The launch of SimCity made headlines for all the wrong reasons and sadly has taken some of the shine off this exciting new addition to the SimCity franchise. The game should have been able to be downloaded prior to release time, which would have alleviated some of the congestion from the Origin servers, but that was not the case. Given that this version of SimCity has the highly controversial always-on DRM protection baked into it, the suitable infrastructure should have been built in anticipation for the deluge of traffic to cope with the load. Sadly the planning teams didn’t get their numbers right and grossly underestimated the server capacity required to support SimCity, leaving many unable to play the game for days following the launch.
To EA’s credit they reacted as quickly as they could to the situation, ramped up more servers, and patched the game daily with tweaks to bring gameplay back online. Following on from this they went even further to offer one free download from a list of a couple of quality titles to compensate for the trouble experienced during the launch period. Looking past all of the chaos we now have a SimCity that can be installed and played, albeit it in an online only environment.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
With much enthusiasm I connected to one of the European servers and started the process of choosing between creating a new region or claiming a city location in an existing region. I opted to create a small region and to start building my own city. Before you delve into the challenges of building and running a city you get to play a tutorial that lasts about 30 minutes, depending on how closely you follow it. This tutorial gives you a good insight into the basic controls, what to look out for in the on-screen indications, and how to delve deeper to find out what is really going on in your city. I certainly found the tutorial useful to get me acquainted quickly with the tools that would propel me to fame and fortune.
Your first city is going to be a mess. Just accept that and you will save yourself a lot of heartache. The thing about this SimCity is that you have a very confined space to deliver a functioning city in. It’s no longer a sprawling expanse of land that you can terraform to your heart’s content. You need to use the land wisely to manage the delicate balance between residential, commercial and industrial zoned areas. Keeping this ratio right will mean bulldozing areas and moving things around as your come to grips with what works for your city.
The one thing you can plan for is road infrastructure. The roads carry the traffic, but most importantly impact how the adjoining land can get used. If your road is low density you are not going to get any skyscrapers going up along it. Having to bulldoze to find space to put in higher density roads after you have well established zones with expensive investments like fire stations, schools and police stations is heart breaking. Take some time to plan the layout of your city and put in some major roads as early as possible. This investment in infrastructure will pay off in the long run when you are pressed for space and need high density areas. Of course if you have no qualms in bulldozing your neighbourhoods then go cheap with the low density roads and smash and rebuild later on.
I got caught out by not paying attention to how I placed buildings. Many buildings allow you to upgrade them with add-on modules, so when you place them leave space around them for expansion so you don’t have to bulldoze established neighbours later on. The modules give you a cheaper way of increasing the capacity of a building, like a clinic or school, by adding another room without having to build an entire new facility.
Sometimes you’ll know exactly what you want to do next, but just don’t have enough resources to execute your plan. Using the speed controller you can crank up the simulation pace from Turtle onto Lama or the fastest Cheetah speed. The time with tick past faster and once your resources are at the right levels slow it back down and carry on with your goals for world domination.
A blessing and a nuisance is the beacon of your city the City Hall. On a good day the citizens will cheer for you and celebrate with positive chants and fireworks. You’ll get upgrades that will allow you to expand capability for the important services like education, finance, policing and more. On a typical day you’ll just gets lots of grumpy people complaining about everything you are not doing right. I’m a good Mayor (or at least I like to think so) so I listen to the grievances of my citizens and try give them a better quality life. What’s that you say? There is too much garbage lying around the city and it’s making you sick? No problem my beloved citizens, your Mayor will take care of it. More garbage trucks are added, a facility is created on the outskirts of town to incinerate garbage, and presto the garbage problem is solved. Hold on, hold on, why are the picketing outside City Hall again? You have got to be kidding me, the garbage incinerator has raised pollutions levels in the air. What now, scratches head, ah yes let’s appease them with token parks scattered around the areas closest to the incinerator. That did the trick, they will love me now!
