It was just over a year ago that I was pleased to report that SimCity 5 had been announced, and would be released a full ten years after the fourth iteration in the series. However, as details of the game trickled out throughout the year, I began to lose interest and resigned myself to an eventual disappointment.
There were two major concerns:
1) The release would do nothing to rectify the previous urbanism mistakes of the series
2) The always-online requirement would be an enormous failure and idiotic burden on consumers
Well, the game launched this past week and I was right on both points. Let's start with the second, which is currently receiving the most press:
SimCity 5, which is mostly a single-player experience, requires that you always connect to the EA servers to do anything in the game. No internet, no game for you. What could go wrong?
The company claims it's because of several unique and important features in the game. It's a nice story, but we all know it's their attempt to fight piracy. Like most good media companies, EA has taken the attitude that the paying customer must suffer if it means piracy may be diminished.
In this case, buyers have found it impossible to play the game. Open the software, and try and reach the main menu? You're put into a " server queue" of 20+ minutes. And once you load up your region? Many have found themselves kicked out of the program when they try to enter their own city. Worse, once inside, after an hour of hard work, many have found their progress was not saved. Others have found the program asking them if they want to revert to an earlier save or to abandon the city and start again. Bugs are rampant as well.
Essentially, the game that was shipped, but because of the online requirement, is not playable. EA has been spending all week frantically trying to fix the problem. Their latest strategy? Disabling features, including the "cheetah" speed mode inside the game, and various social options.
CNET, a tech website, declares the launch a disaster
Polygon.com, an up-and-coming gaming website, which initially praised the game with a 9.5, has amended their review.
Gamespot.com has weighed in with a 5 out of 10.
Meanwhile, at Amazon, which has stopped selling the game, possibly because they were being overwhelmed with refund requests, the reviews are a constant flood of anger.
In an attempt to recoup money theoretically lost to piracy, EA has managed to destroy one of their strongest, longest-running and best-loved franchises (the first version came out in 1989). The PR and business disaster will probably lead to an apology in the form of "free downloadable content" and a round of bonuses to the executives.
Of course this blog isn't a gaming one, so lets take a look at the other place the game failed: in allowing one to design a livable city.
SimCity has never been entirely realistic. That's ok; it's a simulation, but it's also a game. They have to balance "fun" with "real", and obviously take into account technical limitations. That being said, SimCity 4 launched a decade ago, and was a fantastic game. In the years after launch, the game was improved massively, thanks to dedicated work by fans to add new transport options, buildings and more. The fundamentals couldn't be changed, but so much was improved that one starting SC4 for the first time should load up on the various modifications before playing if they want to receive the real city building experience.
For a fan, the wish list for SC5 was a short one
-Mixed zones (the series allows residential, commercial, industrial, and density levels within each)
-Progressive transit options (streetcars, BRT, gondolas etc)
-Improved transportation modeling
-Modern ideas - cycle tracks, congestion pricing etc
The core of the game was so solid that the wish list should have been easily obtainable, especially after a decade of progress - it doesn't take much work to improve on "fantastic".
Instead, the newest game is a massive step backwards.
Want to design an urban paradise?
Than I hope your dream is a tiny Phoenix, because that's all you're going to get.
Not only did the game not add mixed use, but now density is tied to the kind of road you build (not transit or zoning). Want a modern subway system? Nope, not available, even though every game in the series has let you build one. Streetcars? They've been added - but only running in the middle of a 6 lane "avenue". Pedestrian malls? Of course not, and don't even ask about bikes.
It might be 2013, but Sim City 5 will let you simulate 1950's America, and not much else. Curved roads were finally added to the city - perfect for those new cul-de-sacs!
By the way, you'll note I said "tiny Phoenix". Apparently the new graphics engine isn't very efficient, because the city sizes have been limited to "comically small". Further, every city is surrounded by a green belt. That may have been a progressive idea a century ago, but today we tend to frown upon giant expanses of empty space separating land uses...
Resigned yourself to designing a small town? Well forget agriculture - that's also been stripped out of the game.
Note the highway at the top of the screen - it can't be modified. The game revolved on the assumption that every city is connected to the region by interstate-highway.
Source: Giantbomb.com review (3/5)
One can hope that the brand isn't damaged enough by this debacle that we do get a SimCity 6. And maybe by then the developers will have looked around and realized that there's more to city building than wide roads and single-zone development.
One last word of advice if you do purchase the game (assuming the server issues are ever resolved, and you like rewarding failure). Don't expect to spend dozens of hours crafting the perfect city. The game has disasters, like zombies, which can't be turned off, and because the game is "always online", it's impossible to reset to a previous version.