The newest release in the series, titled simply “SimCity,” breaks from that pattern, and offers a new take on the city-building mechanics, focusing on the introduction of online multiplayer. Unfortunately, in doing so, the game reduces the scope of the city simulation, and it hides too much information from the player, making it difficult to understand how the new mechanics actually work.
The major innovation of “SimCity”is its new multiplayer functions, a concept which at first glance seems bizarre for a series that is usually such a solitary experience. This new game changes that by offering a larger context for your city. Rather than just existing in some nebulous space, your city is now a part of a larger region, one made up of other cities like your own.
You can control those other cities yourself, or you can allow other players to do so. Once multiple cities exist within a region, they begin to interact in passive ways, lending support to each other. If one city is generating excess power, other cities nearby can buy that power for their own use.
Additionally, all of the cities in a region can work together to build Great Works, massive structures requiring large amounts of resources which offer benefits to all of the nearby cities.
These options for interaction are never particularly intrusive, and they offer some fascinating possibilities by encouraging specialization within a city, which previous games in the series did not do. Technological advancements researched in one city benefit everyone in the region, so if one player is focused on gaining access to the best trade buildings, other players can work on different areas.
One of my more successful cities was one where I rushed towards building the high-level education buildings in order to create a populace well-educated enough to safely run a nuclear power plant, and then made money by selling the excess power to my neighbors. However, while specializing in one or two areas offers a nice change of pace from the series’ typical progression, “SimCity” doesn’t just encourage you to specialize, it forces you to do so.
Every city you build is constricted by tight borders, preventing you from expanding past a certain point. You will run up against those borders shockingly quickly, and while you can still improve your city by creating higher density and higher quality buildings, those borders are a constant reminder that there is a limit to how successful your city can be.
There is no possible way to build a city that can do everything the game offers. The closest you can get is to build multiple cities within a region, and eventually cover all of the specializations available. Doing that would take an enormous time investment, and it would also force you to deal with the game’s two crippling flaws: its major technical problems, and the bizarre lack of information it offers the player.
The game’s technical issues, admittedly, will become less problematic as Maxis continues to work on the game. Already, the game is much more playable than it was at release, when servers would be down for days at a time, and the developers actually had to disable some features to allow more players access to the game.
These technical problems all stem from the fact that the game must be played online, and it constantly communicates with a server as a result. Theoretically, that is fine, but in practice it means that many of the interactions between cities happen much slower than intended. In one instance, another player sent me money to attempt to bail me out of a problem I was having, and I did not receive it until hours later.
The game’s reticence to explain how its systems work is a more fundamental flaw in the design. In an attempt to make the game more accessible than previous iterations, the developers simplified many of the more complex aspects of the simulation, or they at least appeared to do so. Because of this simplification, it becomes difficult to diagnose and solve problems. When one of my cities began to build up excess garbage, the only solution the game suggested was to build more dumps and recycling centers.
When I did that, my situation only improved slightly. By closely examining the problem and consulting online sources, I was able to figure out that the problem was centered around my traffic flow. Unfortunately, the only real solution for traffic problems is to rebuild your road infrastructure, which requires destroying parts of your city.
“SimCity” makes a great first impression, and its audio and visual presentation is top-notch, but the more time you spend with it the more apparent its problems become. It’s difficult to get attached to any of your cities, because it is usually easier to just start again from scratch when you encounter a major problem.
For a game that should be about allowing you to marvel at your city, it is too often a confusing and frustrating experience.