As I work on our final SimCity review (which I'll post on Friday), I've been documenting my observations and criticisms of the complex simulation and servers we're required to connect to if we want to play it. My analysis and opinions may change as I keep playing, but these notes represent the thought path that will lead to the final verdict.
This page covers the early game and medium-density cities, page two covers city specializations, multiplayer regions, and a failed high-density city, page three covers the always-online requirement, and page four tells the story of a metropolis with just one road.
From 0 to 50,000 in under an hour
I'm getting pretty good at getting cities off the ground. Like making RPG characters or trying to fix a router, it's always tempting to restart, and I must have built up and scrapped 20 cities by now. SimCity's early game is when I'm free to build creatively and experiment—to finally get it right —and it's terribly addictive.
To illustrate how a city grows from 0 to 50,000 residents, I strolled into Ars Technica's open multiplayer region and planted a flag in the town of Murder Bucket. It's a really nice place, promise.
Building roads and zoning RCI
This is the most relaxing phase of SimCity. Circle roads only? Why not? You can do whatever you want. You'll regret it later, but you can .
The early game is all about anticipating the mid-game, and too many intersections creates a traffic nightmare as density increases. I also need to leave space for those inevitable apartment buildings, and a little wiggle room so I can adjust the RCI (that's residential, commercial, and industrial) ratio. The three zoning types are your city's DNA, and my most common blunder is zoning too much industrial and not enough residential, which creates a bunch of unlivable, dirty land covered with unstaffed factories.
I've done a lot of trial-and-error learning in SimCity so far, and it can frustrate, but I'm enjoying much of the discovery.
The power decision
Choosing a power plant always stalls me. Coal and oil plants provide lots of juice and don't take up much space, but they pollute the air and require me to buy fuel from the global market or mine for it.
The panels of this solar plant have nowhere near the output of one coal plant, and they take up a ton of space. It's one of SimCity's most elegant trade-offs, and it strangely affects me as much as the simulation. If I have power problems later, I could bulldoze that solar plant and plop an oil or coal plant, but I never do. I feel like I owe it to my Sims to stick with clean energy. If I start with a coal plant, however, I have no problem adding generators and pumping more filth into the air if it means keeping the lights on.
Police, health, and fire coverage
The placement of my service buildings keeps me up at night. Literally, because I stay up late fretting over the best location. Ambulances, for example, have to drive to the scene of a sick Sim to help, so it matters whether they're more likely to make a right or left turn out of the garage, and how many intersections they have to cross to get to major residential zones.
The same goes for police cars and fire trucks. They're my least favorite things to manage—I'd rather focus on my next big industrial project then worry about traffic slowing down police cars—but they're vital.
Education and wealth
You can make buckets of cash running a low-wealth, low-tech city, but if that's not your goal, schools will increase the tech level of factories, doing away with smog-producers and replacing them with cleaner medium-tech industries. It's a trade-off like everything else, and educating your city will drain resources and change your residents' needs. Schools are expensive to run—especially once you've upgraded them with lots of buses and extension wings—and require lots of medium-wealth staff.
To attract medium-wealth residents, you need to build parks in residential areas. This is fun. Parks are cheap to run, there's a great variation of styles, and they're modular, so if you want to build a Central Park style block of green grass and foliage, you can.
It all makes sense within SimCity's reduction of social economics, but something about education and wealth still eludes me. When I pass 50,000 residents, my industrial bosses start complaining that their workers aren't educated enough. I plop down more schools, upgrade the ones I have, add school and city buses, and so on, and on, and on, and then... my adviser warns me again that factories are lamenting a lack of skilled workers.
Side note: cities are small, advisers are dumb
SimCity doesn't hide its simulation. I can look at data maps to see how many citizens are educated and where they are, or the tech level of my factories, or who plans to increase in density soon. What isn't clear is what the damn Sims want. The simulation is very complex, but the advisers reduce it into obtuse messages about what to do, and if you do everything they say, your city will fail .
My problems with education are duplicated just about everywhere else. My factories close because they say there aren't enough businesses to ship freight to, so I zone more commercial. Then my businesses close because there are no shoppers, so I zone more residential, then my factories say there aren't enough places to ship freight to...and so on. Theoretically, I can build trade depots with freight storage, and that should make industry happy. I can never tell if it's working.
The RCI ratio has a very small sweet spot, and I'm fine with that—it's a hard game to master—but the messaging is too confusing to even guide me toward that balance. Even if my city is completely gridded, it constantly tells me there's high residential and industrial demand, which implies I'm doing something wrong. "Zone more residential!" is says. "GIVE ME BIGGER BORDERS, THEN."
Yes, cities are small. I like that this forces hard trade-offs, but do I ever wish I could defy the game and pull a road out into the untouched land beyond my dotted line? All the time.
On the next page: City specializations, multiplayer, and building a metropolis