SimCity is a good game hobbled by its insistence on putting as many obstacles as it can between it and you. You can point to the ridiculous online connection problems that have bogged down the game's launch as the most obvious examples of this, but they aren't the only ones. From its online infrastructure to the simulation that powers each city, SimCity has numerous flaws that can turn a few hours of delight into a few hours of seething frustration. Many, or even most, of these flaws can be fixed, but it's the here and now that's important--and in the here and now, SimCity is a fun, engaging, and broken game.
Just how broken the always-online SimCity is depends on when you're playing, what server you choose, and the sheer luck of the draw. Did it need to be this way? Probably not: the game offers the option to have a fully single-player experience in a closed region of your own creation. Alas, you must sign into SimCity (the service)--as well as Electronic Arts' Origin service--in order to play SimCity (the game). Since the game's release, connecting has been a crapshoot. You may not be able to log in at all, or the server might be full. In that case, you don't enter a standard queue as you might in a massively multiplayer online game (though to be clear, SimCity is not an MMOG). Instead, you initiate a 20-minute countdown. Should the server be full when the countdown is finished, the countdown and the wait begin again.
So what is the benefit to the always-online aspect of SimCity? It's in the regional structure: you share an entire region with other players or, if you prefer, with other cities you yourself manage. This means up to 16 people are performing their mayoral duties in one geographical expanse, though you work with only a single city at a time. SimCity is a shared experience, though not just from a social perspective, but also from a mechanical perspective. No city is meant to be all things at once, as the relatively minor plot of land you get to work with indicates from the get-go. You can focus on tourism by placing--er, plopping, as the game calls it--landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and reaping the financial benefits. But in doing so, you may not have room to plop structures that allow you to mine ore, or export resources. You must choose: your city is not going to be a sprawling, self-contained urban center no matter how clever you think you can be.
Is the limited space disappointing? Absolutely. And yet the idea of specialization has potential, and you see it spring to life when you play with friends, or at least, friendly strangers. You can set up mutually beneficial arrangements. "I'll let you dump all your trash in my city, as long as you keep a steady supply of ambulances coming, and I'm gonna ship my sewage to this other town" or "I'll focus on commercial trade, so your wealthy residents can come to my city and spend money, and you can enjoy their tax revenue and set up an ore trade supply line." You can set this all up by yourself in a private region if you like, but managing multiple cities becomes a drag, and it dilutes that sense of connection you get when you devote your heart and soul to the metropolis of your dreams.
It all begins with that first road you lay. On a fundamental level, SimCity has that remarkable magic that compels you to stay at your keyboard even if real life beckons you. This is the nature of the series. The pavement snakes into the wilderness and you drag zones into being where residential, commercial, and industrial structures spring to life. You are no longer restricted to grids and lines: SimCity lets you create circular drives and serpentine avenues, which aren't always the most efficient use of space but at least have aesthetic value. Soon, you must focus on other concerns: providing electricity and water to your needy citizens, disposing of garbage, and getting a police force onto the streets.
The complexities then mount. As your industry grows, it needs educated sims, which means providing the population with schools and libraries. As your businesses grow, they need wealthier shoppers, which means upgrading your neighborhoods with public services and tree-lined parks. The push and pull then continues, with you balancing your populace's needs while keeping your income in the black, planning your future while dealing with the present. Most core structures can be evolved in a number of ways (adding wings to a hospital, for instance, or purifiers to your water pumps), and the most impactful upgrades require other structures to be built or other tasks to be performed. For instance, if you want to build a better array for your solar power plant, you need to research it at a university first. For a sizable sum, of course.
And so you perform the engaging and entertaining SimCity dance, juggling needs and wants, and experimenting in between to see just what, exactly, a coal mine or a municipal airport has to offer you and your people. The interface does an excellent job of giving you information and advice. If your citizens are getting sick or complainign about sewage overflow, the icons along the bottom of the screen make sure you know about it. There is plenty of information to sift through, so you can see where your population is most dense, how long the average wait for the bus is, and so on. If you enjoy losing yourself in statistics, SimCity has lots of them to consider. Unfortunately, the good old ticker tape from SimCities past is gone, as is some of the hysterical writing that came along with it.
