As someone who does this game-reviewing gig alongside serving as a real-life mayor of a small town in Canada, I come at a game like SimCity from a different angle than most. Not that different, mind you. The multiplayer focus and always-on Internet demands of Maxis' latest city-builder are beyond irritating. And the cramped borders that force you into constantly demolishing and rejigging your bulging-at-the-seams mini metropolis are almost enough to drive me to adopt the pastimes of another Canadian mayor who has been making the rounds of late-night talk shows recently.
But what really bothers me is the missed opportunity. This fresh take on SimCity comes a full decade after SimCity 4, yet it still repeats most of the same old mistakes, doubles-down on the regional approach introduced in that game with an obnoxious multiplayer push, and destroys the zoning system through unnecessary simplification. While you're supposed to be the mayor of a city, you're actually more of a dictator at the reins of a city-state. There are no limits to your power when it comes to spending tax dollars. You can rezone neighborhoods at a whim. Whole blocks of supposedly privately owned apartment buildings and businesses can be demolished with two mouse clicks if you get a sudden urge to create a massive football stadium to suit a Jerry Jones-size ego.
Not that you would want to get too tied down to reality. Dealing with a council, staff, and senior levels of government involves a lot of process and red tape that wouldn't translate well into a game. Well, a game that anyone would want to play, at any rate. It's much easier and more enjoyable to click on a button to build and destroy than it is to shepherd real-life municipal legislation through public hearings, consultations with planning advisors, three readings of a bylaw, and so forth.
Yet the changes made to this new take on SimCity actually make the game tougher to enjoy, and knock back the realism even farther than it was a decade ago. Maxis continues with SimCity 4's regional approach, although there are significant differences. You still have the option of guiding more than one city on a regional map that can include up to 16 separate municipalities. But city size has been cut back by around 75 percent in comparison with SimCity 4. This forces you to branch out and take over the other cities in the neighborhood while playing alone or by playing online multiplayer, because you can never fit all of the facilities and businesses and homes that you need to survive and thrive within the borders of just one town.
This "honey, I shrunk the city" approach has been geared to hamstring you into playing the game how Maxis and Electronic Arts want it played--always online--with you filling all the roles and taking over every city in a region as a godlike hizzoner. Try building a self-sustaining city that is all things to all citizens, and you will soon bang your head against the wall so thoroughly that you might come out on the other side thinking about running for municipal office in the real world.
Even if you can somehow appreciate this regional approach, cities are just way too small on their own. You can build out to the limits within an hour or two of starting a city, and have no way of expanding beyond that besides taking over a neighboring town as the incredible multiple mayor or making nice with fellow human mayors in multiplayer. Once you hit the dotted-line wall (which has been made extraordinarily aggravating due to how maps have huge stretches of wilderness between cities that you can never touch), you have to start demolishing and rebuilding. You have to rework everything as your city grows, inventing ways to cram in Godzilla-size new municipal facilities like sewage plants and universities, expand neighborhoods to jam in more residents, and play with factories to create more jobs.
Get beyond these frustrating mechanics, and you don't feel like you're doing the work of a mayor, either. Municipalities function more like independent nations than cities, trading services and goods back and forth like members of the EU. Granted, this sort of thing happens with cities and towns in real life, but not generally for the reasons SimCity puts forth. I can't think of any cities that have contracted out police and medical services to other municipalities because they didn't have room for police precincts and hospitals within their own borders. My suspension of disbelief also takes a hit when it comes to natural resources, which are a national responsibility, not a civic one. Municipal governments looking after oil and ore is a bridge too far.
Try building a self-sustaining city that is all things to all citizens, and you will soon bang your head against the wall so thoroughly that you might come out on the other side thinking about running for municipal office in the real world.
Even when you do manage to team up with other human players or build a few sharing-is-caring cities on a map of your own, it all still seems pointless. Building cooperation seems great in principle, but I always find myself thinking that I could handle all that garbage myself, or put out all those fireworks fires without needing help from a sister city, if only the game would give me more room to grow. Push out the dotted lines that hamper city growth, and I'd never have to petition the Duckburg next door for any help. The interrelationship attributes come off as fake and forced.
