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I know this is The Sims Wiki, but I know that many people here, myself included, have been following the development of the new SimCity. This weekend, the 25th - 28th, is the SimCity Closed Beta. Several months ago I signed up to receive a game code so I could participate in the beta. Closed Betas typically limit the number of keys that are given away, so you can imagine my surprise when I got one!
In any case, I'd like to devote this blog to a brief review of the game, so far. This is for those of you who didn't get to participate in the beta, or who are wondering whether SimCity is for you.
First off, let me talk a bit about the "beta" itself. Typically a Beta Test is meant to work out the bugs in a program before general release. It seems to me that having a three-day beta period doesn't really provide enough time to find and fix these bugs, especially considering the game releases in a little over a month. Any sort of constructive feedback I or other players could give about the game is likely not to be heeded simply because there is so little time left before the game releases. The beta does try to test out the servers and connections to the network, which is an essential part of the game since it now requires an always-active connection (more on this shortly).
The beta itself is limited to an hour of gameplay, though the game can be re-played multiple times until the end of the beta period. In addition, several of the more advanced features of the game are disabled or are not fully implemented. This may be because they don't want to overwhelm beta players considering we have only an hour to play the game, or possibly because the features are not complete yet. In either case, this combination of factors seems to give the impression that this beta is more of a limited-time demo of the game, rather than a straight beta. But I suppose a debate about whether this is a demo or a beta isn't necessarily relevant.
I loaded the game code into Origin (the beta must be downloaded through Origin, and as far as I know the game itself must be run through Origin too) and went through a quick download and installation. That is, it was quick when compared to the amount of time it took the game to initialize and load. I don't experience the fastest download speeds personally, but the program itself was downloaded in a reasonable amount of time. And as soon as the game was downloaded and installed, I launched it. Upon launch, the game had to update... this is where I ran into problems, and I ended up waiting nearly an hour until the game had completely downloaded the update (this took a couple minutes) and was done "Decompressing Updated Data" (this took a long time). This is either a testament to overloaded servers (a bad omen of the future), or a statement that something with the game is wonky (possibly a bad omen). In either case, the loading and waiting time was simply too long.
Once the game was finally launched, it directed me to a non-optional tutorial (this is non-optional for beta players, it will be optional on game launch, apparently). I spent most of the next quarter hour absently clicking around and answering the various dialogue boxes, following the game's demands as it dragged me through every fundamental aspect to city planning. This would've been useful if I had never touched a SimCity game before, but for all previous SC players this is old school, with some new buttons and diagrams. After the tutorial finally wrapped up, I was free to found a city.
"Alright," I thought, as I rolled up my mayoral sleeves, "Now I can finally get to playing this game." And so I decided to learn the rest of the tools the only way I know how - experimentation. One thing that I realized before long is that some buildings - rail stations, town halls, utilities, etc - need to be "approved" before you're allowed to build them. Think of it like reward buildings from previous games, only the list of limited buildings is much more extensive. The zoning system is an entirely new thing for anyone who has any experience with zoning for previous games... Zones cling to the roads and do not entirely show where buildings develop- the development of buildings depends on the density that can develop, due to availability of high-capacity roads, utilities and jobs. Ultimately I just let the zones figure themselves out and the end result is alright-looking, excluding those inevitable gaps that develop when you place roads at non-right angles.
If this review is starting to bore you, you can appreciate my feelings while playing the demo/beta. I didn't even use up my allotted hour - I got bored. This is a bad sign.
Visually the game is beautiful, and miles away from SimCity 4 in terms of realism in buildings, graphics details, etc. But, SimCity 4 is a ten-year old game, so all this is to be expected. The audio and music, again, is an improvement, excluding the random ambient noises that seem to come from every building that ever does anything (I'm sure this can be fiddled with in the options). The point is, a pretty game can't make up for one that seems to be functionally limited. This might be a biased thought on my part, as I am so experienced with SC4 and its gameplay style. Surely if I continued to play the game and began to learn its shortcuts and menu layout, my ability to do things would improve.
So, that's a rambling, roundabout review. But if you want boiled-down observations, here they are:
- The Good
- Visually impressive. There is a good amount of graphics detail, even on lower settings. Weather (rain) is introduced as well.
- More customization. I spent very little time fiddling with every piece of each building and object in the simulation, but the ability is there to micromanage in many areas.
