Reticulating splines… Connection Lost.
Well hello there, Maxis! Glad to see that you finally released a new version of SimCity. I’ve sunk countless hours into the series over the years, building things up and breaking them down, and doing it again and again and again. Wait, what’s that? You want me to be online all the time to play? You want me to rely on other players? Um, I don’t like the sound of that. Oh, you mean I can actually play on my own in my own region? Well that’s okay then. Your servers are going to be able to deal with this, right? Right?
Blame Maxis, blame EA, blame both of them if you want to aim your righteous fury correctly. The new SimCity has been described by some as a gold bar covered in shit. I’d totally agree with that assessment. There’s a fun game in here with some interesting new changes, but I can’t get at it because of the ridiculous wrapper that Maxis and EA have insisted on putting around it. It’s this wrapper of shit which makes me want to hurl the thing out the window. If I paid full price, I’d be pretty pissed. I only paid for it at all because I actually do enjoy the game… when I get to play it. And even then, progress is impossible.
The new SimCity fixes a few longstanding issues I’ve had with the older games. For those unfamiliar with the series, you build a city. The end. There’s no real win state, you just keep building as big as you can go. This latest iteration makes a few dramatic changes which for the most part work for the better. Some are a bit questionable, but it does help make things a bit easier to understand.
In the old days, buildings would just have an arbitrary sphere of influence along with some usage statistics which didn’t really mean anything. You’d put down a bus stop for example and it’d have some sort of area of effect, and then nobody would use it. Why? Who knows? The game sure wouldn’t tell you. Same with hospitals and police stations – it’s just a big ring that might or might not affect things within its sphere of influence. Those days are gone.
SimCity introduces a new agent system where everything is represented by packets or vehicles or some other element. Clinics for example have ambulances which actually have to go out to incidents to pick up their patient. The little ambulance drives out to the patient, picks them up, and takes them to the clinic. If your transport network is terrible, or you don’t have enough ambulances, you need to fix it or get more. Garbage trucks pick up garbage, fire trucks have to get out to fires, and police have to respond to crimes. It’s much more dynamic and when things stop working, it’s generally clear why it’s not working. This makes mass transit a lot easier to manage, because the bus is a physical object driving around the map stopping at designated areas (placed by you), and if it’s not working as you’d hoped you can normally follow it to figure out why.
Power, water, and sewerage are treated in a similar way. They travel as “packets” along roads – there are no power lines or pipes to lay anymore, which is fine with me since pipes generally followed roads anyway, and power lines have been dropping in popularity for a while now. It’s a bit of an odd choice, I mean the arbitrary numbers worked well enough in that case, but it may help provide visual information about where you’ve got supply issues as a representation of a failing network.
Civic buildings can also be improved upon to expand their capacity. School overcrowded? No problem, just build more classrooms on it! Fire station under too much stress? Get them another fire truck! Wind farm not cutting it? Buy another turbine, or a bigger turbine! It helps you to save on space and expand to meet demand, as opposed to having to clear out more land to build another structure because coverage (for some reason) isn’t working in that area or whatever. Along with this upgrade system a number of buildings have been overhauled to make life a lot easier. Buses for example have a central depot, but bus stops are now placed along the sides of roads. No more having to buy a bus station and removing homes or whatever to place it down!
There are a number of other interface tweaks which make getting information (and interpreting it) a lot easier, along with easier ways to lay out road networks and for zoning (zones are now placed up against roads, you don’t zone squares anymore). The old grid system is largely gone, leading to much more organic and interesting city layouts.
Cities are still organised into regions, but you can’t define the geography or terrain of regions anymore. You pick a prefab one and that’s all you get. You can play in a private region with just your friends or only yourself, but Maxis are keen on people playing in public regions where cities depend on each other. Personally I couldn’t care less about that crap. There’s also a sandbox mode where achievements and random disasters are disabled, and you have a bit more freedom to make your city (most buildings are available from the get-go, and some cheats are enabled too).
Graphically SimCity looks pretty good, with lots of vehicles and buildings and little details to make the city seem alive. Interestingly, Maxis abandoned the “Simlish” signs, opting for plain English instead. The people still speak in their absurd jibber jabber. I’m not a fan of the tilt-shift effect to make it look like a model city, so I turned it down as low as it can go. Also for some dumb reason the default video settings cap the framerate at 30 FPS. Really, guys? Who thought that was a good idea?
I don’t have too many criticisms of the game itself, except for the fact that the cities have gotten dramatically smaller in size, to the point where they’re more like absurdly dense towns or shires than actual cities. But that’s about my only criticism for gameplay.
My biggest issue is the absurd mess that Maxis and EA made with the online component. There’s no offline saving here, you must be online to play and to save. The servers promptly fell over on release, and they’re still not working properly. Getting onto a stable server is a nightmare, and since so much of it happens server-side, you’ll need a constant connection even to play on your own.
This creates one massive issue which has stopped me from playing – saving is largely broken. If you lose your connection, or the server just stops responding, or you roll less than a 5 and fail your armour save check, it doesn’t save, it doesn’t sync, and your progress is lost. I played for about 4 hours today and nothing was saved. Not a goddamn thing. This was after over an hour of trying to get in, with persistent periods of “Connection lost! No, wait, I think we’ve got it! Yeah… nah, it’s lost. Sorry.” It leads to odd behaviour where your city name won’t stay in place, your “claimed” section of a region won’t save, and all sorts of frustrating problems coming out of the woodwork. It’s bullshit. I don’t know why it’d be such a crime to have an offline cache to hold data for upload if the connection is lost. I don’t know why I shouldn’t be able to play offline on my own. Fine, put in your DRM and make me authenticate. But what the hell are you doing that I need to be online all the time just to play single player? Why, Maxis? Why?!
So even in the instances where I’ve managed to get onto a server (there’s only one in Oceania, and it’s almost always not working properly), and then managed to get to the main menu, and then managed to actually get into running a city, absolutely nothing gets saved. Why am I playing? I’m not playing. I give up. I like the game. I want to play the game. But you guys won’t let me, or when you do, you just don’t save my progress.
Yes, server issues will resolve over the next few days. But what the fuck was the point of having a beta, or the “stress tests”? What were you doing? Were they really confident that they were going to be able to meet demand, or were they just taking a wild guess? Guys, seriously. If you’re going to remove the possibility of any sort of client-side saving, at least make sure the servers work properly! It’s inexcusable. A blind man could have seen this train wreck coming.
Yes in the long term, no in the short term. I want to make it abundantly clear that I had fun while I was allowed to play. I enjoyed my time in the beta, and I enjoyed the few hours I got to play today. The underlying changes make cities feel more alive and add to the gameplay value. I can sit there enthralled like I was back when I first got SimCity 2000. Many of the changes are for the better. Maxis went back and really thought about how to do a city builder and got quite a lot of things right.
But most of the time I can’t even get to the game’s menu, let alone actually get to play the game itself. Even then, nothing is being saved, because this bullshit server system they’ve got set up has some sort of pathologic fear of client-side caching or saving or anything really. I can understand that they want their DRM and all this new connected gamer bullshit, but come on guys. If you’re going to enforce it, make sure your servers can handle the load. Until it all settles down, I’d stay away.