There's immense joy in watching a bustling city form, and even greater joy in tinkering with all of SimCity's little details. Click on a hoity-toity apartment building, and you hear the murmurs of the upper class and the dulcet tones of a string quartet. Zoom in on City Hall, and you see little protesters scurrying about with picket signs. Click on a sim, and the camera follows her around, updating you on what she's doing and where she's headed. (Jocelyn Garza lost money on investments; Loren Howell is headed to work to flip burgers; Donna Cardenas just left the Grunty Studio Apartments.) Poking about like this can reveal some idiosyncrasies, like the bizarre routes drivers take to their destinations, but it also inspires you to do right by these little computer people.
Your neighbors may or may not have the same interest in your citizens. If you and your friends work together, you can offset one city's weaknesses with another's strengths, setting up a network of services, industry, and trade that keeps individual cities thriving. When strangers are involved, the potential to cause grief is high, both purposefully and accidentally. Two trashy towns next to each other don't create synergy: they create pollution.
This means that seeing SimCity at its best requires neighborly harmony. That's difficult in offline politics, so you can imagine that online politicking isn't necessarily any easier. When your citizens are getting sick from pollution and you are scrambling to keep them healthy without breaking the budget, and without help from your neighbor, it's tempting to abandon the city and let it be someone else's problem. And then you yourself contribute to this spiral of doom that could lead to someone else abandoning his or her post. Making everything work perfectly in this online environment requires a perfect storm of social planning, which isn't always possible, or even probable.
The deeper you dig into SimCity, the more possibilities you discover…and, sadly, the higher the mound of problems grows. You can move into regional view and poke around in your neighbors' cities as a spectator, where a bug allows you to plop parks in a city that isn't your own. Fortunately, this bug has no practical effect on the other player's city. You should be able to claim cities in your region that other players have abandoned from this same view, but clicking that button usually just takes you into spectator mode. If you want to make that city your own, you must go to the main menu and take it from there. And good luck renaming any city you snap up this way: your new name may not take, or it might appear minutes or hours later.
It's even possible for your city to not sync properly with the server, so any progress you make might not appear the next time you log in. It's not a frequent bug, but this is a case where once (or twice, or thrice) is enough. Or you might not be able to reenter your city and be forced to abandon it. (You also receive an option to roll back to an earlier state, but good luck getting that button to work.) As of this writing, Electronic Arts has disabled the game's fastest speed setting (along with leaderboards and achievements) in order to ease some of these problems, which has injured the game's pace, as you must now exercise even more patience as you wait for your coffers to grow and your neighborhoods to expand.
Many hassles are smaller, but still bothersome. If you create a private region and the social features of the game don't work (a real possibility), you might be unable to invite friends. But you won't be able to open the region up to all, because there's no option to change region type. Your only choice is to scrap it and start a new one. The feedback from an apartment building might tell you that the residents love how much shopping there is nearby--and also hate how there's nowhere to shop. Firefighters might not be able to make their way from the firehouse. Both the main tutorial and the mid-game tutorial tangents find numerous ways to break. It's tempting to ask: What happened here? How does an almost-great game lose its way like this?
The bugs will probably be fixed, the wrinkles smoothed, and the online problems sorted out. What hurts most, though, is that it didn't have to be this way. SimCity's makers looked to MMOGs for ideas on how to bring players together, but didn't absorb the lessons MMOG developers learned long ago on how to implement practical online play. SimCity (the game) isn't the pinnacle of the series, but it's super fun. SimCity (the service) is a disaster. What you get out of the package as a whole rests solely on how many flaming hoops you're willing to jump through before arriving at your just reward.