Wednesday, 13 March 2013

REVIEW: SimCity (PC)

It's time to talk about SimCity. I won’t bore you with the details of the launch day catastrophe. You know it sucked, I know it sucked, even EA knows it sucked. It’s very slowly getting better at an unacceptably slow rate. People compare it to Diablo III’s launch, but that’s not fair to Blizzard. I was actually able to play Diablo III on launch day, and its servers got better within a day. SimCity has been much worse.

But, let’s move on from that, because there are many, many more problems with this game once you can actually log on to the servers. Some people might say that I should wait, and review the game once EA actually get everything running smoothly. I say, no. The game is available for purchase now. People deserve to know right now if the game is worth a purchase or not. I've given EA almost a week to sort things out, and the problems that I have don’t look like they will have any solutions in the short term. The game must be reviewed in its current state, because it is being sold in its current state.

So I’d like to start off by saying what this game did right. At its core, the game is an enjoyable and incredibly addictive experience. EA have taken a lot of the elements of previous SimCities and improved upon us to give us one of the most detailed city sims yet. One of the most impressive things is that every citizen is simulated. If it says your city has 50,000 residents, there will be 50,000 little dudes running around, going to work, shopping at stores, visiting neighbors  It’s very impressive, especially when you zoom down to neighborhood level and can see a living, breathing city.

Utilities have been streamlined to travel through roads, road placement and planning is easier than ever with the new curved roads and road guide tool and city specializations give you choices as to what kind of city you want to make. The game looks absolutely beautiful. The art and animation in this game is amazing, especially when you crank up the graphics to full. It is incredibly fun for about the first half an hour while you are oogling the graphics and the detail. Then your city runs out of space.

Cities are tiny. There’s no two ways about it. 90% of my frustrations with the game stem from this. I don’t have enough room to make new buildings. I don’t have enough room to expand existing buildings. I don’t have enough room to zone more residential, more industrial, more landfill. I want to build a passenger port but there’s no room. I have to demolish existing buildings manually to see if it will fit, and sometimes it won’t, meaning I won’t have my port and I’ll have lost the building I demolished (there is no "undo" function). These problems are supposed to be solved by regional play: having your friends build commuter cities full of residents that travel to your industry cities, or specialize in utilities and send you firetrucks, power, and water. Except that it's completely broken.

Mass transit is a nightmare. For starters, transit between cities is handled completely on EA’s servers. If you lose connection with them, even for a second, guess what? You get no commuters for the entire month. That means no workers for your factory, and no tourists for your casinos. I've had more than one city get run into the ground because of this. But when you can miraculously maintain a stable connection to EA’s servers, commuting still only seems to work "sometimes."

In one region, my friend and I both built several industrial cities. He then tried to make a residential-only city, with the hopes of supplying our cities with workers. It didn't work. The residents of his new city flat out refused to commute, opting instead to sit in their homes whining about not having jobs. He eventually caved and built some industry in his city.

When they do actually commute, the traffic is so unbearable that it’s almost not worth the hassle. Despite having train stations, ports, buses, streetcars, high-density roads and a flipping airport, there is constantly a miles-long traffic jam leading in to my city. Following individual sims often tells hilarious tales of people taking several days to commute to and from work. In the city, cars will drive around in circles, busses will drive to random bus stops instead of travelling in a line, and streetcars will go back and forth between the two closest stops. Sims will also always take the shortest route – even if it means taking a dirt road over a super highway. This makes cities built on trade a nightmare – you can’t make any money if all your trucks are stuck in traffic. It of course also has a negative effect on emergency services.

Unlike real life, ambulances, fire trucks and police cars will politely wait in traffic and stop at stop lights while en-route to an emergency. If you have five fire trucks in a city, they will all go to the closest fire, and none of them will move to the next fire until the first one has been put out. Despite optimizing my grid over and over I never could have a positive effect on traffic in some of my cities. I understand that the game is meant to be about tweaking to efficiency, but as it stands, it’s just not fun.

Sharing of utilities between cities is also bafflingly broken. Cities will just ‘stop’ sending power or water for seemingly no reason. Emergency services sent to neighboring cities only earn a pittance, and just contribute to the massive region-wide traffic jams.

Region wide research, such as unlocking new buildings at a town hall or university, can take several hours to sync across a region, if at all. About the only thing that works properly with region play is gifting money – and even that can take quite a while to sync, even when it is being sent between two cities that you own!

Almost all of these problems (barring the tiny-city size) are a result of the always-on DRM of the game. Yes, I’m calling it DRM, because that’s what it is. It certainly is not a feature, as it negatively impacts my game rather than positively. SimCity is a game that should be offline, or at least have the choice of being offline. All of these fantastic online region features are great (in theory), but dammit, let me choose them. If I want to play SimCity on a long plane ride, or when my internet goes down, or just by myself because I want to meticulously craft my own region, then I should be able to. Don’t force me onto your servers. Being constantly connected offers nothing to SimCity, especially considering the huge drawbacks. It was instated as an anti-piracy method and anyone who tries to argue otherwise is just kidding themselves.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun put it perfectly: SimCity is is inherently broken, lets not let this go. The game is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with forcing always-online onto games. Don’t buy this game. If you have already bought it, make your voice heard for EA. We can’t let this go. Letting this go gives EA licence to keep pulling this shit. At the very least, if you absolutely must buy an EA title in the future - don't buy it at launch. Buy it two weeks afterwards. Those first two weeks are so crucially important to sales, that if enough people hold off, it will make their marketing team take notice.

As well as exposing pretty much every flaw with always-on DRM, this game also exposes a major flaw in the current way the majority of outlets review videogames. I’m talking about the review “score” as a concept – summing up the experience of a videogame with a single number. Videogames, unlike books or movies, are a constantly changing, subjective experience that simply cannot be quantified with a number. Case in point: Polygon’s review of SimCity.

Polygon originally gave the game a 9.5. This review was based on an incredibly closed review copy that was only able to be played at an EA site, and was in no-way reflective of the actual retail game. Most respectable news outlets opted to hold their SimCity reviews until they got a hold of the game, but Polygon, in an attempt to be “first,” published anyway. The score was then downgraded to an 8, and finally a 4, due to server issues. Where does this end? Should a score be altered every time there is a patch for the game? Should it be lowered every time the servers go down?

Metacritic has a long-standing policy to never change the initial score offered by an outlet. Why the hell should we even bother with scores, if the ambiguous entity in charge of collating them won’t even bother to keep track of them? Review scores add nothing to a game review. Their sole purpose is for publishers to show to their marketing team and say "lookit! We got a 7 from IGN!" This review, along with all reviews you will read here on Stevesgameblog will never have a number. I trust you enough to read my review, my thoughts and opinions, and decide for yourself if the game I am reviewing is for you. All I will offer is a very general buy or don’t buy rating, based on my experience with the game. This one is most definitely a “don’t buy.”

Verdict: Don’t buy

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