I’m writing this as the servers are down, as I’m sure they will be for quite some time. SimCity‘s troubled launch will soon lose relevance, but for those wanting to sink their teeth into 2013′s biggest city-building adventure, nothing is more important than knowing they’ll be able to play. There are those who argue that SimCity was never an online experience, so these features needn’t exist (this isn’t true, many of the games had similar online features), and others consider the “always on DRM” to be symbolic of dark times for PC gaming.

The elephant in the room

Keeping things rational so this doesn’t look sensationalist in a months time, SimCity‘s extensive social features require an internet connection because, if Maxis had it their way, groups of friends would play with a cluster of cities on one map, known as a ‘region’. This ‘region’ shares values and trade with every city within itself, with all the data stored on EA’s servers. The positives of this are short but critical: whoever set up the ‘region’ needn’t be online for the others to play. In a way, it’s essentially free hosting. The down-side is “always on DRM.” Some would argue that they should have the ability to play completely isolated if they wanted to, but Maxis have designed a game (possibly with DRM in mind) to be played with friends, or strangers, on shared land.

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Whilst this does nothing to appease those furious about: server down-time, an inability to join friends servers which are full, cities being rolled back or not saving, random connection drops, social functions malfunctioning, and other bugs and problems currently plaguing the game, the features do set the foundations for a potentially wonderful SimCity experience. Should the servers never drop, and capacity not be a problem, these features would most certainly be a positive thing. In a months time when the surge of players calms down, we will most likely look back at this with little regard.

That said, you do require a constant connection in order to play SimCity – although if your connection drops for a moment it won’t kick you out of the game, I’ll try to get the connection back. Whilst it’s similarly annoying to Diablo 3, the system makes a little more sense this time around, given that SimCity has been created as a completely social game. When Cities XL 2011 tried a similar social theme, they wanted to charge monthly for it. Whichever method you prefer is entirely up to you.

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The elephant’s gone now…

SimCity is at face value a much smaller, simpler game than other SimCity titles. Starting your first city, you’re met with a relatively small workable area to build in. Starting off is easy: you strategically place roads, and zone areas for industrial, residential, and commercial uses. As your town grows, you choose your power source, add some water utilities, and grow from there. This is where the “face value” part comes in, because whilst it’s incredibly easy to space out and start off, SimCity requires an incredible amount of planning and forethought in order to maximize the potential of your town. Something as simple as using the wrong road from the beginning of the game, or placing buildings on what turns out to be a ripe mining area, could ruin your cities prosperity later on.

Whilst roads can be upgraded to a point, it is necessary to first use some of your 50,000 Simoleans (the currency) to lay out double-lane roads, because you cannot upgrade single lane roads to these later on. The quality of your roads aids your density, and from that the degrees to which the buildings around them can upgrade.

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It’s tempting to spread out as fast as you can, and this is where the size of the map comes in. Whilst we play in a relatively small area, each zoned space is up-gradable by a huge amount. You might think that a small cluster of residential zones isn’t much, and that you should make more – but spreading out all over the map without planning your infrastructure or leaving space for fire-stations, bigger sanitation, or building upgrades can cripple 10′s of hours of work.

Because of this, whilst pretty much everyone was originally unhappy with how the size of the cities looked, it complements the added depth in the game, making it incredibly tight and compact (like corned beef), allowing for much more micromanagement than macromanagement, in RTS terms.

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That said, whilst it makes a lot of sense to have smaller cities with a lot more interactivity and depth, once the cities develop and start to lace themselves with sky-scrapers and bigger industrial facilities, they tend to look like little nonsensical plots of lands… or like an American hamlet whose just spent more oil money in a busy month than they had sense.

Micromanagement

SimCity is a very busy and dynamic game. There’s always something to tend to, and not everything can be forseen. For instance, every infrastructural building can be upgraded, and each of the aforementioned buildings work efficiently within a certain ranged outlined by green markings on the streets. If you need more hospitals, perhaps you should extend the one you already have rather than buying a new one? Did that not work? Perhaps you need a new one because the extended one is too far away from certain areas.

You might think that population growth is achieved by spacing out as many tight roads as possible, and making as many residential zones as possible. This, too, is a huge mistake – and whilst it’s easy to do this, it’s totally fatal. Your lowly trailers will one day evolve into huge sky-scrapers, and where they housed five in one region, they may house hundreds in a relatively short period of time. Progression isn’t staggered, to create an influx of Sims you merely need to increase the land-value and density of the roads. This is actually very cheap, but doing so causes problems:

Pollution. Expand too quickly, and you find yourself – as I did – having to spring up sewage waste dispensers all over the map, lowering the land-value and making people unhappy. These fill up very quickly, and if you don’t have enough – or can’t space them out efficiently – sewage will seep through the roads, and everyone will leave, crippling your tax income. This is just one example of how cruel and strategic SimCity actually is, even if it looks more casual than its predecessors.

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Likewise, expanding your population means necessarily expanding jobs: industrial zones are a requirement, and as they grow, they pollute the environment more and more. The best way to eliminate this problem is to break your way into education. Upgrading your town hall is a staggered process, allowing you to expand your ‘government’ building, adding wings that unlock more buildings at each population mark. These wings will unlock improved features, such as schools, colleges, better sanitation, utilities, and more financial control. An unforeseeable feature, these unlocked buildings can replace less efficient, much smaller versions – such as sewage treatment plants – which help you decrease pollution and make your Sim’s happier. You can’t place them if you’ve used up all your space too quickly, though!

