Every few months the same thing seems to happen. A big, heavily hyped release is announced, everyone gets all excited, the big day comes and BAM. The servers don’t have capacity. The connection is very tenuous. The game needs an internet connection to play. If you remember Diablo 3 last year, you’ll remember it well, but this time I’m talking about another long-running mainstay of the strategy genre. That’s right – it’s SimCity.
While I will be addressing the matter of DRM (for which I have a special vitriolic place in my tiny black heart) I feel that it’s important to talk about the actual game as well as the Herculean task of playing it.
For what it’s worth, SimCity is brilliant. It’s got a lot of creative scope, it’s addictive on a Civilisation scale and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better strategy game released in the last twelve months.
I don’t need to spell out the scenario to you. You are some sort of benevolent mayor-God, who has the power to build roads, assign housing, business and industrial zoning and keep the utilities running in your personal city. You’ll have to keep an eye on the water supply, traffic levels, sewage and power provision if you want to succeed and while this is no tall order in the early stages of the game, by the time your population hits the high five-figure mark you’ll wish there was someone who could help you out with the running of the place.
Fortunately, SimCity provides just that function. Each city is built within a larger region, which enables cooperation between neighbouring cities – Surplus power can be purchased from a neighbour and in return you can send over some of your fire engines or industrial freight. It allows a kind of symbiotic multiplayer that’s largely dependent on player interaction and it’s very nice to see a game that encourages such constructive gameplay as opposed to the typical multiplayer strategy game scenario of levelling every one of your opponent’s possessions. It can be hard to find anyone to play with unless you have friends with the game, but nonetheless it’s well worth doing just to see what it’s like.
The graphical style is incredibly impressive, looking as it does like a model city, only with the advantage of having living inhabitants. It’s really quite beautiful to see the lights go on across town as the sun sets in the distance and especially compared to earlier games it gets very high marks in that regard. It’s not too heavy on the system requirements and makes it really quite nice to watch a skyscraper slowly being built once you reach the requisite resident satisfaction level.
See, your residential, commercial and industrial zones aren’t just static. Depending on various factors like land value (determined by local services, air and ground pollution and park provision) and education level, your Sims can upgrade their dwellings as they see fit, from small trailers to attractive two-story houses to apartment buildings to looming city block-sized housing projects. It’s quite the sight to behold the first time you see true urban sprawl emerging out of your once-quaint little burgh. However, with the increased housing density comes a higher population, greater needs for electricity and water and fire risks that mean occasionally you’ll lose a few buildings to a blaze. It can get tough to manage things forever and only the skilled players will be able to expand their patches much beyond a population of 100,000 or so.
There’s also the minor issue of space. The size of the area allotted for construction is actually restrictively small when it comes down to it and you probably won’t appreciate your town planner yelling at you to allot more space for housing when the only area you have left is four square feet next to the sewage outflow pipes. it would be nice if it were possible to have much bigger building areas to let our imaginations run wild.
But all of this is overshadowed by the dark spectre of the draconian DRM. Despite assurances to the contrary by developers Maxis, it is not necessary to have an internet connection in order to play SimCity. However, I suspect the invisible hand of EA played some role in ensuring that the game could not be played unless verified through their servers. Even though this form of DRM is severely unpopular, it’s implemented anyway out of a seriously misguided belief that it helps to deter piracy. Which, by the way, it doesn’t – the game’s already been hacked. What’s more, it seems fairly obvious that if you don’t want your customers to pirate the game, you should make the game better than the pirated edition. Namely, let people have offline single player like they so obviously want.
The whole affair reeks of a critical disconnect between the corporate arm of the games industry and the desires of the players who are involved. There’s very little understanding on the publisher end of why there’s this backlash (there are numerous other reasons – compulsory installation of Origin is a good one) while those on the player end are forgetting to check the actual game quality before giving it 0/10 ratings on Metacritic.
The end result is like a big chocolate cake iced with an enormous swastika. It might still be excellent cake – they could call it Fuhrer’s Finest – but the way it’s dressed up and packaged gives it a feeling that’s generally unwholesome and in the end just ends up making people feel sick.
If you can look past the awful implementation of the unnecessary system that for some makes the game unplayable, then call this a 9/10. If you take issue with it, give SimCity a 5/10, with the caveat that I openly advocate pirating it and donating the price of the game to Child’s Play. Go on, there’s a link.