This is (one hour of) your world: Sophie and Ben play the SimCity beta
People tend to get confused when they play a beta. Is the SimCity beta there to try to sell you on the game, or is EA trying to stress test their servers and make sure everything is working? Different companies use betas for different things, and the word has become nearly meaningless. It's always hard to tell what you're going to get.The SimCity beta feels rough to me. Many of the models were fuzzy, and I kept losing my connection to EA's servers. That's bad news with a game that requires a constant connection, although once again, this is a beta. I'd rather have those issues now than when the game is actually released. I'm also not very interested in arguing about whether the always-on requirement is a good or bad idea, or if people are upset about the fact you can't save the game, destroy your city, and then reload. The ability to experiment with no repercussions is all but gone. On the other hand, the tilt-shift view of the world is charming; you really do feel like you're the ruler of a tiny city. It's easy to set up streets, even bendy streets, and build up residential, commercial, or industrial zones. During the early portion of the game, and the one-hour time limit on each city means you'll only see the early portion of the game, I was able to keep my citizens happy by keeping industrial zones away from the people, building barbecue pits in each neighborhood, and making sure every population center had its basic needs met. I enjoyed being told that you need more schools to keep crime down, not just more police. Educated people don't tend to turn into criminals. SimCity may, in fact, have a liberal bias. So the question is whether or not the beta made me want to play more, and made me comfortable with a purchase. The answer is yes. Although the graphics need polish and the faltering servers were a pain in the ass, the game's aesthetic works, it plays well, and I can't wait to spend more time building my city. There's even a nice tutorial that introduces you to the basics of the game. I'd buy it tomorrow if the game was released and I knew the code had been improved. Sophie, what did you think? Was it overwhelming?
Not at all, which was my biggest worry. Constructing a map and planning zones is incredibly easy, and the overlay user interface helps you utilize your resources efficiently. Here's one example: When I got around to building a school for my city, the streets nearby turned a solid green, fading out the further away from the school I went. This represented the distance residents could/would travel to get to the school. Unfortunately, it wasn't that large. Clicking on the school opened up a sub-menu full of customization options, including an attachable wing and bus stops. Placing a bus stop gave me a new area of influence, just like when I had placed the school; suddenly that single school was able to service my entire city, not just one neighborhood. The same goes with other public services such as fire stations, hospitals, and police headquarters. Want to know which buildings your firefighters can reach in time should they catch flame? SimCity tells you instantly, and it keeps the game flowing. I appreciated the immediacy of my interaction with the city. Every beta user's experience will be different, but I didn't experience any hiccups in either the graphics or connection departments. The game has a more cartoony look than earlier games in the series, but I appreciate the bright world and vivid colors. SimCity is going to feel very welcoming to newcomers or estranged fans, but I worry that longtime veterans may not be happy with some of the coming changes, such as the lack of custom terrains. I used to play a lot of the Sim games after school. My mom was a science teacher and therefore, the only “games” she had available to play with while I waited to go home were educational: SimCity, SimAnt, SimFarm, etc. Yet I eventually grew out of them, for myriad reasons. The new SimCity strikes me as an homage back to those early days of Maxis and the edu-tainment games I used to play. It's complex without being overwhelming, and when you do something that benefits your city, you feel smart. Ben brings up the point of schools keeping crime down - that's fantastic, and I enjoyed learning these - albeit simplified, game-ified - lessons. What's going to be really interesting is the way SimCity handles multiplayer via the global economy. The tutorial teaches you how to share resources with other cities, and even teases the possibility of creating a mega-structure - if you can get your neighbors to help out. What do you think, Ben? Will you help SophieVille build an international airport?
I'm actually really looking forward to working with other people in the game; it's one of the features of the game that has me the most excited. I think we're going to see some split opinions when it comes to SimCity: Some players will never be able to get past the game they want it to be, and others are going to be able to step back and enjoy it for what it is. The pseudo-MMO-like ability to work together to share resources and create structures that benefit all surrounding cities is very cool. It's also not really functional in the beta. I definitely think we're going to see a lot of hate in the forums and even the comments of this story about the mandatory online connection and the social aspects of the game, but the idea of setting up a huge plot of land where all the Penny Arcade cities can work together and benefit each other is a big selling point for me. This feature adds a great meta-game to SimCity, since now I need to make sure my personal city is doing well while also benefiting the larger communities of cities, each with a specialization. Think of it like roles in World of WarCraft: You're going to want to recruit a friend to build a great tourist city near you, just as you would need a tank for a raid. There were a few things that bothered me. Roads sometimes snap together in odd ways, leading to highways that look connected without allowing cars to pass through. You'll sometimes click on buildings with frowny-faces only to be told that workers are dying, and it took me a while to figure out what they were dying of, and why. If I'm playing a mayor, you'd think the complaint would give you a little more information. I'm sure these few issues will cease to matter once I learn the systems better, and it's telling that so much of it works so well that these middling issues are what stick out in my head.
Sophie's final thoughts
What I appreciated the most is just how simple it is to navigate your way through the game. Let's face it: city-building is not the most exciting task in the world. It could have been a chore. Had SimCity focused on numbers, charts and graphs, I've no doubt it could have felt like one too. But instead of just telling me how many pounds of sewage I'm pumping per second, the game actually shows me, complete with the sloshy, sloppy sound effects that are wonderfully silly and gross. Improving a city is likewise logical and easy. Let's say I don't have as many firetrucks as I'd like servicing my city. Instead of building a new fire station, or clicking through multiple menus to find the right addition that will give me more trucks, SimCity lets me simply click on the fire station. From there, I have two options: power the station down, or check its possible extensions. It's super simple, and there's no way you're going to get the options confused. Even if you do, there's always an info pane or a helpful hint around to direct you. I did find it slightly ridiculous how difficult it was to improve roads. Initially, my residential area was bogged down with super slow traffic. I figured, what with the town only having a population of barely more than 1,000, that I could get by with single-lane roads and stop signs. Nope. People were unhappy as hell. Unfortunately, there was no way to simply re-trace a road to turn a single-lane into a double lane, or a road with stop signs into a road with stop lights - as near as I could tell. I ended up bulldozing roughly 80% of my residential area just so people could get to work. [Ben's note: I'm pretty sure there was an option to upgrade roads, but I can't double-check now that the beta is over.] I'm also a bit disappointed that there don't seem to be any terraforming options, and I suspect the always-on Internet connection will stifle the availability of truly “out there” city designs. I want to see people build orc settlements on the moon with this game, but I'm not sure if that's going to be a possibility. My final gripe is that I wish the space I had to create my city was larger. I got excited by the possibilities the one-hour beta showed me, but even by the end of that hour I was running out of space to draw roads. Give me a huge, sprawling metropolis! The game is called SimCity, not SimCity 5, and that's for good reason. This feels like almost like a reboot - it serves as a fresh-faced entry point into what might otherwise be seen as a stagnant series. I also think that, like any of the reboots we've seen or are yet to come, that there will be some contention and unpleasant chatter surrounding it. That's a shame, because despite the occasional shortfalls, I'm having a lot of fun with SimCity.