SimCity is both a fun city builder and a broken product, equal parts joy and misery.

The Good

  • Complex and rewarding urban planning
  • Lots of wonderful details that make you feel connected to your city and its people
  • Cooperation deepens play on a regional level.

The Bad

  • Almost anything and everything can, and does, break in some way
  • Modest plots of land limit creativity
  • Uncooperative players can mess up your plans.

SimCity is a good game hobbled by its insistence on putting as many obstacles as it can between it and you. You can point to the ridiculous online connection problems that have bogged down the game’s launch as the most obvious examples of this, but they aren’t the only ones. From its online infrastructure to the simulation that powers each city, SimCity has numerous flaws that can turn a few hours of delight into a few hours of seething frustration. Many, or even most, of these flaws can be fixed, but it’s the here and now that’s important–and in the here and now, SimCity is a fun, engaging, and broken game.

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

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Just how broken the always-online SimCity is depends on when you’re playing, what server you choose, and the sheer luck of the draw. Did it need to be this way? Probably not: the game offers the option to have a fully single-player experience in a closed region of your own creation. Alas, you must sign into SimCity (the service)–as well as Electronic Arts’ Origin service–in order to play SimCity (the game). Since the game’s release, connecting has been a crapshoot. You may not be able to log in at all, or the server might be full. In that case, you don’t enter a standard queue as you might in a massively multiplayer online game (though to be clear, SimCity is not an MMOG). Instead, you initiate a 20-minute countdown. Should the server be full when the countdown is finished, the countdown and the wait begin again.

So what is the benefit to the always-online aspect of SimCity? It’s in the regional structure: you share an entire region with other players or, if you prefer, with other cities you yourself manage. This means up to 16 people are performing their mayoral duties in one geographical expanse, though you work with only a single city at a time. SimCity is a shared experience, though not just from a social perspective, but also from a mechanical perspective. No city is meant to be all things at once, as the relatively minor plot of land you get to work with indicates from the get-go. You can focus on tourism by placing–er, plopping, as the game calls it–landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and reaping the financial benefits. But in doing so, you may not have room to plop structures that allow you to mine ore, or export resources. You must choose: your city is not going to be a sprawling, self-contained urban center no matter how clever you think you can be.

Getting carried away with curvy roads in the beginning can inhibit growth later on.

Getting carried away with curvy roads in the beginning can inhibit growth later on.

Is the limited space disappointing? Absolutely. And yet the idea of specialization has potential, and you see it spring to life when you play with friends, or at least, friendly strangers. You can set up mutually beneficial arrangements. “I’ll let you dump all your trash in my city, as long as you keep a steady supply of ambulances coming, and I’m gonna ship my sewage to this other town” or “I’ll focus on commercial trade, so your wealthy residents can come to my city and spend money, and you can enjoy their tax revenue and set up an ore trade supply line.” You can set this all up by yourself in a private region if you like, but managing multiple cities becomes a drag, and it dilutes that sense of connection you get when you devote your heart and soul to the metropolis of your dreams.

It all begins with that first road you lay. On a fundamental level, SimCity has that remarkable magic that compels you to stay at your keyboard even if real life beckons you. This is the nature of the series. The pavement snakes into the wilderness and you drag zones into being where residential, commercial, and industrial structures spring to life. You are no longer restricted to grids and lines: SimCity lets you create circular drives and serpentine avenues, which aren’t always the most efficient use of space but at least have aesthetic value. Soon, you must focus on other concerns: providing electricity and water to your needy citizens, disposing of garbage, and getting a police force onto the streets.

Wish this were a lovely image of a growing city? So do a lot of paying customers.

Wish this were a lovely image of a growing city? So do a lot of paying customers.

The complexities then mount. As your industry grows, it needs educated sims, which means providing the population with schools and libraries. As your businesses grow, they need wealthier shoppers, which means upgrading your neighborhoods with public services and tree-lined parks. The push and pull then continues, with you balancing your populace’s needs while keeping your income in the black, planning your future while dealing with the present. Most core structures can be evolved in a number of ways (adding wings to a hospital, for instance, or purifiers to your water pumps), and the most impactful upgrades require other structures to be built or other tasks to be performed. For instance, if you want to build a better array for your solar power plant, you need to research it at a university first. For a sizable sum, of course.

And so you perform the engaging and entertaining SimCity dance, juggling needs and wants, and experimenting in between to see just what, exactly, a coal mine or a municipal airport has to offer you and your people. The interface does an excellent job of giving you information and advice. If your citizens are getting sick or complainign about sewage overflow, the icons along the bottom of the screen make sure you know about it. There is plenty of information to sift through, so you can see where your population is most dense, how long the average wait for the bus is, and so on. If you enjoy losing yourself in statistics, SimCity has lots of them to consider. Unfortunately, the good old ticker tape from SimCities past is gone, as is some of the hysterical writing that came along with it.

SimCity is both a fun city builder and a broken product, equal parts joy and misery.

By Kevin VanOrd