple cities within a region working together is cool (as in, specialized cities), but each city itself is incredibly small. Smaller than previous versions of the game. This isn't SimCity, more like SimTown. No, wait. SimVillage. SimSuburb. SimNeighborhood. SimQuonsetHut. It just feels tiny, like there's too little room to really do anything. You're forced to specialize your city, just like you're forced to always be online. For a sandbox/building game, there sure are a lot of restrictions. Here, play in this sandbox! No, not that way... No, not like that... Actually, the sandbox is closed for a while, come back later.

But how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

The sad thing is, if you look past the corporate condescension and hubris, SimCity is a lot of fun. I'm enjoying it, despite the parts that are broken. There are a few aspects, like not having to drop power lines or pipes, that definitely streamline the gaming experience. Fellow gamer and Editor of HomeTechTell Dennis Burger put it this way "It's like Civ V, in that they removed a lot of the nit-picky busywork, but not at the expense of the complexity and sophistication."

You're required to put a lot more thought into traffic flow and land values. And, as you can tell from the screen shots, it's a beautiful game. But if I take a step back, there's not a lot that's really evolved from 4. Most of the "new" features, like sewage and traffic, don't work that well (if at all). The things that I'm loving about SimCity are inherent in the concept of any SimCity game. Sure, the new game is prettier, a little easier to play, but it's not much of a different experience than buying 4 from Steam for $20. In fact, there are some things you can do in 4 that you can't in the new game (like some micromanaging of the economics beyond tax rates).

So I'm conflicted, as I'm playing it a lot. But I re-installed 4 last fall, and played that for a few weeks too and loved it. In fact, I do that every few years to get my Sim fix. So I don't know whether the hours I'm spending in this game are because of this game, or because I just want to play any SimCity game, and this happens to be the prettiest.

Bottom Line

Taken as just a game, SimCity is enjoyable, and every bit as addicting as its 10-year-old predecessor. The problem is, EA/Maxis has forced you to deal with it not as a game, but as a playtime lease, the entire extent of which they control. By inexplicably not having any off-line version, they punish those who legally pay for the game. Their patronizing promise of social and online features as the reason of the always-online requirement doesn't hold up to the smell test.

If EA/Maxis releases their moronic death grip and allows offline play, I'll say go ahead and buy it. But right now, other than the pretty graphics, far too many aspects of this game are broken, hindered, or just plain wrong for me to outright recommend it. Yes, it's fun, but playing it makes me feel dirty, and a little cheated.

If they fix enough of the problems, maybe I'll revisit all this in the form of a "new" review. Until then, an apology isn't enough. Be wary.