The social aspect

If you manage to get 3 or 7 or however many of your friends you want onto your region, created on one of the 8 different map types, all with their own merits and style, then you’re in for a social treat. The problem is, every one of your friends has to play on the same server, and with server capacities fluctuating, we found ourselves having to re-roll on multiple servers just so we could guarantee playing together. Once we did though, we enjoyed the ability to trade resources, gift, and share add on rewards with each-other. You can link your cities via boat, air, rail, or road, allowing a huge level of interaction.

The governmental unlocks are shared throughout your region, so if I buy the department of utilities, whatever I unlock from that will be granted to neighboring cities with a network joined to mine. With that, I can also designate trash collectors, firemen, ambulances and policemen to their cities if they need help. If I gift money, I’ll even see an armored car come and bring it to either them or myself.

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Entering the regional view, you can click on another players city and load it. Whilst you can’t tinker around and delete all of their precious sky-scrapers, you can view its day to day life and take a look at how they structured it. If you want to be really strategic, you can even designate one plot of land as industrial, setting trade to the region in order to keep your towns clean or touristy.

The more cities you have in your region the better, because tourists, workers, shoppers and even arsonists can venture from city to city, making an entire economy out of the region you work in. If you don’t have enough unskilled workers to work your industrial zones any more, you can ship some in automatically from a friend if he doesn’t have enough jobs – provided he has a railway station or bus route. You can’t really rely on this mechanic though, since it appears pretty random.

We experienced problems with delay, such as the granted government upgrades taking up to a day to affect other regions, but I’m not sure if that’s down to the servers, of if there’s meant to be a delay.

A living, breathing city of life

SimCity is astonishingly technical. Everything works as-is, as it is seen. For instance, police can only fight crimes if they can catch the criminals – that’s a given – but to do that the roads have to be clear. Traffic is constant, and not merely decorative. Congestion can potentially cripple your city. If you have a coal power-plant, you either need to mine for coal or import it in. If you mine for it, trucks will need to deliver it to the power-plant; if you trade for it, you’ll need to get it delivered to a trade depot (on road, air, or by rail) and then driven to your power plant. If your roads are congested, shipments will be delayed and your city will potentially lose power. Planning your streets, roads, and the position of infrastructure is vital – it is as cut-throat as it is charming!

As well as the prosaic city in motion, there are dynamic events such as Sim’s asking you to achieve certain things. You might call them quests, I call them an annoying distraction. If you’re asked, for example, to put on a fire-works display, you’ll have to endure about an hours worth of fires. Pass it, though, and you’ll get 50 grand in your pocket. Everything is wonderfully animated in  exquisite detail, and although the people themselves look dated and lacking any detail, there are animations from: people in parks, guys in skate-parks, people in the ampitheatre – to robberies, police chases, zombie attacks, “Godzilla” invasions, and other disasters.

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SimCity’s general aesthetic might not appeal to everyone – and I must admit I’m not a huge fan of the tiny-toy-town style, with its tilt shift focusing, but once you build up the city you’ll learn to appreciate just how clean and vibrant it looks. To me, it’s a little too sickeningly Disney, but the wonderful city building soundtrack adds a touch of calm and whimsy to an otherwise laboriously crippling task. SimCity will literally eat your entire day away in what feels like a matter of seconds, and whilst it seems like it’d be safe to walk away and let the the money roll in, there’s ample opportunity for tragedy and congestion to ruin everything. One zombie invasion can cripple your entire population over night, and you’ll need to figure out how to clean up the mess.

Worth the always on DRM?

SimCity is not only a fantastic city builder, it’s a fantastic game. Whilst we worried EA had forced a casualization down our throats (the re-branding really didn’t help) Maxis have retained their charm and aptitude for mechanical depth. SimCity is playable by everyone, but there’s clearly a formula to stick to if you want to do well. I’m not a huge fan of the formulaic, tile-based qualities the game forces you to employ. It offers you curved roads, and the ability to bend streets as you want – but it also contradicts itself by telling you to follow their dynamic grid – which changes as you lay road down – to maximize density. Because of this, if you go artistically crazy you’re doing it to the detriment of your city, and your region – which affects other players. This means that every successful city basically looks the same, and every city you start you’ll start in the same way.

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Because of that, it feels a little like a new breed of free-to-play, where EA are going to get you hooked, and then, when it comes to the “well, what now?” point, they’ll hit you with DLC. Of course, “day 1 DLC” already exists in the form of regional packs priced 7.99 each, and I can see that once you’ve experience everything SimCity has to offer, you’ll be keen to throw some extras your way in the style of The Sims. 

I’ve been playing non-stop since launch – servers permitting – but I can’t help but feel that I’m rapidly approaching the end of my intrigue. I’ve basically figured out how to make the best possible successful city, and now I’m working with friends to create the featured buildings on the regional map. There’s no real room for any creativity because of the tiny space within which to build, and that’s a real shame.

That said, SimCity is a life-sucker in the style of Anno games, and whilst I hate server down-time, I do enjoy playing on a region that isn’t hosted on my PC, and letting my friends get on with whatever they want to do when I’m out – meeting up in the evening to see how everyone is getting on. I’m not a social gamer at all, but SimCity has given myself and my friends something to work towards, rather than simply browsing Reddit, even if it does feel a little bit like a browser game too big for its own boots, at the moment.