Use the detailed maps in SimCity to see the land value, pollution levels, happiness ratings, and much more. You don’t have to use them but if you want to play ‘optimally’ they really help you to see past the pretty buildings and bustling streets to the underlying heart of the city. Place parks to increase both happiness and land value in areas to attract wealthier residents and combat pollution. Sink water pumps where the water table is denser and upgrade roads showing traffic congestion. There is a wealth of information to mine in easy to understand formats for those of you who like that level of detail. If not you can still get by with the key figures shown on the HUD at the bottom of the screen and by checking in at City Hall to know what complaints need to be dealt with. You can also just as easily hover over buildings to see what people are saying or search for speech bubbles from your citizens. You need information to know where to direct some of your resources, and there are many ways to get the same type of information to match your playing style.
Balancing the budget
SimCity plays well to Newton’s third law which loosely translated says: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For every problem you overcome you are potentially introducing one or many more problems, be they environmental or financial, and that’s what makes it so much fun! So think carefully before placing that new shiny Nuclear Power Station my friend, it gives you cleaner air now, abundant energy supplies, but what prey tell happens when a natural disaster strikes or you fail to educate your citizens sufficiently to maintain this high tech facility.
Running a city gets expensive, especially when you are pandering to the whim of your citizens and rampantly rolling out infrastructure. Keeping an eye on your budget and income from tax is an important part of being Mayor. It’s measured in the number of Simoleans your city earns per hour, look for this figure at the bottom of the HUD. A green number is awesome, the higher the better, a red number means your city is in financial peril and pretty soon you’ll need to borrow money in the form of bonds or turn off buildings to reduce your spend. It’s a tough job to keep all the essential services running, making your city attractive for new residents, commercial and industrial ventures, and keeping the tax rates low. You certainly can’t please everyone, so at times I needed to raise industrial or commercial taxes, whilst keeping residential tax low. This gave me funding but also many abandoned buildings, which led to rampant fires, more pollution and yet another angry mob outside City Hall. I’m going to have to put in some overtime at the office to sort this out.
Pretty as can be
A great deal has been said about the GlassBox engine in the lead up to launch. It’s impressive to say the least if you have a computer that can have all the graphical glitz turned on. Sadly my four year old PC didn’t make the cut and I’m playing in low detail mode for the most part to get an acceptable framerate. That is my issue and by no means any reflection on the engine itself and when you do have it cranked up and running on the right spec PC it does look stunning. Even running in low detail mode I’ve enjoyed zooming in and watching houses being built, factories operating, and following cars around as they go about their business.
The one feature I was thrilled to try out was the all new curved-road option, it’s awesome for aesthetics but I find myself using it less and less now. Space is at such a premium that I’ve become a fan of the structured grid layout to maximise space utilization. The GlassBox engine does a great job and for the most part gets it right. Every now and again your roads will look a little funny or the buildings will overlap in a way they shouldn’t, but nothing that takes away from the enjoyment or playability.
Neighbours are the key to success
Trade between cities makes all the difference, be it in workers or essential services like police, fire fighting units or ambulances, or resources like electricity. Going it alone and being a self-sufficient city that can cater for all nasty challenges that are thrown at you will ultimately be your doom. You are not operating in isolation and need to embrace the global economy that SimCity offers. Choose what you want your city to specialize in, for example tourism or education, and make it awesome at that. There is nothing stopping you from starting another city to try out another specialization, other than more hours and the added responsibility of keeping thousands of additional citizens happy. It is a shift in thinking from prior SimCity games and the game is designed to make you trade with the region and be part of the economy.
I really enjoyed delving back into the world of SimCity and I’m happy that this SimCity focuses more on connected cities and their interdependence. Fortunately I didn’t suffer too much from the server availability issues at launch and I’ve had such great times trying to be the mayor that I wish I ran my city back in real life. No doubt there will be more patches coming to improve stability and correct other defects that have been found, but I’m okay with that. In the connected world we live in what software product isn’t being tweaked after launch these days, be it on console or PC. SimCity offered me plenty of depth and will keep me entertained for many months to come.