You don’t have to look far to know what the greater gaming community thinks of the latest installment in the SimCity series. The first couple weeks were plagued with issues with many people being simply unable to play while the lucky few who got in experienced multiple, game breaking bugs. Accusations flew left and right with Maxis eventually stating it was all their fault although it was hard to deny that EA had a hand in it as well. It was so bad that EA even offered all purchasers another free game in order to compensate for it (even if you bought after they announced this offer, which I did). Still with all that in mind I tried to approach SimCity with an open mind as possible, hoping to see the game outside of all the teething issues that have plagued it relentlessly.
SimCity is, just like all its predecessors, a game that revolves around building and improving your very own city. You’re given a small amount of cash and your choice of various plots of land to begin with and after that its up to you to make it on your own. There are numerous factors that influence how your city develops, from your layout to natural resources and even how well developed the greater region is. There’s no in built narrative to speak of but the story of each individual city will be different which leads to some great conversations about how you overcame the various adversities sent your way.
Graphically SimCity is very reminiscent of other Maxis games in that they’re not exactly cutting edge but that has the advantage of running on pretty much everything. The use of tilt-shift perspective for when you’re zoomed in quite far is a nice touch although it doesn’t help hide some of the extremely low poly models used. A quick bit of searching reveals this isn’t the first 3D SimCity and its predecessor, SimCity Societies, looks pretty similar. Considering that game was released over 5 years ago now I would’ve expected a much bigger jump up, especially considering neither of those titles were available on consoles (and before you ask why they’d release it on consoles they did exactly that with SimCity2000).
You begin by either joining someone else’s region or creating one of your own. Joining someone else s has the advantage of potentially giving you a lot of benefits if they’ve got some big cities set up already, like access to upgraded buildings before you’d have the capability to build them, but like most people I chose to start out on my own. After creating your region you’re then sent to select a section of it to begin building your town in, and thus your journey begins to becoming the world’s best mayor.
From a core game play perspective there’s not a whole lot that’s changed over the years. You build roads, which now come with handy guide lines so you don’t make odd sized sections, zone them up for Residential/Commercial/Industrial and then wait for people to arrive. As more people come into your town their requirements for various bits of infrastructure increase so you’ll quickly be adding things like water towers, power stations, sewage outlet pipes and so on. Unlike previous SimCity games you don’t have to lay each bit of connecting infrastructure separately as everything follows the road which makes things a heck of a lot easier. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you want to start attracting higher wealth individuals to your town and that requires some rather careful planning.
It’s all well and good to lay everything out in order to maximize the amount of space available for people to build on, and indeed that’s what will drive your population forward in the beginning, however you’ll eventually need to add additional services on which have circular areas of influence. This is somewhat at odds with the regular way of doing things, especially if you’re using the guide lines which can lead to some hard decisions. Early on its not too bad but later on when you’re dealing with giant skyscrapers the decision to knock one down in an attempt to make the rest of the region more desirable can back you into some painful corners. This is all part of the challenge however as your progression from a low density, low wealth town to a high density. high wealth one is predicated on how well you can make decisions like that.
Like I mentioned previously one city’s progress benefits the whole region and thus there’s really no shame in starting another town should you tire of your current one. Indeed I found my stride somewhere in the middle of my third city, one that was able to leverage off all the other upgrades my previous towns had. It’s also very clear that some locations are far more ideal than others as any place with hills in them is pretty much guaranteed to be unusable, so whilst choosing a lake frontage with mountaintop views sounds like a good idea initially you’ll likely hit its limit far faster than you would a boring, flat patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere.
Now I deliberately avoided playing Sim City until things had calmed down in the hopes that I could avoid some of the issues that causes such an uproar. I did have a few teething issues stemming from my Origin not being installed properly (although all other Origin games work fine, strangely) and the installer simply refusing to run but I was past that I was always able to login. Unfortunately I was unable to play with one of my friends due to him starting on region 2 and I on region 1, something which I thought wouldn’t be a problem but EA has locked those regions down to only those who’ve played on them before. Sure we could start over again but that’s not what we wanted to do, which was a little annoying.
Whilst that was irritating it was nothing compared to the dumb as a rock AI that SimCity uses. Now there’s been quite a bit of investigation into why this is but it all boils down to the pathfinding algorithm which is used for pretty much everything in the game. Sims, cars, electricity, etc. all use the absolute shortest path to get to a destination. Because of this you get a whole lot of really illogical, emergent behavior from various systems. The best (or worst, really) example I can come up with is in one of my towns there’s 2 garbage dumps, each with numerous trucks. However upon picking up rubbish they will all go back to the same garbage dump, even though it’s full and the other one is not much further away. The only way to get around this is to make them almost identical in length (I.E. right next to each other) which is a right pain in the ass. You’ll also find that this will affect things like buildings in certain areas (some commercial/industrial places will never get workers and be routinely abandoned). You can work around this with careful city planning but realistically you shouldn’t have to as the AI should be smart enough to apply costings to paths that would avoid those situations completely.
