There is something really fascinating about watching an active ant colony. Seeing those little insects live out their little lives, constantly in motion as they create a proper habitat out of a mound of earth is inherently relaxing. You can passively observe, you may choose to poke and probe this fragile little ecosystem with a stick to see the ants respond and adapt. Or, if you are so inclined, you could decide to play the role of a vindictive god and smash the whole thing with a rock. Why? Because you could.

If you can appreciate what I’m saying here, you know what it feels like to play SimCity.

There are some titles in gaming history that will go down as being revolutionary. The original SimCity was definitely one of them. Ever since its debut on the platform way back in 1989, the SimCity franchise has been a firm favorite with budding virtual mayors all around the globe. I have personally sunk hundreds of hours in SimCity 3000 and when news of another game in the series came about, my interest was certainly piqued.

At its core, the SimCity series is a balancing act. Players are given control of a piece of land, a budget and from that point on, left to their own devices. The empty land scape is essentially a giant toy box, the goal is to expand the city while keeping its citizens happy. This is done by providing them with essential services such as basic utilities, health, education and leisure all of which, as you can imagine, cost money. It’s a simple premise, but the complexities involved make it a lot deeper than it seems. The joy of seeing a bustling metropolis spring from what was essentially a patch of dirt is something that never gets old.

The new SimCity take the same formula and cranks the addiction up even further. It does bring some new things to the table, while doing away with some old ones. The biggest difference however, is in the way the game presents information. The older SimCity’s necessitated the use of graphs and charts. There was (and still) is a lot of information to gather and keep a track of. But most of this is now visual. It is also a lot harder to pin down what exactly is going wrong with your city sometimes.

For instance, clicking over an abandoned building will tell you that it was abandoned due to the residents having “no money”.  It does not say why that is. Was it because they were unemployed? Was it because they got robbed?  There are no charts for me to see how high or low unemployment is. Or just how bad crime is compared to 8 days ago. It was much later that I realized it was a transportation issue. Turns out it was taking too long for these guys to get to their jobs due to a bus stop overloading. This meant that they would get fired. So they’d find new jobs. And get fired again. This was happening on a daily basis and the only way I found out was by clicking on one of these guys and “following” them for a day.

Granted, this was a problem that developed organically and it is a successful, albeit awkward, way of actually “simulating” an urban problem. But the lack of information made it needlessly frustrating. This isn’t an exception either. Stuff like this keeps coming up. One household loves the fact that there are many places to shop while an adjoining resident can’t seem to find a way to spend its cash.

It’s not a deal breaker, but I fail to see why the option of having a chart or two was not provided. It would not have affected any of the games core systems, and would have also done away with a lot of pointless clicking.

This also does not discount the fact that sometimes, the little sims are just idiots. There are moments when it is obvious that something in the code is not working correctly. Such as fire trucks that will take a ridiculously long route to get to fire that is literally down the street. I’m going to assume this is a temporary situation that a patch can fix.

Development of any kind comes with more than just a monetary cost. Land is by far the more precious resource in the new SimCity, the days of having a vast expanse of empty space to play around in are long gone.  The lack of room to expansion serves to accomplish two things: it makes the game a lot harder and also forces cities and by extension, their players to “cooperate”.  The concept of cooperation is hardly new to the series but with this new iteration, it is obvious that EA wants this to be an online experience with players all over the globe collaborating and interacting together. (More on this later)

You cannot expect to have a single city that is a bustling tourist hotspot while maintaining an oil empire and high tech industry along with commercial sky scrapers. There just isn’t enough room. So one city will have to emphasize resource gathering (via mining and drilling) another focuses on education and high tech industry while others divert their funds towards maintaining a good mass transit system to attract tourists and gamblers. The fact that there is only so much one city can do, makes the new SimCity much more of a challenge.

No doubt about it, the new SimCity is the hardest game in the franchise so far. Not that I’m complaining mind. True,  the change in tone here did take me by surprise but once I realized that the cut and dried approach to problem solving that worked in previous iterations would not work in SimCity today, it forced me to make the once change that completely changes the overall experience:  Slow down.

It is at this point that I began to appreciate just how important it is to really plan the layout of your city. Mistakes can be very expensive and it behooves one to take a minute or two to reflect on the possible consequences of laying down an extra coal mine for instance. Will I have enough power to run the mine? Will the monetary gains be worth the extra pollution? Will that pollution ruin the mood of tourists? Do I even have the manpower needed? If I don’t, should I zone for residential areas now? Will the schools be able to take the load of extra students? What about fire station coverage? So on and so forth.

Thinking like this forced me to slam the breaks and takes things slowly. It made me appreciate how all of the pieces of this very complex puzzle come together. The interaction between all of the games subsystems may not be perfect, (for instance, sims from my resident heavy and jobless city refuse to go travel to the next town even if it has a lot of jobs) but it is does work enough to create some truly beautiful cities when you get things right. It’s a hard won victory and feels very rewarding. It is also, and this bit truly surprised me, even MORE addictive than its predecessors.

