Game Review: The New SimCity

SimCity Panoramic

SimCity-5-screenshot-meteor-shower

Having played SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 4 extensively and thoroughly enjoying them, The New SimCity(*) was easily my most anticipated game of this year.

How did it turn out?

I’m not going to write much about the launch disaster – that has been discussed to death and back many times already, and I feel all the points that needed to be made have been made. Instead, I’m going to write about my experiences having played the game for 30 hours.

Compared to SimCity 4, The New SimCity incorporated quite a few revolutionary changes in how the game works. It’s a very significant departure from the gameplay mechanisms that have, over the course of a few decades, became known as “SimCity”.

Most of the changes I really like, but some I feel could have been executed better. Unfortunately, for a game like SimCity, a few very minor design oversights or bugs are all it takes to cause chain reactions to make the game almost unplayable.

The Good

Roads-based zoning and buildings

In SimCity 2000, 3000, and 4, zoning and building placements were all based on tiles. The game only requires that roads be built within 3 tiles of the buildings, but otherwise, roads were not connected to buildings in any way. It’s a little weird, because that’s not quite how it works in the real world. In the real world, we don’t just put down buildings randomly on open space, and lay down roads to connect them. Instead, we build roads first, and buildings next to roads. The New SimCity now works the same way, and it’s awesome! The new system works quite well. No complaints here.

Also, there are no longer selectable zone densities. Zone densities are now tied to road types. I’m neutral towards this change. It takes some flexibility away, but mismatching zone densities and road capacities doesn’t really make much sense anyways. Building density > road density = congestion, and road density > building density = wasting simoleons.

The move away from tile-based system also allows things like bus stops being placed on roads instead of taking up one tile. This makes cities look a lot more natural, with less wasted space and awkwardly arranged buildings. If you tried to build a transit-heavy city in SimCity 4, you would know what I mean. In SimCity 4, if you tried to put 2 bus stops per block for example, now all your blocks are this weird rectangular shape with 2 of the 4 corners cut out. No longer the case in The New SimCity. Awesome!

Microscopic simulation

In older SimCities, it feels like you are defining a bunch of flow rates (transit capacity, education system capacity, workers, employers, etc), and the game tries to find a steady state condition that satisfies all those differential equations, and drive your city towards there.

In The New SimCity, the simulation is much more… microscopic. Each Sim tries to find best way to get to work and back every day, loads the transit, education, and health care systems individually when required. The simulation is so accurate that the player can follow Sims to bus stop, see a bus come, see them get on, and get off at their work place. Each car on the roads has a real destination, and does actual navigation. The simulated details are mind blowing.

Flexible roads

It’s a relatively minor thing, but a pretty cool one at that. Roads can be curved, etc, and the UI for drawing roads is intuitive and easy to use. Makes cities more beautiful.

Extendable buildings

Most ploppables (user-placed buildings) are now highly configurable. Eg. number of wind turbines in a wind power plant, number of police car lots on a police station, or dormitories at a university. Pretty cool!

Depletable resources

Cities have resources – oil, plastic, coal, water, etc. The can be gathered, and do run out. For the most part, I like it. It’s realistic and encourages inter-city interactions. One exception is water. I think the water cycle is poorly implemented (details below).

No more water piping and power lines

No more laying down water pipes or power lines. They were boring, repetitive, and trivial in earlier SimCities. Good riddance.

In The New SimCity, roads also carry power and water.

The Bad

Scope

Scope is, by far, my biggest complaint. If I am to pull a number out of thin air, I would say cities in The New SimCity is about 1/5 the size of cities in SimCity 4, and it makes the game incredibly frustrating at times.

It is true that space is a big issue in real world city planning, but when they say space, they usually mean, for example, space in a crowded downtown to put down a hospital. Not space as in geographic boundaries of the city. Difference being, the former kind of “space” depends on the quality of high level city planning, and the latter kind… is just arbitrary.

Every city has to be planned like San Francisco, and every zoning and building decision requires thinking about the arbitrary city boundaries, because they are quite limiting. Frustrating.

For a small 1000 residents city in the middle of a big flat desert, the decision of whether to add another hospital or not, should be based on need, effectiveness, budget, etc, and NOT how much of very valuable space it takes up in the tiny white dotted box that really doesn’t mean anything.

As a developer, I understand how difficult it is to run the kind of detailed simulation they do on larger cities, but if performance is really the limiting factor, I would rather have bigger cities and sacrifice some of the simulation details.

