It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Read the user reviews for SimCity on Metacritic, and you'll find what seems like a GR Showdown of epic proportions. The vast majority of them slam Electronic Arts for ruining the single-player experience of a beloved franchise with always-online DRM. It may be unfair to reduce SimCity to a single issue, but it's hardly irrelevant. The sheer quantity and variety of server issues I've experienced has been toxic. However, once I'm fully embedded in a game session, I forget the troubles of always-online DRM and merrily organize and cultivate my city to my heart's content, as long as I'm not "unable to claim a city at this time."
The reason for the disparity between critic reviews and user reviews for SimCity hinges on the differing criteria we judge our games. On the spectrum of criticism, user reviews slant toward customer experience whereas critic reviews slant toward issues of design, not to dismiss the fact that they intersect often. We are users too. On design alone, SimCity hangs only several notches away from perfection, though a handful of targeted comparisons to its predecessors reveal some of its shortcomings.
Unsurprisingly, the point of this much-anticipated SimCity reboot is the same as it's always been: Transform a plot of open land into a hustling, bustling metropolis. Even Joe Rogan might call this desire to consume the Earth cancerous, but this is a game, darnit! As the ultimate mayor and city planner, you have the godlike power to construct the necessary roads, construction zones, and grids for power, water, and sewage in the formation of a small town. Elevating it to a fuller city requires mass transit, schools, garbage collection, and hopefully a specialization in production, trade, technology, or tourism. With careful organization and methodical customization, there's little to prevent you from achieving urban greatness.
The SimCity series has always been about managing an extraordinary number of spinning plates, and how this installment copes with so many dynamic systems is incredible. Everything from wind and air pollution to land wealth and resource topography matter. Thusly, every significant component of the city comes with accompanying graphs and charts to ensure the best, most efficient decisions. To help understand all of this, the tutorial does a fair job explaining the basic elements and several citizens may give you a hand in the form of step-by-step quests. It would have been nice to have preset examples to learn more complex actions, but they're not necessary.
Just to name several ways that each system impacts each other, industry creates pollution and higher risks for fires, uneducated Sims have a higher chance of becoming criminals, and wealthy Sims are picky about high-quality parks and commercial centers. Keeping all of the city's citizens happy increases your approval rating as a mayor and keeps the city's budget in the black. That said, it's important to build at a proper pace and try not to please too many people at once—a point which sandbox mode makes clearly despite allowing you to build whatever you want with infinite simoleans.
Where SimCity improves on prior titles in the franchise is in its production and graphical detail. The introduction of curved roads is just one. Plopping down objects in the city are coupled with quality animations and streamlined snaps to the grid. Zoom the camera into the city and you'll find Sims going about their daily routine, with ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks coming to the rescue of their fellow citizens in real time. Any issues with traffic will become immediately apparent.
A part of the trouble with SimCity, however, stems from its scope and precision. The plots of land available don't match the size of cities from prior SimCity titles, and the demand for industry and residents usually becomes confining as soon as your township reaches the status of a small city. This gets worse if you choose to construct large, high-quality streets; the city will only extend about eight blocks on some maps before running out of space.
This may be understandable given the graphical improvements, but some of the depth has been sacrificed with the smaller, streamlined design. You may not need to place things as tedious as power lines and plumbing pipes, but these are the kinds of civic micromanagement that many Sim veterans love to obsess over. The same goes for the lack of terraforming tools, which leads to feeling even more cramped in a city that needs more room but can't place objects on steep slopes.
Another reason for the relatively confining spaces is to encourage multiplayer play, working together with friends as neighbors synergistically. Where your town might specialize in producing materials but suffer in pollution, the demand for low-wealth jobs might assist your friend's town and your resources will contribute to building a great work, such as a space center or an international airport. There's nothing like a neighbor taking out fires and criminals you can't handle on your own to feel the utmost gratitude.
Unfortunately, this directly leads to the issue of always online DRM for a game that's traditionally single-player. Now, fight as we might against this practice, this change is inevitable. But if publishers feel it necessary to force this change on us to combat piracy, they better be sure that their online service is robust and consistent, which SimCity's has not been since launch so far.
In the past two days, I've been kicked out of my game sessions about five times and have been unable to connect to servers about ten times. Without the ability to save my progress, as it is auto-saved onto the servers, it's frustrating to lose hours worth of work merely due to a crash or connection error I have little to no control over. Being able to save manually, even if it is to an online server and perhaps only once every 30 minutes or so, would have been a good idea. Then for almost two hours, Daniel and I attempted to start a multiplayer session to no avail, with the game not recognizing us as friends and neither of us being able to join the same game together either privately or publicly. While I know other players have not had this terrible experience with SimCity so far, I know many people have.
Since I was never particularly great at the real-time strategy of SimCity when I was a child, I anticipated this reboot for several years in the name of redemption. The present itself is fantastic, well-conceived, and highly customizable to new SimCity players such as myself, and will be for SimCity veterans provided that they can get stomach the smaller cities, several missing tools, Origin, and always online DRM. Of course, that may be one too many pills for them to swallow. As Electronic Arts and Maxis fix the issue with the online servers, which the entire game hinges upon, feel free to add up to one full star to the grade below.