A large part of this can be attributed to the misleadingly named “city specialization” option. A city may decide to specialize in drilling, choosing to focus on exploiting its oil reserves. Doing so does not pigeon hole you, ie, you can still specialize in say, gambling too if you want. The point is, following a specialization path will allow for unlocking better building and further options. It’s the old unlock trick. Having concrete goals like that makes you want to keep playing long past bed time.

There is no denying the influence of The Sims here. Everything from the Simlish that your residents speak, to the art style and even the music is a nod to EA’s darling. Speaking of which, the music is hands down the best of the series so far. Considering how good the soundtrack for the previous games has been, that’s no small claim. Overall, the game’s aesthetic is very pleasing. It’s a joy to play when things are going right, but it’s just as enjoyable to observe. And if things go really pear shaped, it’s always fun to wipe out an unsalvageable city with a few meteor strikes.

One of the complaints I have with the game is how its “advisors” keep prompting you to do more. Even if things are fine, the treasury is showing a healthy profit and you seem to have found the right balance between the game’s many, many moving parts, it will prompt you to expand further. This is a problem. It is all too easy to overextend development of a perfectly running city and turn it into an urban nightmare. Again, all it would take is a spreadsheet or a chart of some sort for me to find out just how many new residents I would need to fill up the vacancies in my new industries but the lack of this critical info makes any advice given by the game a possible trap. This is compounded by the fact that even the natural resources found, such as oil, coal ore and even water, are limited. That’s right, even water will eventually run out. Thus making the idea of rushing through your expansion projects tantamount to suicide.  But even that could have been forgiven had there been a simple “undo” icon. Yes you read that correctly, even that is gone. And this is where the game’s biggest failing comes to light.

At this point, EA’s decision to make SimCity an “online at all times” deal has proven beyond a shadow of doubt, to be an absolute PR disaster. I mean, how many times how you seen a publisher offer a free game as an apology?  On paper, the idea of encouraging players to collaborate seems to be sound. In theory, it makes sense given the new mechanics and area constraints. After all it is virtually impossible to have a completely self-sufficient city. The help of surrounding cities is pretty much necessary to keep things running smoothly. Here’s the problem: I don’t want to.

SimCity has always been a single player experience. And with good reason. Going back to that ant colony analogy, its one thing to poke and prod said colony yourself, it’s quite another to have a friend come over and smash the thing to pieces just coz he felt like it. The last thing I want is for someone to negatively influence a city I carefully managed to perfection. Unlike the previous games in the series, the relationship between cities is a lot more dynamic. Criminals will cross borders, as will pollution and homeless citizens. Given how hard it is to strike a balance in the game, the idea of someone coming in and ruining something I put hours into does not entice me at all.

When you realize that even playing in single player mode requires you to be online at all times, you have to ask yourself why that is. Especially considering that even saving your game is handled by a server. I’m fine with being given the “option” of going online and playing with other people in a region. I’m sure it would be fun too. That being said, it should have no bearing on my wanting to play alone if I want, offline and away from the world as it were. As it stands, that is impossible. If your internet acts up for any reason, or the servers glitch, the game sends you to the start menu.  It’s not as bad as some of Ubisoft’s measures, it does take 20 minutes for the game to actually boot you, but it is still a needless concern. Also, consider the fact that at some point, EA might decide to take its servers away, as it has done with older games. Furthermore, even if you wanted to play with your friends, it is only possible if all of you are on the same server AND have the same version (standard or deluxe) of the game. This makes the whole premise of “encouraging player interaction” a bit of a joke.  It also makes the new SimCity seem more like an MMO.

I played SimCity about 5 days after release, at which point, most of the initial server issues seem to have been sorted (it has also been patched a couple of times). In the 26 hours I’ve put into the game so far (it runs stable as a rock in windowed mode while I doing other stuff on the desktop) it has sent me to the main menu only once but even that is something that should not happen. Not in a single player game. Which brings me back to the original question: Why would EA do this? The answer is pretty clear to me: DLC. It is only a matter of time before you start to see DLC for things like better buses, bigger trains, fancier casinos and the of course larger cities. Again, I’m cool with this as long it is an option and not something forced down my throat. As it stands, my single player experience is severely crippled by the publisher’s intent (as I see it) to sell me something further down the road.

Sorry EA, but this is unacceptable. You could have saved yourselves a lot of trouble by simply calling this SimCity Online because that’s exactly what this is.

I’ve said before in other reviews that DRM will not affect my scoring of any game. But when DRM of this sort leads to design decisions that directly affect the end user experience, it becomes a serious problem. Moreover, it makes me wonder if I want to support a company that conducts business in such a fashion. EA’s way of doing things have never been popular and this is definitely a new low. SimCity 3000 came out in 1999 and I still play it to this day. I just don’t see that happening with this one. Which is a real tragedy because underneath all the annoyances, SimCity really is a great game.

While its predecessors were more like giant Lego sets, the new SimCity is more akin to a big ball of clay. The end goal is still the same: make something awesome. The creative process though, is undeniably different.

But just as addictive.