There’s no doubt about it; Maxis’s latest SimCity is the most considered, most in-depth and most appealing SimCity game to date. The tilt-shift aesthetic might be incongruous with fans’ expectations, and the overhaul of some fairly radical mechanical elements might scare the most diehard, but that doesn’t stop this being the most interesting SimCity game yet.
So it’s a shame that it comes with just as many criticisms as it does praise; point to any positive aspect of Maxis’s latest city builder and you’ll find another equal and opposing negative. It’s a game that – though finely honed – is not perfect in structure, which will leave many of the series’ most devout players feeling more than a little irritable.
It is worth noting that this is perhaps the most accessible SimCity game, too. It’s hard to pinpoint why: maybe the colourful and playful sounds and visuals, the pleasing tilt-shift effect as you hone in on a specific part of your fledging town, or perhaps the immediacy and ease of use that comes with the multiple, infographic-themed data layers. Most likely, however, it’s a combination of all three.
It’s the visuals that first drag you in, however. Not only does this look like a game you’ll want to play, but it sounds like one too. The melodic (and strangely familiar) tunes accompanying SimCity are a testament to the sound engineers at Maxis: somehow, someway, they always manage to nail that sense of pure happiness. The sound effects tagged onto each building ‘plop’, road stretch or click-click-click of zoning help construct this image of SimCity as a model of a city rather than a game – while the myriad cheers as a park is placed onto the land, or an impressive cultural landmark rises from the ground, not only help inform you of a job well done, they make it feel personal. They make it feel fun.
As such, each region in this new SimCity is a playground, a toybox of building materials that gives way to genuine creativity. In the past, SimCity focused primarily on fitting as many Sims into a space as possible, but here there’s so much more freedom to it. Sure, the size of your city’s population is one aspect, but maybe you’ll target education instead, or perhaps focus on creating a safe and secure environment for all your residents. Tourism, trade, utilities, industry, commercial, residential: all viable specialisations your city can adhere to. Each new city provides a new opportunity, and it’ll take a very long time before starting anew becomes tiresome.
What can become a pain, however, is the city size limit. It has been a valid concern for fans throughout the game’s development, and after extended time with the final game there’s unfortunately no silver lining. But it’s not the desire to expand beyond the borders that is an issue; it’s the lack of space to build within. There might not sound like much difference between the two, but consider this: once you’ve laid the basic foundation for your city – the roads, the zones and potential spots to build upgraded utilities – you’re not left looking to place more, instead you’re struggling for space to fill with any necessary structures. Take the need for mass transit: rail connections, buses, streetcars, boats and even airports are the five choices you have, but it’s impossible to have all of them.
Forcing choices is an important part of the new SimCity and this is just one way in which it provides a challenge, but this can often feel unfairly restrictive, especially when your own citizens demand everything from each and every city you build. Thankfully, the multi-region gameplay resolves some of these issues. Beefing up on police, fire or health coverage in one city nearby can then be volunteered to assist in those severely lacking. If one city is in desperate need for workers, then Sims looking for work in outlying cities will commute over, with the same being true for commercial and residential desires.
As with a lot of aspects to SimCity, even this comes with its own downfalls. Firstly, despite suggestions of up to 16 cities working symbiotically together, the truth is that – at most – only four will work in tandem. This makes multiplayer particularly restrictive if you’re hoping to fill all 16 of those cities. Worst of all is the frustrating crossover, where unrequited parts of one city will filter through to another and the elements you do desire don’t. While crime and pollution is expected, it is, in fact, education and wealth that prove the biggest threat. You may be focusing on dirty coal or oil production in one city, for example, but all your low-tech industry becomes filled with educated, high-tech Sims from another. This would be fine, but it then causes the inhabitants of the very city you’re working on to be put out of work while the high-level tech buildings demand educated workers that never existed in the first place. It’s a frustrating balance that could quite easily infect any one of your cities.
A rather crude metaphor for SimCity, then, is to call it a sandbox on a see-saw. You’re free to play around to your heart’s content, but the underlying mechanics aren’t always reliable. But then no one said building a city – or rather, a collection of cities – could be distilled into an exact science. Though many of the systems pinning the GlassBox engine together can be awkward, they’re at the very least always providing an obstacle to overcome. Whether intended or not, the erratic nature of the region play and enforced city limits does make you continually evaluate the options open to you. This turns your game time in a gradual and careful evolution; your environments will grow out of the very ground around you, adapting to the challenges you face or the restrictions placed upon you. This is what SimCity really does well, and once you’ve started it’ll be tough to stop.
There’s a natural and uncontrollable progression to your cities as you tweak your utilities, boost your cash flow and gradually improve the happiness of your populace. There’s a personality to every city you work on, not only with the individual comings and goings of the Sims within, but with their very design too. Initially some of the decisions surrounding SimCity’s mechanics may seem frustrating, especially for diehard fans of the series, but give it time and you’ll realise – in spite of all of this – this is actually the best SimCity game yet.