Wednesday, 13 March 2013

SimCity... or should that be Sin City?


Several sections of text in the post open videos and news sites to support what i'm saying.

The short of this whole post is avoid SimCity. Seriously.

SimCity is a well regarded franchise with many PC owners having at least dabbled in the city building simulation at some point. There are a lot of people out there who fondly remember a disaster ravaging their perfectly laid out metropolis which made the anticipation for the newest instalment huge.

Anticipation which unfortunately has been met with a game that is crippled at it's earliest design choices and execution. To get the good out of the way first, SimCity is a good idea. In fact there are a few good ideas present in the latest version of SimCity. More so than previous games, the latest SimCity puts an emphasis on city specialisation and region interactivity. Two ideas which are fantastic. City specialisation lets you focus on a specific path.

Your city can focus on tourism and attract sims from across the region, driving up revenue for commercial businesses in your town and providing a pay check for the city when events are profitable (e.g a sports game at your stadium!). If you pick a plot of land with natural resources hidden underneath, your city can grow wealthy exploiting that resource. Set up a number of oil drilling or coal mining plants accompanied by a trade post and watch the money roll in. Alternatively, you can keep the raw resources and manufacturer finer goods, metals and petrol to sell at a higher price or use in your region. There is a distinct shift towards micromanagement. Before where you might plop a police station every three streets, now you might be best served upgrading the one police station you have. Most key buildings in SimCity allow you to upgrade, providing additional features or unlocking more specialisation options.

Region interactivity is another plus point. In previous SimCity games you could connect to faceless cities that bordered your town and exchange power, water or sewage for an arbitrary amount of cash. Now your cities (or those of your friends) can trade power, garbage disposal facilities, water etc. with each other too. It creates an asynchronous multiplayer which allows people to work together to provide the sims of the region with everything they need. One person could specialise in education and the sims will travel from the industrial city they live in to educate themselves. Or at least they should... in theory.

It's difficult to pin point why certain features of SimCity just don't work. On one hand it could be the overloaded servers which you are required to log into just to play, even if you want to play on your own (more on this later). Or it could be odd AI bugs that really hinder the experience.

There have been countless reports of the A.I and simulation in SimCity being somewhat broken. The Sims will take the shortest route to their destination, even if it isn't the quickest. They won't cross the road to use a bus stop, opting to drive instead. This could lead to everyone piling into small side avenues where main thoroughfares and avenues remain wide open. Your mass transit systems could just choose to ignore a turning or split in their route and ignore entire sections of the city that are “covered”, in theory, by bus routes. I had a group of low wealth sims complaining that they had no where to shop or work. But at the same time I had a group of low wealth shops complaining that they had no shoppers or workers. How???

The sims and advisors in the game will constantly seek expansion, which is understandable in the first few hours of city building but infuriating when you have completely filled the incredibly small map size provided. When you have no room to build anything (in the entire region), having the game harp on at you about “more workers” is really, really annoying.

The region interactivity just doesn't seem to work like it's supposed to either. There is a delay between interactions. For example I could volunteer up some of my police service to the next town but that won't kick in straight away, leaving my sims in the undefended town unhappy and unprotected until the game decided to catch up. I had built a huge university with lots of room and services to cover the entire region yet the sims on my adjacent towns complained of no education and flat out refused to go to the four schools, two high schools, college and university I had built just one town over. Now this could be because of the server issues EA and Maxis have been having with the launch of the game.

And thus we come to quite possibly the most prominent issue in the game. Online connectivity. You must log into their servers to be able to play the game at all. The launch of an online only game is always troublesome. SimCity had major issues, especially for North American users who had hours upon hours of down time. I, personally, have had a hand full of problems but nothing to the extent of what other players have been suffering. I've failed to connect on two occasions and I've had delayed response from the server when playing at times (region interactions, claiming city locations). In an effort to reduce the server load, Maxis temporarily removed features from the game. One of the key features being the ability to speed up time to Cheetah speed. The removal of this feature means … a lot of waiting around until you can get the money you need.

However, interestingly, a recent report on Rock, Paper, Shotgun shed light on the idea that this online DRM isn't required for the game. EA and Maxis have gone on the record stating that the online connection is a requirement for the game to run because some of the calculations are done server side. The RPS report states (from a source within Maxis) that this is not true. In fact players have reported being able to play for extended periods of time while connection to the server has been lost without being removed from the game. How is this possible if the online connection to the server is that critical? Could the online DRM just be a requirement to curb piracy and provide the platform to drip feed their players new content as microtransations (there are already items on the in game store ready to buy!)? This is a sign of a growing shift within the gaming industry from games as a product to games as a service.

It is unfortunate that such a beloved franchise has been hampered with design flaws and poor execution. Cities are small because they want to promote region play. However region play doesn't work all that great and the cities are so small that there's only so much you can do. Draconian online DRM limits when and how you can play the game, seemingly unnecessarily. Wonky A.I serve to frustrate and make the experience a chore sometimes.

There are some shining ideas underneath the rubble. Here's hoping things change and that E.A crawl off into a corner and die, i'd gladly pay extra for that to happened if it appeared in the in game store.

UPDATE: Following the news posted by Rock, Paper, Shotgun it seems that a modder has found a away to disable to artificial online requirement and play offline indefinitely. Online features such as region tools and save/load games obviously don't work correctly. Your cities are, however, saved onto their servers once you reconnect back to the online service. The UK Modder also stated that it is possible to edit the highways covering the region anywhere, even outside of the boundaries provided by Maxis and E.A. On top of this "bigmaps" were apparently referenced several times in the games code indicating that larger plots could be an additional microtransaction DLC in the future.

A Reddit post outlines all the recent discoveries made by the community. These include an inflation of the population, the ability for offline saves and the inclusion of terraforming tools (a feature removed from the newest edition of SimCity).

This is getting interesting.