Review by bluemoogle
"The Simcity without the Sim(ulation)."
Pros: Attractive city themes, variety of themed music, interesting design options
Cons: Extremely limited replayability, zero challenge, serious downgrade for the series
Overall: Veterans and new players alike will find the game too easy and boring
The Simcity franchise has been a popular and successful series for nearly two decades, beginning with the classic Simcity in 1989. Each title since then has grown in complexity and challenge, and the previous juggernaut, Simcity 4, nearly alienated the most veteran and skilled of players with its complexity. Seeking refuge from the challenge, EA took the series in a new direction by forging Simcity Societies, a dramatic departure from traditional mechanics with hopes of making gameplay easier and quicker to pick up for newer players.
The plan certainly worked, but unfortunately, the city building formula was damaged beyond recognition. Simcity Societies is in fact easier than the very first Simcity, trading challenge for childish themes and "Xbox Live"-style achievements. All players, new and old alike, will quickly pick the game mechanics, master the game, and fully complete all the default challenges within a weekend or less. After the challenges are done, all that remains is a boring and limited city builder with little ambition for the player.
Buildings and Terrain: Simcity Societies is a graphical downgrade in comparison to Simcity 4. While the buildings themselves offer a distinctive amount of detail and beauty, the overall presentation is disappointing. The buildings are modeled after the desired city theme, like cyberpunk or industrial wasteland, but many buildings are attributed to several categories, giving cities for two different themes a repetitive look. The only "neutral" building that dynamically updates to the prevalent theme are roads; the other buildings must be manually made a certain theme. There is no option to shape the terrain, but textures like sand or concrete can be applied to patches of terrain. These textures are unfortunately applied in squares as if they were buildings, so they usually appear unnatural and ugly.
User Interface: The user interface has taken on a colorful, cheery tone with cartoony buttons, a sad change from the professional looking interface in Simcity 4. The actual organization of the interface is bothersome, and many buildings have their names partially hidden because they cannot fit in the build menu. Fortunately the buildings can be sorted by house, work, or venue type, and then further by city theme type, but the process of finding an exact building feels slower than in Simcity 4.
Engine Performance: Given the lackluster graphics, it is regrettable that the game engine runs poorly. Even high end machines will struggle with the graphics set to their absolute maximum. Given that the graphics set to the absolute maximum actually look worse than Simcity 4, it is a wonder why the game runs poorer than its predecessor.
The sound is not spectacular, but is one of the game's better attributes. The music and sound effects update themselves given the dominant city theme, so there is a large variety of noises to hear. Each theme only has a limited selection of music tracks, so the music can become repetitive, it is still nice to hear the music change with the style. Buildings, sims, and traffic all make sound effects, with the buildings making special noises depending on their type.
City Themes: The primary component of the game, and the most advertised, is the ability to forge a city around a certain theme. The available themes range from small country towns to massive New York-style megaloposis, or into the realm of fantasy with circus towns and 1984-style dystopians. The large amount of options are exciting at first and it is fun to see all the different art styles. But once a city of each theme has been made, the main glamor is completely gone, leaving a limited city builder behind.
A disappointing feature behind the city theme idea is, there is no "neutral" building. I was expecting to place various house types that would dynamically alter their appearance based on my decisions, but instead, the player is forced to pick "cyber houses," "fancy houses," etc, from the beginning. This gives the game a quick reward, but no lasting appeal, as the city look is immediately achieved. There is no challenge to making a city look like an industrial wasteland, for example, just as there is no challenge in making a country town.
Another side effect of the manual placement of themed building is the ability to place all themes at once. This makes a rather disturbing combination, with colorful flowerbeds and glimmering museums next to smog spewing factories and angry authoritative TV screens. One exception to the no "neutral" building rule are the roads, which do update their appearance to the most prevalent theme. If all the buildings acted like roads, building a city of a certain theme would have been more satisfying, as there would have been actual work involved!
City Management: While a city can certainly be built in Simcity Societies, the city is rather pointless, as it cannot be managed. Gone are most utilities, transportation options, the underground, public facilities, and such. There is no need to educate sims, manage their health, protect them from crime, or collect their garbage. The only manageable aspects to the game are power, money, pollution and happiness, all of which can be easily handled without consequence by spamming a building.
Power can be built on the edge of the map without worry, as power is magically transported to every building everywhere, no matter the distance. Money and happiness are easily made by building jobs and entertainment venues for the sims near their homes. If the player accidentally forgets to manage power, money, pollution or happiness, very little happens. Unhappiness causes workers to play hooky (a childish punishment for lazy mayors) or commit crimes, which basically stops work. This slows the income, but even a bankrupt mayor has no worries, as everything still functions without money. Roads do not decay, people do not leave the city, and disaster rarely happens. If power runs low, buildings turn off until more power is built, which again only requires spending some of the worthless money in exchange for a new pollution emitter. Pollution merely causes more unhappiness, which just starts the pointless cycle anew.
Once a city has been built, there is nothing left to do. The city look was already achieved with the very first building. The transportation network consists of only roads, so there is no worry to upgrading it with rising populations. Buildings do not age and become vacant. City issues do not arise. Generally there is no point in playing an old saved city, nor is there any point in building a city of a theme already mastered.
A frustrating aspect to managing a city is the road and building placement. Because zoning is a thing of the past, the process of placing individual buildings often produces messy cities with large gaps between buildings. These gaps can be filled with decorations, but each theme has only handful of decorations, which just raises the repetition. An alternate strategy is to place buildings first and then make a road network around them. This lowers the repetition, but the unattractive look remains, as the roads are cluttered and messy. Indeed, messy is the key word, as all city layouts eventually become it.
As the review title says, Simcity Societies is no longer a simulation, but rather an over hyped art program disguised as a game.
Challenge: The game has none. It offers a multitude of goals for players to accomplish, but a majority, if not all, can be done with the same city. The reward for completing a challenge is a trophy and statue that just makes future goals even easier to accomplish. Most buildings need to be unlocked before they can be placed, but unlocking buildings can be easily be done by spamming the necessary components, then deleting them. If this is too much of a hassle, the game offers an additional sandbox mode without any building or monetary restrictions, removing the already minuscule challenge entirely.
Replay Value: It is worth playing through the game enough times to see each visual style and hear the different musical tracks, but that's about it. Most challenges will be completed early on, and there is no pressing urge to fill an entire map with buildings or to build a massive city. The game can easily be completed within a few days, which is sad, as the simcity series has been known for nearly unlimited replay value.
As a veteran of the Simcity series, I was very disappointed with Simcity Societies. While I do like the idea of making the series more available to new players, I'm sad to see this process was taken to such an extreme level. Even new players will be disappointed by the games lack of substance, and I hope they are not turned off from the entire series because of this game. I do not recommend buying this game, but it may be worth trying the demo if one is released.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 12/14/07
Game Release: SimCity Societies (US, 11/15/07)
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