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SimCity review: engineering addiction

Later, when the zombies came, I wished they'd done more damage

If addiction is a freight train, then SimCity is the roaring locomotive pulling you into the night.

You may play a hundred hours of this game without noticing, but behind the curtain, SimCity is working furiously to hook you — and keep you hooked. And in my case, it was enormously successful at both.

It started with the best of intentions. I'm old enough to have played and remember all of the various iterations of this franchise. I've built (and destroyed) countless sim cities. I've perfectly zoned my little towns, entered cheat codes, then left them to bake over night and returned, triumphant, to a pile of "simoleons," ready to reap the whirlwind.

I've been there, is my point.

So when I received the latest, I thought that I could ride that lightning and "quit any time." I was wrong.

From the pleasing sounds of every various button press, to the satisfying way various parts of your city connect, then come to life (then die and come back from the dead), every element of this game has been perfectly and patiently engineered to engender an endorphin rush of accomplishment. Even the soundtrack, which can soothe or encourage, feels painstakingly crafted to tune your emotions with what's happening on screen.

Once I saw under the hood of all that SimCity allows you to do, it was hard to restrain the urge to become a mad dictator

SimCity is more-or-less the same game it has always been. And it is, at the same time, radically new. In a nutshell, it is the heart and mind of the SimCity games of days gone by, but more beautiful, ready to seduce away your hours until you are a rotted husk of the person you used to be. If it charged by the hour, you'd sell a kidney. I wish I was joking.

What Maxis and EA have learned over the course of a long decade of experimentation with The Sims and social gaming is exactly how (and why) to push a gamer's buttons and make them click ... and click and click and click. It's "one more turn" taken to the most obsessive extreme. And it is ungodly fun.

SimCity is an exercise in providing unlimited options through limiting choice. And if that sounds like an oxymoron, then welcome to the science of engineering addiction. At the outset, you are given a tantalizingly slim number of options. You may choose what sort of generic region you would like to play in, and then, where on that pleasingly blank map space to "plop" your city. Next up, you must build a road, which will become the backbone of that city. Zone part of that road as either residential, commercial or industrial and the little sims in the machine will do the rest, building buildings with gusto — and then demanding things. This is where the mania starts.


Your sim citizens want power, water, sewage and basic social services like fire and police. Health care. How religiously you provide these things is up to you, but the more deftly you are able to satisfy the needs of your sims, the more successful your city will become and the more fun you will have.

Sims pay you in tax money (simoleons) for the space they occupy in your city, and you then use those simoleons to pay for roads and services, or more fun things like a rocket-ship themed casino, or a streetcar line that does circles around your mayoral mansion. Once I saw under the hood of all that SimCity allows you to do, it was hard to restrain the urge to become a mad dictator, flogging my sims to produce more simoleons so that I could construct edifices to my own brilliance.


In comparing my experiences in SimCity to those of my colleagues, I noticed a strange thing: The cities we'd constructed (and ruined) sounded remarkably like cities in our real world. One of my first constructions was the town of West Pittssex, which had come blessed with a preponderance of underground oil. I drilled and used the proceeds to provide my sims with every conceivable luxury, thinking, foolishly, that the boom times would never end. They did of course, and what happened to West Pittssex afterward was horrifying (and fascinating) to observe.

Rampant industrialization led to unchecked disease. Sims died in droves, then the buildings they'd inhabited became abandoned. Raising taxes caused a collapse of the housing market and created a horde of wandering homeless sims. Parks became unusable. Abandoned dwellings caught fire. Entire neighborhoods crumbled. My dwindling police and fire services couldn't keep up. My initial stimulus efforts failed. What had started as a monument to capitalism became a textbook example of urban apocalypse; a ruined shell of burned-out high-rises surrounding a hastily-constructed and un-used Expo Center, built with bond money that might never be repaid.

SimCity itself is deceptively easy to use. The user interface is intuitive enough to make finding what you need amidst a potentially complex array of options easy even at the most frenetic of times. I only very rarely felt lost for what button to press or which menu to find what service under. And while you can access fairly detailed tabulations of how much various things are costing versus how much benefit they are providing, if you don't ever want to see those things, you'll never need to. SimCity (at times annoyingly) holds your hand quite efficiently and provides alerts and advice whenever dire trouble looms. You can get into as much long-term trouble as you want - take out a bond to build a nuclear power plant in a town without an education system? OK, pal, it's your nightmare - but try to plop a road in a way that won't actually work, and the game will tell you why that can't happen.

I was eventually able to revive West Pittssex, but only after founding a new city nearby and sharing resources, then methodically rebuilding, this time more carefully minding the budget. My two connected cities (and those of my nearby neighbors) now form a region. Some cities focus on industrial efforts, others on tourism, still others on other things. And the combined efforts of these disparate towns form an interconnected whole that is stronger than its parts.

