Reviewing SimCity has been extremely challenging. By now everyone is familiar with the launch issues stemming from always-on DRM (or as EA calls it, “multiplayer functionality”). Because of the hullabaloo forming an opinion about the game itself has been challenging, to say the least. Trying to extract the bias through a curtain of noise, internet rage, and fanboyism has proved relatively complex. I’ve even asked a number of friends for input on whether or not this review should include the always-on requirements and launch day issues.
I’ve decided that it will not, as I feel the “service” provided by the game’s publisher (EA) should be separate from the game, it’s graphics, and it’s mechanics. Chances are, if you despise DRM or always-on requirements you aren’t going to buy the game anyways. Likewise, launch day issues – although all too frequent with AAA titles these days – are par for the course, unfortunately. Three months from now nobody will remember the rocky start, and will be left with only the game itself, and my review needs to reflect this extended time-frame
Graphics & Sound
There’s no two ways about it – SimCity is a beautiful game. Like an Apple iPhone, the colors are rich, crisp, and slightly over-saturated in the way that most people find endearing and beautiful. Buildings are rendered in fantastic animated detail, your Sims individually wander around the streets, and cars zip along highways and two lane roads. There is a lot going on at one time in any given city and it’s all rendered superbly well. Zooming down to street level from the traditional bird’s-eye view is smooth as silk, and once down there you really get a feel for the workings of your city.
You may not think that graphics matter much in a city-building sim where you spend the majority of your time lording over your subjects from a bird’s-eye view, but they do. Since the entire game runs on a brand new “agents” simulation engine (more on this later) it is exceptionally important that the information generated from this simulation is presented to the player in a visual, easy to understand way, and for the most part it is. If your buildings become abandoned they will take on a dark, dirty, hollow look. If there is traffic you are easily able to look at your roads and figure out where the offending intersection is. If your factories are polluting the air the smoke from their chimneys will drift wistfully in the direction the wind is blowing. These types of visual cues are important for the player to understand where problems are and how to fix them, and they are generally very well rendered.
The lighting engine is also rather nice. The transition from day to night is jarring, and not animated really well – it’s not a gradual thing, just a sudden sunset – but once the sun does set, your lighting is dynamic on each building, car and streetlamp. A high density commercial or residential city’s skyline is punctuated by brightly-lit skyscrapers at night and the red taillights of your Sim’s cars zooming around your grid of avenues and lanes.
However, the most impressive things about SimCity’s graphics are the UI and data overlays. Maxis has created a graph-lover’s wet dream in SimCity with utterly brilliant ways of displaying various data sets, all of which are integral to managing your city. When you pull up any data overlay – be it traffic, power, population density, sewage, tourism, etc. – your buildings and infrastructure turn an un-colored matte white while colorful bars of data represent the relevant information. You can easily judge population density, where your Sims are going, how much freight you are producing, and any number of other useful tidbits at the push of a button. I’m a huge fan of modern info graphics and data visualizations, and SimCity really scratches that itch.