Sunday, January 13, 2008

SimCity Societies Review

SimCity Societies, developed by Tilted Mill Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: Simplified freeform gameplay, lots of buildings with useful filters, meticulous building and Sim attributes, achievements provide long-term goals, easily modified, random map generator, detailed graphics
The Not So Good: Not challenging, micromanaging special abilities is annoying, more achievements would increase replay value, minimap is useless and information icons are too small, poor performance
What say you? It’s not SimCity 5, but it’s still an enjoyable sandbox city builder aimed at a wider audience: 7/8

PC gamers are a finicky bunch: they have certain expectations for sequels and if they are not met, the backlash is severe. Take SimCity Societies as an example. Some people were expecting a true sequel to SimCity 4, and when the game ended up not strictly being SimCity 5, hardcore gamers were up in arms. Of course, SimCity Societies is not named SimCity 5, so I’m not sure what people were expecting. What they got was the removal of zones and railroads and the introduction of themes and values. You know, society stuff, similar in premise to City Life. I received this game late enough to play with the second patch, which adds a “strategic” mode for veteran players who thought the “creative” mode lacked any challenge (no disagreement here) or purpose. I’m sure you’ve seen my score for SimCity Societies; how come I like it while everyone else doesn't? Details to follow.

SimCity Societies features some very nice graphics, but they certainly come at a steep price. All of the buildings are highly detailed which is impressive considering how many there are. The same building will always look the same, as SimCity Societies lacks the somewhat randomized appearances present in SimCity 4. Most of the buildings are animated as well, pumping out pollution and such, which really makes your city realistic. You city can feature an overall theme, although this seems to be limited to simple road textures rather than dramatic overhauls of building appearances. The Sims that populate your city are also varied in appearance, although you'll be zoomed out so much most of the time that you won't notice. SimCity Societies is probably the most visually impressive city builder I've seen, as its level of detail is unmatched. And now for the downside: the game runs very slowly. I expect to be able to run the game at high (or at least medium) settings with no problems, but once your city fills about half of the map, the game starts to chug considerable to almost unplayable levels. I also tried the game on a more modest setup and SimCity Societies bordered on being a slideshow, even at the lowest detail settings. Only the most robust machines will be able to run SimCity Societies at high settings and decent framerates. The sound of SimCity Societies is pretty typical for the genre: bustling city noises and background music that fits your overall theme. SimCity Societies also (not surprisingly) features the “Simlish” featured in other contemporary Sim games. If you have the computer to run it, SimCity Societies features an outstanding presentation that brings your communities alive.

Like other SimCity games, Societies puts you in charge of a new community and allows you to develop your city as you see fit. There are two modes of play to choose from: the trivially easy creative mode (complete with unlimited money and free play options) and the more difficult (but still easy) strategic mode, introduced in the second patch. While previous SimCity games weren't the toughest nuts to crack, SimCity Societies offers absolutely no challenge since your influx of cash is terribly large. While this is obviously great for beginners, veteran players might become bored rather quickly at the lack of a challenge. The strategic mode does fix this somewhat, incorporating daily maintenance costs and tougher-to-please Sims. These changes do make SimCity Societies more of a challenge, especially if you make your way up to the “hardcore” and “nightmare” difficulty levels. Still, SimCity Societies was clearly aimed towards more creative people who just want a simple open environment instead of a complex strategic model.

New cities can be customized just as in previous games, although you have less control of the specifics of the landscape. SimCity Societies provides a random name generator for your new town (a neat feature) and you can pick the overall climate for your city. Advanced map options include control over the amount of water, vegetation, elevation, erosion, and overall terrain texture. You can even import a height map for real-world geography. SimCity Societies is also built for mods, as most everything in the game is contained in XML files ready to be altered. The game also features an online exchange (the only sniff of online play SimCity Societies offers) where you can share your mods and cities.

There are two resources in play in SimCity Societies: values and money. Each of the game's six values (productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge) are produced and consumed by the various buildings you will place. Unlike other SimCity games, you don't just zone residential, commercial, and industrial areas: you will place the specific buildings you want around your city. You will need to place power-producing plants, houses, workplaces, and venues, in addition to streets, decorations, and landscaping. In order for buildings to function, you need to have a positive or neutral balance in the values they use. The buildings that produce and consume values are mixed (meaning not all houses consume and not all businesses produce) so it takes some planning to balance out your values. You will also need to keep your workplaces full of workers in order to earn the city the maximum amount of money, so having the same number of housed workers as available jobs is another goal in the game. Venues are used to keep everyone happy, and having enough of them for everyone to visit on the way home from work is important to keep your city running smoothly. All work and no play makes for rogue Sims that shut down money-producing businesses. Decorations (fountains, billboards, parks) are intended for evening out small value deficits.

