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Thursday, March 7, 2013

SimCity SimSucks

This is just a stream-of-consciousness, off-the-cuff review of SimCity.

Okay, I’m not going to follow the trend of making this a multi-paragraph rant against Always-Online DRM.  I will say this, however: the benefit of it is access to your data from any installed instance of the game, the downside is just about every other thing that comes along with it.  These features include, but are not limited to: Inability to access your game-saves due to server issues like traffic and downtime, data loss due to stability issues with the game client or network and inability to even play the game at all without a connection to EA’s servers through of the very suspicious Origin client.  That is how I feel about Always-On DRM on the whole.

The DRM for SimCity led to the game being inaccessible for many players for a large part of the servers’ uptime due to load and a problem with activation of the game through Origin for players (such as myself and fellow RA-contributor Craig) at the midnight launch.  I was not able to play the game until roughly 4am EST.  What was worse for me than the obvious technical fuckup on EA’s part was their response to the issue, or rather, lack of response.  There was little to no feedback from anyone on EA’s end regarding the activation issue and we did not hear a thing from any official sources until Maxis finally posted a notice on their Twitter page on behalf of EA regarding the problem encouraging players to post on the message boards about the issue, which they did, en Masse. Thousands of posts flooded the message boards and comparisons to the flubbed Diablo 3 launch were unavoidable. The technical issues continue to today, two days after the failed launch, with a static 20 minute timer that you have to wait out if a server you play on is busy, no connection when it is available, you have to wait the full 20 minutes.  THAT is unacceptable, EA!

So with all of the problems with the game’s launch, was it worth the wait?  In a word: No.  I would actually go so far as to say this just may be the single WORST game in the series proper, excluding non-canonical titles like Societies and SimCity Social, and bad console ports like the Super Nintendo port of SimCity 2000.  SimCity 5 (as I will call it here to reduce confusion) is plagued by a combination of dumbed-down gameplay, a structure that does not encourage but requires cooperative play for full success, devastating technical issues and a restrictive building environment that limits and even sometimes flat-out prohibits creativity.

While just about every other title used a combination of building and management as the core structure of the game, SimCity seems to lean more towards building as just adding or altering services or structures is more-often-than-not the official resolution to just about any problem.  Gone are ordinances and funding options that you could use to properly budget your city, instead, everything is just sort of subsistence and reactive, based on fixed (and occasionally arbitrary) rules.  Follow these rules, do what the little pop-up bubbles say and watch your spending/earnings ratio and you will do fine, for the most part.  

SimCity 5 has a ton of highly questionable design decisions that will stand out dramatically to long-time players of the series.  First off, the game will hit you suddenly, often with no warning, with problems that usually stack.  This is not the result of “challenge” so much as arbitrary problems that are caused because everything is inextricably linked in SimCity.  So, for instance, you may get a notice that your water is polluted, even though all of your numbers may be just fine, however, since SimCity 5 THINKS there is a pollution problem you will get a ton of other problems linked to said pollution whether or not it was an issue in the first place.  The game seems programmed to slam you, as problems stack rapidly and usually the same linked issues come into place.  Resolving these issues usually comes down to the defacto-fix in SC5: build more stuff.

I had a pretty nice city going, with roughly 150k Sims occupying my trade city when all of the sudden, I was hit with water problems.  At first, there were no visible issues, just little yellow alerts and people leaving my city because of a lack of water, despite there being water.  The chain reaction began here, then all of the sudden my profits plummeted, and within literally seconds (SECONDS) water, health and budget were all red and I went from a safe 800k Simoleans to a big fat doughnut in less time than it took to create the city in the menus.  I had no way of reacting to the problem, no time to solve it, it all just went to shit in seconds because everything is linked by design.  The city died because it was programmed to.  This crap did not happen in the other SimCity titles because they were all well thought-out, high-concept games built on formulas that were tested and understood by the player base, while SC5 just seems to bombard you with intentionally-linked issues quickly to force you into their corner.  That corner is reliance on other players in the game’s much touted (and much hated) social aspects.

One online user described this as a $70 Facebook game and he was not far off at all.  I, honestly, could not put it more bluntly and more accurately.  This game is built on the flawed and poorly-conceived social games that are saturating Facebook and mobile gaming platforms, and these online multiplayer features have EA’s wretched stench all over them.  Keep in mind here, that EA has a storied history of gobbling up once-great franchises and then running them into the ground and with their obviously-forced shoehorning in of these ugly online features they seem to be well on their way to destroying SimCity as well.  However, I do want to offer some specifics here.

The multiplayer concept in SC5 is a good one.  I like having the ability to share a region with friends and have our cities interact and work with each other.  The problem is I never really feel like I’m in a subsistent world.  The maps are claustrophobic as all Hell and though I can look over and see a friend’s city on the map, I never feel like we’re playing together.  I sincerely believe that these features were added as an afterthought to justify EA’s DRM.  So now, you have a game that SHOULD work as a single-player experience but fails to because we have to share our region with other players because if you don’t, and you start having problems, there is little that can be done to fix the issue easily.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that the essentially-mandatory multiplayer features are the worst aspect of this already flawed game.  

Now, at the risk of sounding like a hater, I want to share a few positives before I close.  The game looks nice, it has a smooth Sims-ish style.  I like a vast majority of the building models and got a few snickers out of the randomly-generated business names.  I like the ability to get feedback from the buildings to see how you’re doing.  With a few exceptions, the map overlays that display data about your city are nice, though I particularly detest the clusterfuck that is the power grid design.  The city Specializations are cool, giving players options for directions they can take their city, though they are not very well-conceived and have a number of seemingly random problems, especially with tourism, which seems to randomly hemorrhage money for a matter of seconds, then it will just right itself.  There I go going negative again...

That is just it, though.  For every thing I can think of that I can say I enjoy about SC5, the problems just bleed through my opinion, making it impossible for me to get any enjoyment out of playing this game.  Add in the countless stability and network issues, lost work due to said issues and bad design decisions and I can NOT bring myself to recommend this game in its current state.  Now, it seems EA has announced that it is trying to “fix the problems with the game” but I will believe that when I see it.  SimCity 5 is a game that is severely flawed at a fundamental level that would require a massive overhaul to be even a fraction as good as its predecessors.  All in all, this just may be the most disappointing video game sequel since Final Fantasy XIII and is still getting positive reviews from official sources, where these reviews can even be found; evidence that EA is pulling some serious strings behind the scenes (as they are known to do).  Just look at Metacritic.  The difference between critic and user review averages is staggering and very telling.  Give this one a few months if you have to play it, as by then they may have worked out the bugs, but keep checking online for updates before making any final decisions if you haven’t already.