Another major problem lies with zoning. At the center of your "mayoral" powers is the ability to zone areas for residential, commercial, and industrial development. You lay down roads, select the zoning tool, pick one of those three aforementioned categories, and draw a box around what you want to zone. Presto, you've created a zoning bylaw for part of your city. As soon as you've finished any sort of zoning, developers arrive and start building homes, stores, or industries on the block or blocks in question. If only it were this easy in the real world.
But even though this system might seem to be a fitting simplification of how municipal zoning really works, it actually makes SimCity more complicated, and is a huge step backward for the series. Back in 2003, SimCity 4 got zoning (mostly) right, with a low-, medium-, and high-density system very similar to how real municipalities function. Now you've got "build it and they will come" zoning where you pick from one of the three main categories and then watch as buildings get denser and bigger all by themselves. Growth occurs naturally based solely on economic conditions, how wide you've made the roads in the area, and how much land you've set aside to let three-bedroom bungalows expand into 20-story condo towers and little assembly warehouses balloon into massive chemical factories.
The result of losing zoning control? Utter chaos. This problem is exacerbated by the ludicrously small territory that each city is jailed in, since there is no room for mistakes. You need to guess at both how big you want your blocks to be and how wide you want your roads in order to accommodate future growth. Go too small at first, and you soon wind up demolishing roads to give buildings room to expand. Go too big at first, to allow for eventual growth, and you soon wind up demolishing buildings to add roads allowing more space for homes, businesses, and industries. You can't win. You're either bulldozing blocks because you don't have enough room, or you're demolishing blocks because you've left too much room. Perhaps this is supposed to mirror the evolution of a city over time, but it plays out like you're making one mistake after another and correcting these errors by blowing up huge swathes of the city to start over and over again.
One other problem lingers from the game's horrendous launch early this year. You still have to connect online to play, and there are still regular periods when the servers cannot be accessed. I didn't play the game in the spring, when it went through long stretches of being unavailable, so I can't comment on whether or not this issue has gotten better. But during the course of playing the game for this review, it regularly refused to run because it could not connect with the servers. This generally lasted for no more than five- to 10-minute stretches, and was usually much shorter than that (although there was also one five- or six-hour outage). Still, these outages remain absolutely unacceptable, especially for a game that you should be able to play solo. The always-on Internet connection requirement needs to be removed so you can take your single-player city-building offline.
All that said, SimCity can hook you for lengthy stretches of time before the frustration of dealing with its flaws wears down your patience. The game excels in a number of areas. You couldn't ask for a more intuitive interface. A glance at the menu bar tells you immediately if you've got trouble brewing with the water supply, schools, police, electrical grid, and so on. The needs-and-wants heart of the gameplay is handled very well, too, so you're never left in the dark over such vital information as why businesses are failing or why citizens are loving your town. Click on any structure in the game, and you instantly get a rundown of what's good and bad in your city, from the perspective of the sims who live or work there.
Go too big at first, to allow for eventual growth, and you soon wind up demolishing buildings to add roads allowing more space for homes, businesses, and industries.
Visuals and sound are superb for the most part, though the graphics get oddly blurry at times when you're down near street level. Cities boast neat lived-in details that you can see when zooming in on your sim citizens, and the soundtrack includes a jazzy score and atmospheric effects that always tell you what you're looking at (though the developers could have chosen a less-disgusting glug noise for those moments when you're checking on sewage flow). All of this just accentuates the letdown in the end, though, because you're always aware of how much better this game could have been.
Whether you're a mayor or a wannabe or a constituent, SimCity is a big disappointment. As the first game in this classic series in a decade, it should have been something special that took the city-building concept in exciting new directions that let everyone see what it's like to serve as a mayor. Instead, the developers got tangled up with a multiplayer concept that is little more than an albatross hanging around the player's neck and never addressed the many, many ways that this look at a mayor's life could have been made both more realistic and more enjoyable.