Buggy regional interactions

The New SimCity has a very strong regional interactions component. Cities are not supposed to be run independently. Instead, each city should specialize (education, commerce, industry, etc), and be well connected to each other. In other words, “cities” are more like little parts of a big city, and the “region” is the entire city.

There’s really nothing wrong with that, and I support it in principle. Problem is, it doesn’t quite work.

For some things, like electricity and water sharing, it works quite well, but for other, more complicated things like workers and students commuting, it doesn’t really work.

As an example, I had a mostly industrial city with a shortage of workers, so I built a mostly-residential city nearby, and connected the 2 cities using a big municipal bus system and trains. The residents were also educated to the required level for the type of industry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get significant commuting to happen. After a little while, the industrial city died due to lack of workers, and the residential city died due to people running out of money due to lack of jobs. And there’s not much I could do about that. They just didn’t want to commute.

It could be that I still don’t fully understand the game mechanisms, but I have tried a million things, and none seemed to help. I had to abandon both cities (because The New SimCity doesn’t have reloading), and start a new one that has both industrial and residential zones, and it worked out perfectly.

Volatility

The simulation is extremely volatile. Everything happens unrealistically quickly.

It’s nice to be able to see instant feedback of things you do, but that’s unrealistic and scary.

For example, if your schools have to close for a couple days due to lack of workers, all your Sims would become uneducated (couple days… REALLY?!), and kill all your high tech industry, and make your nuclear power plants explode due to unskilled workers… and you’d have to abandon the city. All because you had a little worker shortage.

I think that’s a little silly.

Education system

Education systems are based around schools in The New SimCity. It’s very important to get educated Sims, because educated Sims are less likely to commit crimes, start fires, or get sick. Also, they can work at higher tech factories that emit little to no pollution.

However, new in The New SimCity is something called Tech Levels. Having community colleges or universities in a city will boost its industry’s “Tech Level”, meaning more high-tech industry will develop. Just having educated Sims is not enough.

That is very silly, because that means you’d also need universities in industrial zones to get the Tech Levels, in addition to those in residential zones to actually give residents education.

Continuing to treat a big region as a city, we now need have 10 universities in the 100K pop city (1/6 the population of Vancouver). Awesome?

Water system

I believe the water system in The New SimCity is seriously flawed.

Cities need water to operate, and the only way to get water is using water pumps.

Water pumps draw water from an underground water layer that gets depleted pretty fast, and replenished extremely slowly (faster for areas near shores). That means, to get a consistent supply of water, one needs to just keep putting down water pumps all over the city…

It’s true that in the real world ground water can be depleted and is difficult to replace, but in the real world, only areas with very large ground water reservoirs use it as the primary source of fresh water. Rest of the world uses dams, reservoirs, and even desalinators.

Chasing water is no fun, and unrealistic.

Weird time system

Not sure what they were thinking. The New SimCity now uses a weird almost-realtime system for day/night and commutes, but Sims can get educated in days. Yeah…


I still think The New SimCity is well done. However, there are a few small problems here and there, and unfortunately, for a highly complex game like SimCity where everything is tied to each other, small bugs can cause huge problems in playability.

In the current state, the game is definitely fully playable if you are aware of the limitations (which unfortunately means you’ll probably have to blow up a few cities first), but not really in the way they intended (highly specialized and interconnected cities). Hopefully they will be fixed soon!

* What’s with the name – SimCity? Couldn’t they have chosen a more Googleable name? Some people are now calling it SimCity 5, and some SimCity 2013. I’m gonna call it The New SimCity.

2 thoughts on “Game Review: The New SimCity”

  1. Tech level is something that the university or college produces and it travels to industry via roads (pink lines). I’ve been able to get high tech industry in a city without a university, because the neighbour has a university (though its slow).

    The water problem can be solved if you put a sewage treatment plant beside a water pump, the treated sewage goes into the water system 😛 its an odd way of doing things but it works (as long as you treat 100% of the sewage).

    If you remove the zone, the building won’t upgrade, and if you downgrade a road the buildings won’t downgrade. That’s how I dealt with getting the right density.

    I think the worst part of the simulation is how sims don’t have permanent jobs or homes, etc. It’s messing with traffic and it doesn’t look realistic at all (to see an example, watch kids walk home from school). Everything else here I agree with.

    1. Oh cool! I didn’t know that’s how Tech Levels work. I just couldn’t get industry to upgrade with a university in another city.

      I think the whole Tech Level thing doesn’t make much sense. It’s the people that decides what to build, and if they are educated, why can’t they just build high tech stuff?

      Yeah I learned about the sewage treatment plant spewing out water. That’s just weird lol.

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