jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mt Belzoni (ikkyu2) wrote,
jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mt Belzoni

Simcity (5): First Impressions

I have a little more free time than I used to - I've been making it for myself - and one of the things I have really been looking forward to is Simcity, the 5th iteration of the franchise that I've been playing since 1990. I bought the SimCity - Standard Edition physical copy from Amazon because there was a pre-release rebate; the digital download (same link) is what I'd buy if if I were buying it today. In any event, the ArsTechnica game guys wrote a quick set of first impressions and I am inspired by them to do likewise. I still haven't managed to play multiplayer so this is first impressions, not really fair as a review.

The server issues deserve mention; they made the front page of Google News. This is 2013. Amazon Web Services exists. Steam exists. They had a beta (although it was too limited and didn't stress the servers enough, obviously.) There is no reason that the service should have been as broken as it is, and it is badly broken and just makes for a terrible game experience here on launch week. The Origin online service is essentially a clone of Steam and EA is very well aware that Simcity is going to be a flagship game that is going to make millions of people try Origin, people who would never otherwise have touched it. I certainly will never try another Origin game; I am pretty sure that result was the exact opposite of intended.

So that has been a mitigated disaster. The servers have been down for 48 hours. But have they been totally down? No. They have been swamped enough so that you can start games, but can't play. See, the new SC is DRM'd to hell and back; you cannot do anything with it, not anything at all, without connecting to the Origin servers. There were other questionable server-based decisions: for instance, you cannot save or load a game; progress is autosaved on the servers (if they're up.) This means if you experiment with your city and fuck it up, you experience what the Ars guys call 'permadeath'. You can't revert changes to a prior version. This sucks even more than it would seem to, for reasons I'll explain in a bit. Another server problem was rolled out on day 2: 'Cheetah' speed, the highest simulation speed, was disabled. I just bought a very expensive computer with a top of the line CPU and EA nerfed my game because their servers couldn't take it? Thanks, EA.

Last word on DRM: the first paragraph of the EULA points out that I have leased the software until either I get tired of having it on my machine or until EA terminates the lease, at an unspecified time. I still play old games that I have kicking around from the 80s and 90s; this game will not be that way. It will be a piece of ephemera*. Software should be freer than this, kiddies, and I mean as in speech. 'Nuff said.

SC5 is not like other SCs. Cities are tiny; the Ars guys called them 'towns' and that's right. They are in regions; the idea is that your buddies and you all play online in a region (haven't been able to get this working, because of, you guessed it, server problems), and you can specialize your cities to complement each other. I think the idea is that if you want to turn a particular city into a health care city, or a coal mining town, or a gambling mecca, you can do that, and then offer those services to Sims in your buddies' cities. But it's hard to do that because building anything good is expensive and in order to get money you have to grow your city the way other SCs work: build I, build R to serve worker demand, build I and C for jobs, etc.

It's hard to do that in these tiny spaces! Never mind planning out a Vegas strip gambling mecca; even in the flattest city areas I feel constrained for space from the very start. I think you are supposed to bulldoze your industry once you decide where your Vegas Strip is going to be; but I have tried that and it pretty much broke my city. OK, fine, revert to the last save - ..um. Oh. I can't? Right. See above. Curved roads are extremely neat but they are so wasteful of space that if you are using them you will never build your city to where you are trying to go. Ars talks about minmaxing; I am not a minmaxer but I do like to run an efficient, pretty city with a personality and some uniqueness; those are 3 criteria and I can't figure out how to get all of them in one of these tiny city spaces. And God forbid you pick a city area that has anything but flat terrain; there is no terraforming at all and the road and zone tools are a lot less useful than they appeared to be in the trailer video directed to this topic, if there are even modest slopes. So all that space gets wasted.

The big deal is that the game is simulated down to the level of the individual Sim. I really share the Ars guys complaints about this. I click on Sims - iirc you could do this in SC4 too - and I can follow them around and read a line about their meaningless little lives. I gather that the difference is that this is persistent and real, whereas in SC4 it was a fiction made up on the fly when you clicked.