More buildings are continually unlocked as you reach certain goals (like population or value production levels) and there is an impressive number of structures you will build over time. The cities of SimCity Societies are far less realistic than in other SimCity games: while you need power and fire stations, you can construct a functional city devoid of schools, hospitals, and even police (although your residents might not be very happy about it). The game takes the idea of values and themes to heart, and a lot of veteran players will dismiss the unrealistic flexibility of SimCity Societies as being, well, unrealistic. Contrary to what a lot of reviews have said, proximity of buildings does matter: placing a nightclub next to a coal power plant makes it less desirable by lowering the happiness patrons will receive. While decorations can be placed anywhere on the map and power structures and be segregated to the corner with no ill effects, you do have to keep industrial businesses away from populated and recreational areas as you build. You will also need to make sure that venues are close enough (and plentiful enough) for Sims to use them. The game does come with a couple of ideas for themes, such as “romantic” or “authoritarian” towns; I usually just pick two or three values to concentrate on when I start a new city and go from there. SimCity Societies is really more about experimentation and seeing what will happen than ultimate realism.

SimCity Societies features and almost excellent interface. Since there are so many buildings to construct, the game has a good set of filters for finding exactly what you need. You can choose to show only buildings that use a certain value, and then sort those buildings by how much they produce or consume or their capacity. The game does need to have better filters for things like government buildings: they have special icons, so why can’t I sort by them? Also, the game should keep the filter if you select the same option in quick succession: having to press “houses” and then “creativity” five times in a row if I want to feature more varied housing is annoying. Remember those great color overlays from SimCity 4? Well, they are not here; good luck finding things like high crime areas due to the completely useless minimap and lack of colored overlays. Instead, SimCity Societies features hard to read icons that are not helpful at all. SimCity Societies also does a poor job of explaining which buildings do what: half of my buildings were broken during one game, and it was trial and error figuring out which building fixes them.

Some of your buildings will produce special actions. These can range from simple income bonuses to increased happiness at other buildings. These things should be automated as its very annoying to hunt around your city looking for poorly highlighted buildings. This is especially true during fires: you have to find where the fire is, then search for a fire station, click on it, and find where the fire was again, and click on that building. Isn't it the firefighters' job to know where the fire is? Playing an industrial city where fires are common is painfully annoying. SimCity Societies features a pretty sophisticated simulation under the hood, as the game keeps track of all the workers present in the game (while a condo may house 100 people, only 5 of them actually work and appear in the game; this is how the game features large populations without having huge cities). Sims have happiness levels that can be altered by purchasing goods from venues, like wine and furniture (or both!). Special Sims can also appear (there are twenty-seven in all): examples include burglars that steal enhancements, “men in black” that arrest street performers, and tourists followed by pickpockets. While the depth of SimCity Societies might not be present on the surface with the city building, there is a lot of detail when it comes to your city's residents.

As I stated earlier, SimCity Societies is a very easy game: just balance people and jobs and all the values and you'll make tons of money in no time. Strategic mode makes it just a bit harder, but veteran players should have no problems keeping a city running. While SimCity Societies comes with a handful of achievements to shoot for, the potential for more is definitely there. Personally, I would like to see an achievement for all of the two-value combinations (that would be twenty-one total for you non-Math majors). The achievements could be named after real life cities as well: creativity plus spirituality for a “San Francisco” award and low prosperity and low knowledge for “Detroit” (zing!). I like SimCity Societies: it’s a neat take on the genre and there’s a lot of detail when you delve beneath the surface of just placing buildings. I mean, it keeps track of how long someone’s had a CD for and how much happiness it grants: that's pretty impressive.

SimCity Societies would probably would have been better off not using the SimCity name, as that moniker begets some expectations that frankly are not met. Those looking for a realistic city builder should steer clear of SimCity Societies, but what the game does offer is a different approach to city management. Balancing your city's values, in addition to the budget, and choosing which values to focus on is the name of the game. If you want to create a prosperous authoritarian village, then go right ahead. This makes the cities look different over time, something that cannot be said for the cookie-cutter burgs of SimCities past. The amount of freedom in SimCity Societies may be too much for some, as there isn't a concrete overall goal (not that there was in SimCity 4) apart from the sporadic achievements that could have been more fleshed out. Most of the negative reviews harp on the lack of authenticity in SimCity Societies, but realism is not the focus. SimCity Societies is more about the interactions and less about the actual city building, so I think most of these people just missed the mark on the intention of the game. Thankfully the game now features the “strategic” mode that offers more of a challenge, but SimCity Societies is really focused on creation rather than challenge. The interface is well designed (for the most part), there are tons of buildings to construct, and the graphics are unmatched (though demanding on your system). Despite a number of annoyances I experienced with the game (most notably the special actions), I enjoyed my time with SimCity Societies and applaud its distinct approach. I think as long as you realize this isn't SimCity 5 and look at the detail of the interactions rather than the lack of realism, you'll have a good time with SimCity Societies as well.