A tale of two cities
I played SimCity for about five hours at Maxis’ offices last week, and I started by building Port Foozle, a landlocked gambling town with a very deceptive name. Following that, I built an actual port town in the same region, hoping it would feed Foozle with tourists. I didn't play long enough to realize all of my long-term plans, but I’m about to start over in this weekend’s closed beta, and I already know that all I want to do is keep playing until the sun rises and my eyelids turn to lead.
I like a lot about SimCity, and it's going to murder tons of my time, but (aw, bummer that there has to be a "but") I have some early criticisms. It's like I'm eating my favorite ice cream, but it's dripping on my hands and making them all sticky. I hate having sticky hands, but I keep eating, because the ice cream is so damn good. Especially the first bite, so I'll start with that.
The birth of Port Foozle
A city is initially defined by its roads, starting with an avenue connecting it to the freeway, which is necessary if you want any Sims to move in. Once I'd placed that, I built cross streets, and eventually smaller grids for my budding residential, commercial, and industrial districts.
The option to design curved and circular roads actually makes a huge difference in this early stage. Curves can conform to tricky terrain, and maximizing space usage early on is important for fast growth. Port Foozle's ridiculous circle street was just an aesthetic decision, and a pretty bad one. I did an awful job preparing it for a denser and more populous future.
Still, I spent a long time on this stage, because starting a new city is such a great feeling. It's a land canvas ready to be painted with a free-form, living machine. It's all possibilities and no restrictions—at least, it feels that way at first—and it did what SimCity is supposed to do: it made me forget about everything outside my field of view, like my limbs, which started going numb from my reprehensible posture. Hey cheek, how long have you been resting on my left hand? An hour? Oh.
Once I'd built a few roads, I zoned Foozle's residential, commercial, and industrial areas. Unlike previous SimCitys, zones border roads instead of filling areas, and density is defined by the size of the zoned road.
High density streets zoned for residential construction will result in apartment buildings, for example, and small streets will become suburbs. Eventually, the commercial properties on my main avenue will become much bigger, as long as there's room for them to grow. This gets tricky: if you pack in low-density roads early on, you may have to demolish them later to make room for bigger buildings.
I didn't plan for Port Foozle's future very well, but there’s always the next attempt, and the attempt after that. Starting a city is like rolling and re-rolling an RPG character to get just the right mix: it's almost as addictive as actually playing the game through.
Your Sims will build houses, shops, and factories on their own, but you need to provide things like police stations, hospitals, bus depots, water towers, sewage outlets, and power plants. Here's Foozle's City Hall, which I plopped in the lower-left side of my totally inefficient circle street. It's the first and most important civic structure, because upgrading it with department wings gives you access to new structures. As you can see, I did not know what I was doing when I added the wing on the left.
All of your ploppable buildings can be upgraded. I like the fidelity improvement—it doesn't make sense to drop hospitals all over my city to fix my healthcare problem when I could just make one bigger—but it turned into the most tedious part of the game for me. Some decisions are clear (extra windmill equals more power), but others are not so clear. My residents are upset about too many "germs" in the city, so, I guess I'll add more stuff to my clinic?
I just couldn't tell whether upgrading a building was better than building a new one elsewhere, or if bulldozing a house so my school could have extra classrooms was the right decision. I feel bad knocking over someone's house, but the simulation often requires it. What if they're in there? Eating TV dinners, watching reality shows (I hear The Sims 3: University Life is popular)... is that just progress? I guess I wouldn't make a great politician, and maybe I needed to spend more time digging into the stats to make informed decisions.
That minor confusion aside, these structures are the balancing act that keep you active. Growing cities constantly need more of everything, so you've got to find the funds and space to keep the power on, water running, sewage flowing (away from the water, ideally), and so on until you reach equilibrium. It's a tricky and engrossing tug of war. Too much sewage! Build an outlet. Too much pollution! Build a sewage processing plant. Not enough power! Build a coal plant. Too much pollution! Dammit.
Designing within limits
It didn't take long for Port Foozle to fill its borders. Pictured up there is as much space as any city can occupy in SimCity, and according to Creative Director Ocean Quigley, the restriction is a necessary trade-off to keep the game performing well. I think allowing those with beefier rigs to push them would be nice, but this is how it is right now, and the limit actually has some positive effects.
The early game in SimCity would be much less important if cities could expand beyond their initial tract, but because they’re limited, planning ahead is imperative. And most plans have at least a few flaws, forcing mid-game mayors to redesign districts to accommodate the increased demand for high density housing, shopping, and industry. It creates tough decisions, like whether or not to demolish your quaint, carefully plotted suburbs to make way for the future.
I still hate knocking over people's houses, but I like that there are trade-offs. I guess you just can't get anywhere without driving a bulldozer through town now and then. What I don't like is the creative restriction. Port Foozle could never be the city I wanted it to be. I wanted a dense, Las Vegas strip-style downtown which gave way to a sprawl of suburbs, but instead I had to zone high-density residential, commercial, and industrial blocks right next to each other to pack in more people, and every new casino required me to demolish more low-density roads.
Because the border never expands, population growth is entirely about density. A cute little service road leading out to my power plants would quickly impede progress, so that bit of personality has to go. Every inch of land must be developed and optimized for growth, unless your goal is a stable medium-sized city.
SimCity does have an answer to complaints about the city size limit. It's imperfect—I'd rather be able to build bigger cities—but it's a decent solution: I can approximate my urban planning ambitions with multiple cities in the same region. Because they can interact by buying and selling resources to each other, I can build symbiotic cities, each with its own job and personality. One might be dedicated to suburban sprawl, another to industry, another to tourism, and so on. I didn't have time to test this fully, but it's clearly the idea behind region play.
Above is my second city. My plan, which I didn't have time to see through, was to build a bustling commerce city with high-wealth residents who might want to drop by Port Foozle now and then to play some craps or go clubbing. As you can see, my plan was also to make lots and lots of curvy roads. I love those curvy roads.
The always-online problem
My biggest criticism is also going to be the most common: there are a lot of problems with SimCity's always-online requirement. What if I want to play on my laptop while I commute? What if your servers go down? These are valid questions, and so are the smaller ones, such as: what if I make a mistake and want to reload an earlier save?
I can’t. There’s no “undo” in SimCity. You can demolish mistakes, like the foolish placement of my City Hall wing, but you pay for it, because your city isn't just yours. It partially lives on EA’s servers, where it can interact with other player’s cities (if you choose to open your region), make purchases from the global marketplace, and stay up-to-date on the global leaderboards.
Is there anything to like about taking SimCity online? Sure. It means that, if I choose to let my friends build in my region, I'll be able to see and interact with their decisions every time I log in. It means we can work together and construct great works. It means I can amass wealth by playing the global market, and that fantasy stock market challenge sounds fun to me.
Having no offline single-player option at all, however, is bothersome. I just don't buy the idea that it would have been impossible to include a separate offline mode. No friends. No leaderboard. No global market. Just me and a few cities that can live in isolation.
Unfortunately, I don't foresee these concerns swaying Maxis or EA, and they'll continue to explain why the online requirement is technically and philosophically imperative. Oh well, I'll count it as a flaw, but I can deal with it. I have to, because I'm going to play a lot more SimCity. I haven't made it to skyscrapers and complex industries yet, so I can't comment on mid- or late-game cities, but the early game has all the same addictive properties of SimCity 2000, with even more complexity and decision making. I need to wash my hands afterward, but it's still some damn good ice cream.