Problem is, this is implemented poorly. It is of no interest. Sims and their vehicles path almost randomly and I watched a garbage truck circle around on one road, doing nothing, for nearly 15 minutes (real time, that was a whole garbage shift in game time, and there was garbage to pick up elsewhere in the city, too.) This is a game and it's supposed to be fun; if they really spent all this effort on Sim-level simulation, they wasted their time because it adds nothing to the game mechanics.

In fact, whole swaths of the game mechanics feel bugged to hell and get out. One of my cities was located downwind from its connector highway (which is positioned outside of city limits so you can't modify anything about it.) Sims in my city complained about "germs," which live in air pollution (?); the air pollution, as far as I could tell, was floating over my city from the highway as traffic picked up. Sims rioted angrily in front of City Hall for the entire duration of my game play, about 4 hours last night. I was not able to figure out anything to do about this problem, which kept worsening as the city grew. Is this fun? In general, it was no fun to me to have one highway and one train track; why can't I build these things? A lot of the intricate parts of the simulation feel rushed and unbalanced like this; I always used to marvel at the depth of the various simulations in the old Simcity games - I think SC2000 was the best of them at this - and at how sensitive they were to all kinds of player interventions. I don't feel that way about this game.

Power and water hookups have been simplified and sewage has been added; these parts of the game mechanics are dull now, no longer fun, although the water system in SC4 I recall as being extremely frustrating. I get why this was done but I am no longer sure why water and sewage are part of the game at all. Roads are much easier to lay and can be prettier but in general the functionality is less and there is barely even a dedicated traffic display; mass transit has been nerfed and is simplified and, again, boring (adding a streetcar or subway system to a cramped, growing city in SC4 was a challenge and one of my favorite parts of the game.)

The idea of a regional, specialized city was a good and interesting one but I feel like little time was spent on actual regional integration; many services have a screen where you can sell services to other cities in your region, but those cities do not actually lose money when they pay you, and it's not even clear that when you play as those cities that you experience the benefit of the transaction. There is nowhere that I have found that you can look at transacted agreements. (In fact, city planners give 'missions' for money but I have yet to actually collect any of this money, which I assume is another bug.)

I do like that the 'ploppable' buildings can be expanded to meet growing demand; that's fun. If I did not hate the word 'ploppable' so much I would be more excited about it; it is used throughout the tutorial and ingame text, so you cannot escape it. It recalls to my mind a cow pat, or worse. On that topic, the detailed sewage map, showing squishy nuggets of brown stool pulsing and peristalsing through your city's sewage pipes, also disturbs me; I feel like this is just the kind of display that would be made by an obstipated, overweight, balding coder obsessed with his ploppables. The sewage display and sewage disposal pipe make clear that the poo is not only squishy and brown, but also aromatic; was this really necessary, Maxis?

Finally, the game is beautiful. I love the camera - its interface is a bit retarded, but I am catching onto it after 6 or so hours of gameplay - and I love the way the cities look at night and daytime. I love some of the 'filters' you can apply to change your city's appearance. (I wish the game took better advantage of my fancy graphics card, although I understand why they aimed lower.) I am surprised and disappointed at the supergeneric quality of the buildings and their signage: buildings visually mostly have names like "Mid-cost business," "Low Cost Apartments" and such, and it makes the city seem super generic. I assume this was because the whole deal was rushed out - the game definitely feels like it was rushed out the door - and I assume it can and will be upgraded as time goes on.

tl;dr: I like the shiny new game and am looking forward to playing it multiplayer as was intended, but I feel like the game is buggy, shallower in simulation than I expected from the advertising, and not ready for release in a lot of ways; and I hate every cloud-based feature with passion. It makes me want to download SC4 and play it, and since that can be done on Steam for $20 (PC only), I will probably be doing that instead in a few weeks.

* And by ephemera, I mean shit.
Tags: games
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