Review by exit_mouse
"An addictive sandbox game that will only get better."
SimCity Societies doesn't bear much resemblance to its predecessors in the SimCity franchise. Instead of zoning areas for development and building the city's infrastructure from the ground up, you place buildings directly onto a map with a highly simplified road and power system (and thank the gods, you don't have to worry about water anymore).
What keeps it from being a watered-down version of SimCity is a new mechanic: social forces that shape every aspect of your city from decorations to the appearance of buildings and roads, even the background music of the game. As the player, you control these forces indirectly with the kinds of buildings you choose to place. Churches, for example, will add Spirituality to your town, while schools will add Education and banks will add Prosperity.
These social forces combine to create different kinds of societies. You can create a Romantic society full of beautifully sculpted buildings and cobblestone roads by developing Creativity and Knowledge. Alternately, you can create a dark, smoggy Industrial society with excesses of Prosperity and Productivity. You can combine any number of different social forces as you build your city, but the game rewards you for sticking to one of ten predefined 'genres' with challenges relevant to each one.
Sims themselves are slightly more visible and relevant in this game; you can click on them as they walk around and see their mood, what they are doing and even what they're carrying. There are also special Sims that have various effects on your city. These special Sims are usually randomly created in your buildings - Fire Stations will sometimes produce a Fireman Sim who patrols looking for fires; Movie Theatres can create Celebrities who will make your city's venues more popular; Churchs can spawn Preachers who will give sermons on the street to passerby Sims (some like this, some don't).
Art & Graphics: 10 - Extremely visually appealing with a high amount of detail
The artistic direction in this game is phenomenal. Every kind of society has its own style, and the appearance of your city will change as you progress. This is one of the most delightful aspects of the game; you can see your sandbox come to life in a way shaped by the context it's in. And the style choices are very well done. The Cyberpunk society looks like something straight out of Blade Runner, the Contemplative society has a distinctly Buddhist feel to it, the Romantic society could be Shakespeare's England.
As a nice touch, each building has a surprising amount of detail in the animations associated with it. Zoom in close and you'll see a doorman pacing in front of your apartment complex, or Sims walking through a flea market and looking at booths. Lighting effects are also well done, and your cities will be just as beautiful by night as by day.
One disadvantage of all this is that in large cities the game can become very graphically intensive and will slow down even newer computers. More about this in the section on performance.
Sound & Music: 10 - Sets the mood perfectly without being distracting
Like the art, the music will change to fit the style of society you're building. It starts out with neutral, pleasant background music of the smooth new age variety, but can become anything from 80's pop (Capitalist) to Rhapsody in Blue (Industrial). The musical changes go a long way toward establishing the mood of your city, and I've not yet heard a piece of music that I felt was inappropriate for the particular style. As expected from a Sim game, excellent overall.
Gameplay: 5 - Weak challenge/reward system, low replay value, too easy
One problem with the canned societies approach is that the game can feel pretty shallow at times. Once you've made a Cyberpunk metropolis, do you really need to make it again? And when you've played with all ten kinds of cities, what else is there to really do with the game? Some players will be happy to make the same cities again, or create challenges for themselves, but others will feel they've done everything there is to do and drop the game after 20 hours of play.
I'm hoping that future expansions to the game, or perhaps player-contributed content, will help alleviate this problem. But the game designers could have added a lot to the game by simply working in more challenges. As it stands, there are ten trophies you can get for achievements in the ten societies, but they are relatively easy to obtain. Even just playing freeform, you'll find that it's easier than not to have a successful city. You basically have to try to make it fail. Maybe the point is to be accessible, but experienced gamers are going to find it a bit easy unless they invent challenges for themselves.
Interface: 7 - Attractive and clean, but requires a lot of interpreting symbols
You can tell that EA has an eye towards internationalization, because most of the interface is communicated with "universal" symbols that can sometimes be difficult to decipher. You'll often find yourself squinting at a picture of a tiny desk with a number next to it, or a flower, or a fist, or whatever. Sometimes it's obvious what they mean, sometimes it's not. Thankfully the game has a comprehensive tooltip system so usually a simple mouseover will clear up any mystery.
Unfortunately the camera isn't as good as it could be. You can't zoom out very far at all, meaning you'll be panning constantly if your city is very large. There are also no keyboard controls for the camera (as far as I can tell).
Performance: 7 - Need a good computer to play effectively, crash bug in release version
Now this rating is based more on other users' experiences than my own, but I think it's universally accepted that the release version of the game wasn't very stable. Some users reported constant crashes; I personally only saw this twice. However, I believe the first patch released contains a fix to this problem. Since I've patched I haven't had a problem with crashing.
As for graphics... the requirements to play the game are a little steep, and become much steeper if you want to have a large city. My computer is about a year old with a decent graphics card and I was seeing the game start to choke on itself at around 15,000 population. Manipulating the camera or navigating your city becomes laggy and annoying, and I always end up giving up before my city can grow to really large sizes. I expect this will be improved with future patches, but for the time being, a user on an average computer will probably find the game agonizingly slow.
Overall: 7/10 - Give it a chance, it might surprise you
On the surface, I wasn't expecting to like this game much, especially given the very lukewarm critical reaction. But when I actually got my hands on it I found that it delighted me, and I don't think I've ever really played anything like it before. It's a shame there's no playable demo; I think experiencing the gameplay first hand is really the only way to learn if the game is for you. But if you're on the fence, and you've enjoyed other sandbox games (the Sims most notably) then you might want to give this a try.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 12/10/07
Game Release: SimCity Societies (US, 11/15/07)
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