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What a wasted opportunity
on 23 March 2013
Well I've had the game a while now and think I know it well enough to write a review.
I'll get back to the server issues later, and start off with reviewing how the game plays. It's quite fun to begin with. The cities look pretty good when the graphics are turned up to Ultra, and combine with high quality sound to provide a pretty immersive experience. It's easy to get into thanks to a nice little tutorial, and it won't be long before you had a pretty decent sized town constructed. You'll make mistakes early on and probably run out of money before you manage to provide your sims with all the services they demand to keep them happy. The learning curve is very gentle and by the time you're on to your third or fourth city you'll have a good idea how to avoid most of the avoidable pitfalls, and how to make a good profit.
A lot has been made of the limited city size, and while I did find it frustrating not having room to be creative, or fit in many of the buildings I wanted, in other ways I actually enjoyed the limitations and having to make decisions about how I wanted to specialise my city. If the game came with a variety of map sizes we could have the best of both worlds, but unfortunately that is not the case. Anyone wanting to create a sprawling metropolis like in previous versions will be disappointed. Aslo, for a game the on the whole looks pretty nice, high density cities look a little odd when stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
The small city size is somewhat made up for by the regional play. You can create complementary cities in a region to balance out what services you didn't manage to fit in your first city. You can either do this yourself by claiming the land to build a city next to yours, or have a friend or stranger do is alongside you in multi-player. Simcity has some nice idea about sharing resources, and building Great Works which benefit the surrounding cities. If I build a city based on heavy industry and oil extraction, I can provide power to a neighbouring city, in return for whatever services they can provide, be it garbage collection, education for my sims, or sending over a police car or two when my own police force can't cope.
Unfortunately, the servers often let down this collaborative aspect of the game. Sometimes, resources take hours to arrive in a neighbouring city, and occasionally don't arrive at all. Great Wonders can be completed for one city while stuck in an early stage of construction for another. These issues do seem to be improving slowly, but are still present enough to cause irritation for much of the time, and major headaches every so often. Regions are also very limited to who you can actually share resources with. At most you'll only have three other cities around you for most of the important resource sharing, though the rest of the region can contribute a little via buildings that affect everyone.
Most frustrating, it can be almost impossible to find an actual multiplayer game that has room for you. I don't know anyone else who has the game, but am happy to play with strangers. The 'Join Game' option is akin to banging your head against a brick wall. In what must be due to server issues (again) EA has failed to provide any filters to help you find any open games. I haven't yet seen a single game slot free for me to start a multi-player game. That's right! Not once! After all the trouble EA and Maxis made to make this fantastic series of single player games into an always online multiplayer game, you'd at least expect to be able to enjoy that aspect of the game. I expect that eventually, the servers will be quiet enough for this to be implemented but for now, the only chance I have of playing with other people is trawling through the already running games to find a city that someone else has abandoned. Even if I find one, 9 times out of 10 it tells me that I can't take the city as the previous player used some DLC that I don't have to create it. So far I've only been able to find two cities that have actually let me take over. As you can imagine, playing in someone else's already created city take a huge amount of enjoyment away from the game.
As multiplayer is still pretty much unplayable for me, I've mostly been creating my own regions. It's been quite enjoyable. I've created tourist cities, industial cities, gambling dens, mining towns and various other settlements. And now I'm bored. The depth of the earlier games just isn't there. Once you've made a few early mistakes there isn't much challenge to creating a successful city, no matter what specialisation you've gone for. In an hour or two you'll have filled your given square, and in a few more hours you'll have upgraded everything to pretty much all you're ever going to need or can fit. Then it's on to the next plot of land to start again. It used to take days/weeks to build a city in Sim City 2000 and 3000 (I never played 4), and it felt like a constant challenge to get everything right. Importantly, you actually felt like you'd simulated creating a city, which is what the point of these games is about, surely?
On top of all that, the game still has a large number of other flaws and bugs that severely limit the game. I'll do a quick list of some of the ones that have affected me:
1. Traffic - A lot has been said about this in other reviews, and on forums etc. It's almost a game-breaker on its own. While it's possible to create road systems that limit traffic congestion, it's extremely annoying not to have option to build the city that I want based around a road system that would clearly work in any real life city. There has recently been a patch which has slightly improved traffic flow but it's still a major problem in the game.
2. Bad routing AI - I've seen fire engines drive round and round the same block continuously while the building next door to the fire station burns down. Huge queues of delivery vehicles stopped at an empty intersection for no reason.
3. Recycling centres - These occasionally just stop working. Pretty annoying since they're one of the most expensive buildings in the game.
4. Laying Roads - Roads sometimes just don't behave as they should. Despite having completely flat land and straight perpendicular street, I've been told I can't place a road because the angle is too steep. Occasionally I haven't been able to zone on a road that I've placed for no reason whatsoever.
5. Commuters - Like many problems with the game, this relates to traffic. I've had a town with 40,000 commuters a day even though there were only 300 unfilled jobs. This figure just kept on rising, even though I wasn't creating any new jobs.
6. Visitors - Like commuters, this is related to traffic. Even cities that have no tourist attractions, and limited shopping will eventually attract a stupid number of visitors. Like the number of commuters, this figure often simply rises for no reason. In frustration I once bulldozed a town to nothing. Not a single building left. The number of visitors wasn't affected. The queue on the highway to visit my square expanse of grass went all the way back to the neighbouring city. I fast-forwarded time to see if the sims would eventually stop coming but got bored long before they did.
7. Lack of Cheetah Speed - We still can't play the game at the fastest speed. Can make for some dull waits while you're trying to build up money to afford that police station.
8. RCI is broken - The RCI indicator which has been a useful tool throughout all the previous incarnations just doesn't work. It seems to bear no relation to what the city you're currently building actually requires.
9. Numbers don't add up - In any given city your population is broken down to workers, shoppers, students. This never adds up to anything like the population of the city. In fact it only adds up to maybe 10-20% of your city population. What are the rest of them doing? This is all the more frustrating because of the next issue.
10. Jobs - Once your city becomes high density, a tiny tiny industrial area provides thousands of jobs for your population. Far more in fact than you're ever going to fill even if 90% of your city is residential. This leads to commuters, commuters leads to an excess of traffic, traffic jams lead to your services not being able to respond to emergencies, or your good being able to get out to market etc etc...
I could just go on and on with this list, but I'm aware that this review is getting rather long. I expect that some of these issues will be fixed with patches in the coming weeks, but at the time of writing they all add up to completely ruin what could have been a great game.
I suppose I can't finish this review without mentioning the DRM issue. Personally I don't like it. I paid for the game and I don't like being treated like a criminal. I especially don't like it in this case because of the knock on effect the 'always online' thing has had on so many aspects of the game. If you're going to put in some stupid DRM then at least make it so it doesn't break the entire game. I've enjoyed the Sim City franchise so much in the past that I shelled out my money anyway, and of course anyone considering buying the game will have their own decision to make on that.
Overall, this is a game that promises much and fails to deliver on nearly every level. Depsite some early fun, it's a huge disappointment when all of the niggling issues combine to box you in at every turn. I've had a couple of weeks of playing, and now I've had enough. Maybe I'll revisit it in a few months to see how things have progressed, but for now I just can't recommend the game.