- Complexity reaches the best of both worlds. Following the previous point... The game maintains the simulation aspect while adding the eye candy aspect of SimCity Societies and other games. The fundamental minutiae of city management, however, remains largely the same as in previous iterations of the game.
- The Bad
- Always-on Connections. I'm sure a lot of users could write entire blogs about this one issue, but to me the matter is quite cut-and-dry. Having a game require a constant internet connection, even if you're not using the online multiplayer features, is a recipe for disaster. Servers will go down, networks will be disrupted, and eventually the servers hosting the game will go away permanently. Pursuing this approach to game design seems to be a step in the wrong direction, and possibly a fatal issue for the game in the eyes of many players. As it stands, my choice to buy or not buy this game will not be based on this issue.
- Terrible load times. Hopefully the load agony I endured was a one-time event, but even in-game, the amount of time needed to load regions is slow, and I worry what will happen when regions are more fully developed.
- It's boring. Plain and simple, the pace of the game is slower... it takes longer to build things, longer to do things. Again, this may be partly due to my inexperience with the simulation, but the menus and layouts themselves don't seem to lend themselves to quick actions, and I could find very few hotkeys - SimCity 4 had hotkeys for nearly every action, and that allowed very fast gameplay once you knew the keys.
Ultimately, I'm withholding my recommendation on whether or not to get this game until later... I'm going to play through the beta tomorrow and see if the game will grow on me. In the meantime, tell me your thoughts!
So I've played it again, and I have to say, I'm a lot more impressed than I was yesterday when I initially wrote the blog. Once you get over the learning curve (as in, learning how the tools work and where the menus are), the game is actually quite enjoyable. I haven't ventured into building real metropolises yet, as I only have an hour per turn, but what I see so far makes me more inclined to purchase the game, despite the always-on DRM. I'll be taking some screenshots and putting them up here so you can see my creations first-hand.
Click the pictures to see them in detail
On another note, the loading time hell I described above really was a one-time thing. Starting the game up this morning took very little time.
I've been playing the game all day, and I've got to say, I'm probably going to get this game. If you're a fan of the older games in the series, this one will feel cozy and familiar to you. It maintains the fundamentals of gameplay which the series is built on, while adding so much more. Just some more pros and cons:
- Good engine - I've had no CTDs and even on maximum settings, the game runs great. For a beta this surprises me, but I guess (for once) EA is putting the time and energy into making it work right. I'm sure there will still be bugs because that's how video games are, but this game pleasantly exceeds my expectations in this regard.
- Beautiful - I mentioned this before, but the graphics really are a mile away from anything in the series before. Certainly after ten years, that's to be expected. But the game really is visually stunning, from the world view right down to the individual data layers, which manage to show lots of detail in an easy-to-read way. Additionally, players can adjust different lighting filters to apply, to give their game a different look and feel.
- Not dumbed-down - I was so worried that EA would try to make this game so basic that real SimCity players would be disgusted by its simplicity. Fortunately they have followed the spirit of previous games by favoring accurate simulation over mindless simplification. Some areas are simplified, though this is to the game's benefit. For example, players no longer need to place pipes or power lines when building.
- The road tool - I must admit, the developers bragging about the ability to build curved roads was getting a bit old, but having the ability to do this really does open up a whole world of creative potential that previous games simply lacked.
- Always-on connection - See my rant about this above
- The road tool/roads in general - There's a downside to freedom with this tool, unfortunately. This is a minor issue at best, but sometimes the roads are difficult to intersect with each other. Additionally, the intersections and transitions between road types don't appear graphically correct in many places, especially when roads are coming to a junction at non-standard angles. Finally, the lack of a real highway/freeway feature is sad.
- Regions - The cities themselves are somewhat small, and are not directly connected to one another (as in SimCity 4). Instead, highways and rail lines are automatically placed between cities, linking them together and to regional "Great Works." Unfortunately, this eliminates the need for/ability to place highway networks, rail networks, and other transportation networks, and also essentially eliminates the ability to build large and realistic multi-city metropolises. The beta/demo doesn't offer much in the way of region play, so I wasn't able to experience that particular aspect of the game, so I reserve judgment on it.
Ultimately, most of the cons I've listed are things I can live with, especially compared to the additions made to the game. With all this in mind, I feel relatively sound in saying that I recommend this game... though I might still play SimCity 4 if I'm looking to build massive metropolises.
- For your viewing pleasure, here are yet more photos - forgive my poor-looking village; it's hard to build a big successful city in one hour.