SimCity 2013 Impressions: Groundbreaking, Yet Troubling

Is it better to be the sole monotheistic god of an entire universe, or a member of a pantheon? That’s the question Maxis seems to be asking of fans with the serious changes they have in store for the SimCity series with their upcoming franchise reboot, next year’s (plainly titled) SimCity.

SimCity boasts the most advanced engine in series history, capable of truly astonishing visuals and complex simulations, with an aesthetic based on tilt-shift photography that is nothing short of astonishing. But as I learned in our interview with SimCity lead producer Kip Katsarelis, SimCity is also a major departure from previous entries in that it’s been designed “from the ground up” with multiplayer in mind.

Is this a series-killer? It might just be, especially for players who got into strategy games like SimCity or the Civilization series thanks to an addictive single player experience and return again and again seeking it. So it was with mixed feelings that I went into the E3 2012 (non playable) demo of SimCity. Unfortunately, while I was blown away by the game‘s aesthetic and technological achievements, I was left with serious concerns about its dramatic departures from basic series conventions.

Amazing Complexity

First, let’s look at what is unambiguously awesome about the return to SimCity, the groundbreaking Glassbox Engine. When Maxis unveiled Glassbox earlier this year, they boasted it was the most complex engine in series history, with the ability to employ thousands of micro-simulations at a time. After seeing it in action, I’m not sure that ‘thousands’ isn’t an understatement.

Previous series engines worked by simulating high level statistics, and then feeding relevant animations representing the data into the game. So, say, pollution is just a cloud of gross smog, a traffic jam a simple block of traffic animation indicating a problem. With glassbox, those statistics are replaced by simulation units called ‘agents’, which represent individual components like resources or citizenry. The animations you’ll see in SimCity are a direct result of individual agents’ activity. Pollution therefore spreads based on weather, on where your sims happens to be driving, on where industry is based in your town. And to return to traffic, the actions of individual drivers actually affect the way your traffic jam progresses and resolves or doesn’t resolve itself.

The result, as we saw in the demo, is an amount of activity onscreen during your game that is, frankly, incredible. Sims, weather, vehicles, environmental events and so on actually exist independently and simultaneously, making a SimCity city feel more alive than anything ever previously seen. You’ll see sims walking around, shopping, driving. When you build houses in a neighborhood and sims move in, you’ll see their kids playing in the yard. If you fail to commit enough resources to elements like power supply, you’ll see affected areas performing poorly in noticeably individualistic ways.

Even problems like high criminal activity play out organically! Say you choose, as the dev working the demo did, to focus on making a city an industrial center for the purpose of generating money, at the expense of important infrastructure like schools and law enforcement. Even as the city becomes richer, you’ll see a gap between rich and poor arise, signified by a rise in crime indicated by the appearance of graffiti on buildings in crime-prone areas. (The game offers the ability to review the crime rate specifically, so you can see high crime areas highlighted in red, so you won’t simply have to zoom in and out looking for graffiti).

If you develop a high crime rate, you’ll actually be able to watch random dramatic events unfold, like the bank robbery we saw in the demo. The dev playing zoomed in on a muscle car with a skull painted on top (obviously a pack of hardened criminals), and followed it to a bank. The sims piled out of the car and ran into the bank; though the game doesn’t allow you to look inside the actual buildings, you could hear gunshots, screams and the bank’s alarm system. A few seconds later, the sims ran out, got into the car and sped off. The cops never showed up, another side effect of a crime prone city.

It isn’t just in the simulations themselves, but in the graphics that SimCity really shines. Literally, in some cases. Simply put, it looks fantastic, and that’s in part due to the decision to base the aesthetic on so-called tilt shift photography, aka ‘fake miniaturization’. That’s the technique by which perspective and focus are manipulated so that objects photographed from far off look like models rather than real things. Zooming in on your city creates a lack of focus around the edges of your screen, perfectly recreating the tilt shift technique. It gives everything a kind of twee appearance, which is a great look for a game built around playing god in a toy city.

In fact, as advertised everything in SimCity looks and functions so spectacularly you’d be forgiven if you walked out of the dem certain you were looking at the PC experience of 2013. There’s just one large set of problems.