This is where SimCity's "always on" connected play shows its strength. Cities in the same region can share services like police and dump trucks back and forth and even gift resources and simoleons. These connections are even more powerful between cities that share major roadways. The fun of cooperation will, of course, vary depending on with whom you are attempting to cooperate, but at first blush the amount of benefit versus potential mischief you will be able to inflict on your neighbors appears to be slanted towards beneficence. And the ability to create near-perfect simulations of existing small cities and towns (right down to traffic patterns) is truly amazing. Even thinking about the possibilities for applying this type of simulation to solving real world problems makes my head hurt. It is as much an education in miniature on the vast interconnectedness of every facet of our modern lives as it is a game.

Later, when the zombies came, I wished they'd done more damage

It is just a game, however, and so allowances are made for simplification and fun. You can, for example, experience the thrill of alien invasion, zombie apocalypse or meteor strike. Late into the evening / early morning during one play session, I watched as fiery streaks of death slashed across my screen and flaming space rocks obliterated my city. Panic. After scrambling to dispatch fire crews and hustling to demolish the rubble and rebuild, I realized I'd never had so much fun. Then later, when the zombies came, I wished they'd done more damage.

As for how satisfying the experience is as a whole, take this example: I missed a meeting. And it was my meeting. During the course of one play session, I literally became so absorbed in the experience that I lost all track of time and played through an entire afternoon, oblivious to the fact that a meeting I had scheduled approached and then passed. When I returned to my work station many, many hours later, I greeted my overflowing email inbox and the raft of polite (but concerned) inquiries as to my whereabouts with a serene, self-possessed calm. As if, whatever troubles the world might throw at me would be of little concern next to the travails I had experienced in West Pittssex.

Then, after a brief, but furiously energized bout of desk work, I went back to SimCity and did it all over again.

On "Always Online"

SimCity demands a constant connection to the EA servers, through Origin, in order to play. This can be problematic at times, but in my experience with SimCity, it was also (when it worked) seamless.

We reviewed SimCity with pre-release code provided by EA, and played on one of their reserved servers. Server inavailability was a minor issue, at first, but after a handful of false starts over the course of an afternoon I experienced no problems.

More problematic (for me) was my home network set-up and a wi-fi router that has taken to dropping connections of late. If you lose an internet connection while playing SimCity will most likely stop and you will be forced back to the loading screen. Sucks to be whatever sims you may have been trying to help or rescue. If you do not have a connection when you try to start playing, the game will not start.

While I did have one brief experience of being able to continue playing the game offline in a private server environment with no other invited players, in all other cases (about 8 separate times, over the course of three days) the game simply halted and waited, politely, for connectivity to be restored.

While an impromptu (but costly) router upgrade solved my wi-fi problem, the server issues were beyond my control, and the lesson lingered. It remains to be seen if EA's servers will be up to the task of hosting however many simultaneous SimCity games will be played post-release. And those with unreliable internet connections may need to consider if the ability to play SimCity is worth an upgrade of either your service provider or equipment, which may be a cost too high to bear.

SimCity is a near-perfect fusion of the classic simulation game with modern social and online play elements. It is in every way the fully realized evolution of the franchise and a much welcome iteration, perfectly engineered to dispense the maximum amount of fun in the most efficient way possible. It is highly addicting, but there are worse things to be addicted to. Just be sure to set an alarm.

SimCity was reviewed using pre-release code provided by Electronic Arts and Maxis on development servers. You can read more about the conditions of our SimCity review on our forums, and you can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.

Update: 04/03/2013

SimCity review update 3

SimCity has largely overcome the crippling server instability that plagued the game (and players) at launch, but not without some tradeoffs.

Maxis and EA have added multiple new servers in all geographical areas (and some new areas) as well as an open "test" server where players can explore revisions still in the "flirting with" stage. Combined with what appear to be strenuous recombinations of how the servers handle overload, SimCity is approaching the playability we experienced during our initial review process.

Players with existing cities on a server can generally access that server rapidly and consistently on a first attempt, regardless of server load. Players looking to start new cities on popular servers, however, may have to wait. The status of various servers is also now available on the official SimCity server status page.

The tradeoffs for achieving this level of reliability (beyond having to be selective about where to plop a starting city) remain worrisome. On the server side, Maxis continues to tweak, which unfortunately results in occasionally sweeping outages and various servers going dark as updates are rolled out. On the gameplay side, while the achievement system appears to have been restored (aliens visited New Pittsex over the weekend, earning me an achievement and unlocking the alien invasion disaster), leaderboards remain inoperative and there's still a button on the UI that should trigger the fastest "cheetah" speed mode, but does nothing. No word has come from Maxis on when the remaining missing features will be restored.