There also comes a time when your city has reached a certain point and there’s not much more you can do to it until you get more money or your population increases. When this happens you’re pretty much relegated to waiting out the clock which can get rather boring. Indeed I found that once I was getting around the 75,000 population mark there was little I could do to speed up the population growth as anything I did either did nothing or caused a dip before it recovered again. Now I just might not be getting it or reached the limitations of my current city design but since all my advisors weren’t saying anything productive and my approval rating was 85% I struggled to see what else I could do. Searching for some guides also didn’t really help out either, which just led to me giving up on the city and trying again.
I found it pretty easy to lose a lot of time on SimCity as the initial stages are always a fun little balancing act that drew me in much like Anno 2070 did. Still there was always a timer ticking in the background, counting down to the point where I’d be unable to see a way to grow my city further and would simply go again. I’m glad to say that the majority of the issues that plagued its launch are gone now but there are still some teething issues with the initial game process and the dumb as bricks AI can’t be updated quick enough. Overall it’s an average game which unfortunately falls short of many of the expectations placed on it, but none of them are beyond fixing. Well, apart from Maxis/EA’s reputation however.
Sim City is available on PC right now for $99.99. Total play time was 9 hours.
I’m not usually one to complain about the prices of games since I’m usually one of the chumps who’s buying the collector’s edition, usually at a rather hefty premium. I don’t mind paying extra though as that’s just how I roll and those extra geeky goodies are part of the experience of getting a new game. Still sometimes games forego a collector’s edition (like nearly every indie title) so I’ll usually just grab the game from Steam since I can get the download for free thanks to Internode hosting a steam content server. However there’s been a rather worrying trend for games on Steam to be priced way above what they are elsewhere, enough to stop me in my tracks when purchasing some games.
Long time readers will remember that in my Call of Duty: Black Ops review I stated openly that I simply refused to play many Call of Duty games on release day because the price was just bonkers. It’s made even worse by said games being released at sane prices only to be changed shortly afterwards leaving customers who didn’t get in early faced with coughing up the cash or going without. For me I went without for a long time only grabbing a copy once it was below my pain threshold for Steam games. Recently however a friend of mine showed me something that’s changed the way I look at games on Steam, but it still leaves the question of price discrepancy unanswered.
The service I’m referring to is a website called G2Play an online store that mostly sells CD/Steam keys and digital only downloads. I had known about sites like this in the past (Play Asia being another friend favourite) but my trust in them was low since I’d never used them before. However the prices there are simply astonishing with most games being available at very heavy discounts. Figuring that all I had to lose was $37 and possibly a couple hours of my time I ordered a copy of Warhammer 40000: Space Marine. Alarm bells went off when they asked for a copy of my photo ID but I decided that since my friend had used them successfully they couldn’t be all bad and plus it’s nigh on impossible to do much with a bad cell phone picture of my ID. Less than an hour later I had a code and, surprise surprise, it worked like a charm.
I’ve since bought a few more games, each one working flawlessly.
It seems then that the price discrepancy isn’t some hard and fast rule that Steam is keen on enforcing, otherwise they would just deny any codes purchased in this fashion. Even stranger is the fact that these prices are below what’s available in the Steam store in their respective regions, signalling that there’s another avenue to legitimately purchasing games at below the retail price. Whilst this is true for almost any product (usually direct from the supplier/manufacturer) wholly digital products really don’t have those kinds of relationships since the marginal cost is practically 0 for each new unit. Price discrepancies above a small percentage (to account for currency conversions and import taxes) for such products in the global market are then seem to be nothing more than price gouging.
In doing some research for this post I tried to find some official word on why there were such wide price gaps between countries on Steam when ostensibly we’re all being sold the same product. To cut a long story short there isn’t anything official, at least where Steam is concerned. Kotaku Australia writer Mark Serrels did some solid research into why games were so expensive in Australia but failed to come up with a single reason, citing multiple different pressures that could be responsible for the discrepancy. Some of them apply to wholly digital items but the last quip of the Internet bringing down prices doesn’t seem to have eventuated, in fact it’s been quite the opposite. Prices, especially on big titles, have remained quite steady especially for retail box releases.
It really baffles me because Steam was the pioneer of pricing games to sell like hot cakes and that helped catapult them to being the top digital distribution platform. It’s true that us Australians have put up with higher game prices for as long as games have been for sale but the traditional barriers to distributing your games really don’t exist any more, especially for digital downloads. Perhaps as more become aware of services like G2Play Steam pricing will become more sane, but I’m not holding my breath.