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11 Comments on SimCity 2013 Impressions: Groundbreaking, Yet Troubling

LTenhet

On June 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm

I’ve said it before: Not every game needs multiplayer. If you develop a good, distinct and fun experience then people will go back to it again and again… Not because it has Multiplayer, which will be gone in a few years when EA decides to shut down the server, but instead because the game is good enough to become a classic, and people remember it for the fun they have. It’s why people still play the old SimCity games, they didn’t have mutliplayer but they were -fun-.

Kevin

On June 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm

There will be no nonsense about “fun.” There’s no way to monetize “fun.” It is not the EA way.

Just waiting for them to offer DLC offering different city features.

David

On June 11, 2012 at 7:32 pm

No single-player? OK, color me gone.

I’ve bought every version of SimCity, and nearly every Maxis product. No more.

Thanks again for nothing, EA! :-(

jlkawaii

On June 12, 2012 at 10:06 am

so the next simcity is a … MMOCity ?
erf, so maxis is done for me. i don’t understand why all must be sacrified at the god multiplayer (mass effect, elder scroll …) or having an outrancier requierement drm (diablo 3, next simcity, …)

so i bought torchlight 2 in predoreder at the place of diablo 3
but for SimCity ?

Y_Y

jk

On June 16, 2012 at 1:12 am

this reeks of management tell devs what they have to do.

Salomo

On August 4, 2012 at 2:04 am

how manner to download this game ?????

James

On October 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Moved to the “Will Not Buy” list. Way to go EA.

Electronic Farts

On October 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Might as well just call it ‘City’. EA is determined to shoehorn multiplayer into every game in existence. They destroyed Ultima and Origin Systems through this insistence and they’ve just about destroyed Mass Effect and BioWare the same way. Flip knows what they’ll do with Dead Space 3. Not every game can match the same standards as Fifa and nor should they strive to.

Vivid

On October 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm

I’ve been a huge fan of the Simcity series since Simcity 2000. Played them all into the ground and then back out again. When I first heard the announce for this I was so blown away by the visuals, but after reading this, I can honestly say there is no way I will buy this. Always being connected is an automatic h3ll no for me one way or another. But there are two major design choices that also will destroy the experience for me, the first being exhaustible resources. You must be joking me, what idiot thought that up? Simulation or not, it’s a game, not real life, a few fantasy elements are allowed, give the people endless oil deposits or what not. Second, cheats. I never had the uber patience to spend weeks or months slowly working a city up to a metropolis, I’d just turn on the everything costs nothing cheat and build a wonderlandscape. Give myself some extra cash whenever I found something the other cheat didn’t cover and every once in awhile I’d “call cousin vinnie” just for giggles. If I can’t select a free play mode where it’s more about building and less about managing then forget it. Managing is fun for some people, but I was a lego kid. I want to build.

kaan

On February 20, 2013 at 4:10 am

I don’t see how multi city regions is any different than what we had in simcity 4 except that the number of cities you can build in a region and the size of the cities is smaller. This is probably so because the new engine is processor intensive. Cities on the same map sc4 also affected the development of each other and you could specialize them. I would make one with an airport, one with industry and one a commerce mecca with mega population. And yes you would have to stop playing one city and move to the other to see the effects. So I would develop an industrial city next to my commercial one and then quit, log in to the commercial one, watch the population explode and then go back to the industrial one to level up the industry, rinse and repeat. I remember distinctly building an industrial city with no residential zones, with no problems. Given that the author thinks this gameplay is new, I really doubt that he is a seasoned simcity player. The main difference seems to be that its a bit simplified now. You don’t lay down your interstates and railroads, they are already there for you to connect to. Electricity lines and water pipes also don’t need to be laid down, roads connect everything. I think this might be what some seasoned players might be upset about. I honestly like it, being more interested in designing a beautiful city than laying down pipe. As for save games and disasters I don’t think EA/Maxis is stupid enough to actualyl get rid of those. While I never used disasters myself (as I said, I care more about cool vistas) it would be idotic not to include them.

Guillaume

On March 1, 2013 at 9:45 am

I just don’t understand the need for change in the serie… If the companies want to make money (and they are), they should know that gamers are hard-to-satisfy customers. This being said, gamers should not have to adapt themselves to products game companies are making… It’s the company that should create products gamers want.

EA wants to try something new ? Fine, include a multiplayer mode with some cool mechanics. But don’t cut gamers from the possibility of playing their favorite games in singleplayer. Serious, They already got the game mechanics, graphics and all. Put a single player mode !!!!