While the server updates have improved the game and made it, at least, playable, the inability to bypass huge chunks of time in which absolutely nothing happens in your city means boredom creeps in a lot sooner and a lot more frequently than when we first reviewed SimCity, considerably lessening the fun. - Russ Pitts, Polygon Features Editor and SimCity reviewer

Update: 03/07/2013

SimCity review update 2

The question of whether or not EA would be able to support a large, enthusiastic audience for SimCity with a robust server system has been answered with a resounding "no," at least for the time being.

Since the official release of SimCity I have repeatedly tried to replicate the experiences I had reviewing the game with pre-release code on EA's development servers, and repeatedly I have not been able to — not entirely.

The server issues have been more troublesome, and have prevented me (and many players, we learned anecdotally) from connecting to the game at all. On launch day, during a period of roughly five hours, I experienced the same number of server-related game failures as in my entire 50 hours of review the game pre-release. That the experience of connecting to the game was, effectively, 10 times worse contributed to Polygon's decision to lower the score for SimCity (from 9.5 to 8).

In all other respects, however, when I have been able to access the servers to play SimCity, the experience I have had with it post-launch has been the same as it was pre-launch.

Until today.

EA's decision to remove certain features of the game in order to attempt to stabilize server performance has resulted in a dramatic change to the way SimCity is played and, in my experience, has not stabilized the server situation.

In attempting to play SimCity today, it took me over half an hour to load a game, during which time my connection to the servers dropped repeatedly, multiple attempts to load the city were aborted, and I finally had to "trick" the game into showing me (and then, finally, loading) my city by accessing the list of games present in the drop-down Origin profile menu. The main "Resume Game" button and the list of games in progress both would not show or load a city.

Even then, immediately after finally managing to load my city (New Pittssex), I received a notice that connection to the servers had dropped, suggesting my ability to actually load a game had been blind luck. Had the process taken a second or two longer, it would most likely not have loaded at all, as happened in approximately ten tries previously.

That said, the experience of connecting to a game and loading a city can not be said to be measurably worse (or better) than it has been since launch. Merely bad in a slightly different way. These same issues (and more) have been present since the game was released. What has changed is the experience of playing.

One of EA's major changes to the game has been the removal of "Cheetah" mode. SimCity allows you to alter the speed at which time passes so that you can make changes to your city and then see the results more quickly, or slow things down to address problems in "slower than normal" time. There are three speed settings, and they are "Turtle," "Llama" and "Cheetah." Corresponding roughly to slow, normal and fast.

With the removal of Cheetah mode, SimCity is now stuck with merely slow and normal, which would at first not seem to be too great an imposition, but in reality has drastically changed the manner in which the game can be played. The short version of which is: It's less fun.

EA has also (temporarily, they say) disabled SimCity's leaderboards, which allow players to see how well they are doing against other players worldwide, and the achievements system. I was able to access the achievements I had unlocked previously, but I will not accrue any new ones with this feature turned off. That's not a huge issue for me overall, but as a feature that was once present, but now is not, it's a big deal.

More problematic are the leaderboards. For a game advertised to be connected and social experience, the loss of the ability to see how you rank against other players is devastating. And, more troubling, accessing neighboring cities and finding the cities of my friends, using the Origin Friends service, has taken a dramatic stability hit. Even attempting to load a neighboring city causes my game to crash.

Given this currently horrendous state of both accessibility and playability, and acknowledging the fact that even the drastic changes EA has made to the game in its attempts to address them haven't worked, it is hard to continue to recommend SimCity. The experience currently on offer is now significantly altered from what was reviewed, and there is simply no guarantee that the existing server issues will go away, nor what further changes may be made to the game in order to address them. - Russ Pitts, Polygon Features Editor and SimCity reviewer

Update: 03/05/2013

Simcity Review Update 1

As many worried, today's launch of SimCity has brought a number of server woes and instability with it. Some players are unable to connect to EA's servers to download the game. Others are unable to sign into SimCity's always-online service to start a game. Others are suffering from disconnections while in-game, which often results in lost progress and bizarre glitches. Our own reviewer, Russ Pitts, has suffered disconnected sessions this afternoon that resulted in lost progress, corrupted avenue placement, and twin monster attacks.

After speaking with Russ and Polygon Managing Editor Justin McElroy, we are in agreement that the current state of SimCity merits an update to the game's score on Polygon, per our reviews policy. While not every player is experiencing these problems, members of our staff, other members of the press, and an anecdotally large portion of our readership are having moderate to severe difficulty playing the game. This likely-temporary scenario nonetheless affects our recommendation of SimCity, and we advise caution for the time being before diving headfirst into the game. - Arthur Gies, Polygon Reviews Editor

Initial Review: 03/04/2013

SimCity review: engineering addiction