Hey, what’s the big news in games this week? What’s the hot topic on everybody’s lips, spilling out of their frothing mouths and down their naked chests? I’ll tell you what it is, I’ll tell you what game everybody is talking about, I’ll tell you the question that everybody is asking: after six months of updates, have EA fixed SimCity? I’ve been replaying it, and I have found out the answer.
No. That’s not to say SimCity hasn’t improved dramatically since release though. For a start, you can now play it. You can now click on the play button and the game subsequently “launches”, enabling you to see and interact with the videogame using your mouse and keyboard. This is a huge improvement over the game at launch, which was missing this somewhat crucial feature. In fact, since launching in March, many of the patches and updates to SimCity have simply been re-enabling features promised on the back of the box, and plugging the holes that almost sunk the thing.
Putting to one side the clownish debacle of that botched launch — the broken servers, the unnecessary always-online requirement, the questionable assertions over what bits of code were being run where, the long queues to play — the SimCity that exists now is something much closer to what EA had imagined you’d be playing at launch. Now six months on, the game works in a basic sense, you can get on a server and play straight away. They’ve also enabled global leaderboards, so you can compare your cities to those of your friends, as well as the global market, so you can buy and sell produced goods on a fluctuating marketplace.
You can also play the game at full time-acceleration, which was a bizarre omission from the launch day version of the game, a blocked feature intended to ease the load on EA’s struggling servers, while our perfectly capable CPUs twiddled their thumbs with nothing to do. Traffic management has been overhauled, patching most of the problems with cars and buses taking bonkers routes and removing permanent, city-clogging gridlocks. I haven’t had any traffic problems in my newest city, though there’s now seemingly zero demand for public transport from my residents, who in previous versions would picket City Hall until I set up a few bus routes.
Some updates have added all new content. You can choose to include a free Nissan advertisement in your game by downloading a charging station for their electric cars, and in one of the most cynical marketing moves ever you could (for a limited time) buy real world toothpaste to earn exclusive in-game SimCity items. Presumably the toothpaste would wash the sour taste out of your mouth. The most recent update is a bit more wholesome however, allowing you to raise and lower roads to create bridges and tunnels, providing a better degree of customisation in your city.
That said, roads are still troublesome, fiddly to lay down and unpredictable when placed over weird terrain. Sometimes they’ll flop into divots like limp tarmac penises, refusing to be goaded into connecting to other roads (which could also be more penises, if you want to continue that metaphor) until you’re forced to bulldoze the tip (I don’t like this metaphor any more) and try again.
The road-placing guidelines that appear remain largely unhelpful, making it unclear where to place a street in order to ensure the resulting zones will hit their highest possible densities. And when the city sizes are so bafflingly tiny, every inch of wasted space is a dagger in your mayoral, OCD gut. There’s simply no room to be creative with your city layouts, no room for winding roads or clever urban designs, no matter how many screenshots EA release displaying the contrary. If you’re playing to maximise your success, you’ll either be drawing meticulous, hyper-efficient grids or collapsing in a frustrated heap at your desk.
If you’re not remotely stressed out about roads connecting at anything other than 90 degree angles, god bless you, you are a better, more balanced human than I. The problem of stiflingly small city limits has existed from day one, and despite Maxis not explicitly ruling out expanding the borders, claustrophobia seems to be a permanent and insurmountable issue with SimCity. I can’t stand it.
The balance between demands for more residential, industrial and commercial zoning has been tweaked since release too, though the specifics of how that practically impacts the game are beyond me. The only tangible difference I’ve found across my cities is that the endless demand for more residential has been replaced by an insatiable demand for more industrial zoning. This demand, I later realised, was a regional one rather than a local one. An angry red stamp on my status bar was chiding me for not providing for my neighbours in the region, as if I’d ever opted into some obligation to umbilically support some industrially anaemic loser mayor I’ve never met.
EA have addressed a tomesworth of bugs in the six months since SimCity launched, but there’s something fundamental about how the game works that cannot be remedied. The systems and mechanics of the city simulation can be tidied and buffed, but on a very basic level things don’t seem to do the things they’re supposed to do. And when they do the things they’re supposed to do, they don’t seem to have any meaning to the player at all. The re-enabled Cheetah speed only enforces the sense of rapid pointlessness in SimCity. Whack it up to top speed and money starts gushing in, your decisions fading into irrelevance like waves breaking on a beach, your choices worth almost nothing in a giant, tremendously clever simulation. The game plays itself.
I love how SimCity looks and sounds. I love that the game’s music slowly and imperceptibly rises from the relaxed and airy lounge music of the countryside to oppressive and percussive Philip Glass movements of your bustling, fast-forwarded metropolis. That’s brilliant, a kind of musically led mood shift that no other game has made. SimCity should be winning piles of awards for its art and music. But as a simulator it’s still lacking, despite so much progress. EA have done wonderful work in making SimCity the game they wanted it to be, but it may never be the game we wanted it to be.