SimCity 2013 Impressions: Groundbreaking, Yet Troubling
SimCity In Name Only?
Unfortunately, for all its strengths, and they are numerous, SimCity will launch with several controversial features guaranteed to annoy long time fans of the series, myself included.
First up, there’s the requirement of persistent internet in order to play. Electronic Arts and Maxis have been a bit confusing about this feature. It was first reported that you’ll have to always be logged on in order to play. That caused a massive Internet freak out, which prompted EA to hastily issue a clarification that no, you’ll just need to connect at the start of each session, but should you lose your Internet in the game it won’t kick you out. This made their attempts to frame the requirement as anything other than DRM laughable. However, in our interview, Kip Katsarelis seems to have confirmed that you will indeed need to be connected at all times in order to play the game.
That’s because of the second, and to my mind, more pressing potential problem with SimCity: the fact that it is, as Katsarelis told us, built entirely around multiplayer. The way it works is that instead of individual cities existing independently, players now manage cities within larger regions containing cities managed by other players. The demo depicted a few ways this plays out in your game:
1) The way individual cities are managed can impact their neighbors. If you emphasize industry at the expense of pollution controls, crime prevention, or other public health/safety concerns, the problems that will develop in your city can spill out. Pollution may affect the entire region. Nearby cities may experience a rise in crime caused by your own criminals taking a little road trip. Even economic problems at home can cause a downturn elsewhere.
2) Cities can share resources and services. If you happen to have a power deficiency, you can purchase electricity from a neighboring city that has an excess. Likewise, you can sell a high crime city access to your law enforcement. Similarly, your economies will be linked, so by sharing resources and services, you can boost prosperity across the region.
3) Related to this, these complex relationships allow people to specialize their cities knowing that the slack can be picked up elsewhere. For instance, one city can be the region’s entertainment mecca, with sports arenas, zoos and so forth bringing in tourism from their neighbors. Another city can focus on industry and business, becoming the commute destination; the citizens of other cities will drive into this town to work and back to their own city at the end of the day. This will apparently play out in real (game) time, with effects on day/night traffic and commerce.
4) Cities can (and apparently, must) cooperate to create regional projects, like international airports. Gone are the days of scraping out space in the corner of your city map for an Airport, or having to scrounge for the resources to do it. Now, one city can contribute workers, another alloys, another fuel, and so on, each contributing to the project which will eventually benefit them all. NOTE: Resources are also finite, which means you can run out.
All of this is extremely cool, forcing players to think strategically in ways previously unknown to the series. Unfortunately, it is the only possible mode of play; cities must exist within a region, and there must always be more than one city in the region in order for the game to play out fully. A side effect of this is that players may no longer save their game at specific points and return to that save later. Because multiple, independently run cities are existing in the same region, games progress in linear time. If you f**k up, you can’t identify what you did wrong, return to an earlier save, and correct course. Which means that the days of triggering a cataclysmic event just to see how it looks are gone. You are no longer playing god in your city, you’re merely playing caretaker.
What this means is that there simply is no single player version of SimCity, and it might be a game breaking bug. Yes, players may choose to create a region, make it private, and manage all cities in it themselves, effectively cheating themselves into a quasi-single player game, but they must manage each city one at a time. When they’re not in one of the cities, that city is effectively turned off. This means that however you reach the endgame, it’s going to end up taking a long time, either because you’ll have to make sure to arrange play sessions with your friends in order to avoid having their cities fail to advance, or you’ll be advancing piecemeal as you switch off one city to manage another. Either way, it is a huge break from the series’ past.
Highly Anticipated… And Dreaded.
So what to make of SimCity? It’s a curious thing to be left with simultaneously high and low expectations. On the one hand, it looks so goddamned good. Every element crackling with life, every city vibrant and active in a way I’ve never seen before. In so many ways it looks like it pushes the idea of what a sim can be. But I detest the idea of being forced into a multiplayer paradigm regardless of what I expect to get out of a SimCity experience. I also cannot understand why some of the series’ most beloved features – namely the ability to play the part of a merciless, capricious god – have been removed to make room for said multiplayer. That seems to me akin to making a linear, first person shooter version of Grand Theft Auto. My gut reaction? This is a SimCity game in name only.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you were to describe this game to me without mentioning the SimCity name, I would still complain about the persistent Internet requirement, but I’d probably drool over everything else. Unfortunately, Maxis has chosen to sell this as SimCity, and that name comes with expectations that increasingly look to be unfulfilled. Naturally, I saw only a non-playable demo, and I really am looking forward to getting my hands on this when it becomes playable. But I hope that at some point, Maxis realizes that those expectations fans have won’t be going away, and chooses to include a few of them in the final build.