Finally. After months of demands, the long-awaited Update 10 for SimCity has made the city-building simulation available for offline play. Still, it's a case of too little, too late. Removing one of the primary irritants that made the game so aggravating at launch has done surprisingly little to make it likable, since all of the same old miscues like multiplayer-centric regional city building and dumbed-down zoning continue to make your mayoral duties fussy and unrealistic.
Gameplay has been carried forward almost untouched in Update 10. This is a straightforward patch that removes the need to connect to the Maxis servers before being able to play. Just turn on offline mode in the Origin launcher before firing up the game, and you're good to go without the Net. That pesky DRM disguised as a game feature is now gone, and good riddance. A year ago, the disastrous launch saw thousands of people unable to play the game for lengthy stretches of time due to network issues. Even when you could get online, the game was often sluggish and prone to random disconnections and lost save files. But most of these problems were cleared up ages ago, even though minor outages were common right into last fall. So as much as removing the Internet requirement is a blessing, it ceased to be a deal breaker some time back.
Still, there is a real positive to finally being able to play completely solo. Saves are stored locally. Maps can be saved multiple times now. This is a small change, but a really valuable one for those times that you want a do-over if a subdivision isn't working out like you planned or you want to rethink the 120K of simoleons you just blew on a new mall level in a MegaTower (the Cities of Tomorrow expansion is fully supported here, along with all of the previously released downloadable content). Of course, the offline trade-off is losing all of the online features. You can easily switch back and forth between the online and offline modes depending on whether you want to play with others or play by yourself, but the two have been completely separated to keep people from cheating in multiplayer and on ranking boards. All this really means is that you can't move regions between the two modes of play, though, so no big loss there.
The game underneath it all remains the same, warts and all. SimCity may finally be letting you play completely by yourself, but the multiplayer focus of the core design is still wholly evident. You are still stuck playing as more of a governor or a president than a mayor, presiding over small regional maps crammed with as many as 16 cities apiece. Running these burgs is still an irritating juggling act. Each is absurdly tiny and is hemmed in by arbitrary borders that ignore huge stretches of open wilderness. But each city also somehow has enough territory to mine ore, dig up coal, and build nuclear power plants like a miniature country. Mayors are supposed to look after sewer systems and potholes, not oil reserves.
Playing solo only emphasizes how poorly this whole approach works, especially since the lack of a multiplayer option means you're stuck with serving as the mayor to multiple cities on each map. Splitting up your focus between numerous towns is more annoying than challenging. On the larger maps, you need to constantly switch from one city to another. This gets very tedious, very fast. Entering a new city requires 30 seconds or more of loading time, for starters, and you are constantly slapped in the face by the small city sizes. Swapping back and forth from one Duckburg to another is an insult considering that you could do almost everything you needed to do in just a single city if the borders weren't so ridiculously restrictive that you inevitably ran out of the room needed to build key infrastructures like water treatment plants and high schools.
Other core mechanics also don't reflect any of the reality of running a city. Zoning remains as much of a headache here as it was when the game was released last year. This whole system is terrible, whether you're playing the game online or off, because the removal of direct control over neighborhood density continues to limit your planning choices and create chaos when it comes to laying out an orderly city.
There are positives to the SimCity approach only if you can accept the absurdity of the premise and you like the idea of looking beyond the more limited worldview of a real-life mayor. Update 10 does nothing to change the basic character of the original game. This is really just a patch that does little aside from removing the always-on Internet requirement and performing some internal housekeeping so the game can operate fully on local systems. This is a good thing, especially given how the launch problems proved that this sort of DRM is spectacularly ill-advised. But even though this addition by subtraction makes for a better experience overall, in that at least you can now play the game whenever you want, all of the other flaws are still present and still glaring.