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  • SimCity 2013: The Phantom Menace – putting the “limited” in Limited Edition

    2013 - 03.21

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    So I wrote a little blurb shortly after the launch of Simcity, but the news on this game has been evolving so rapidly that what I’d written felt irrelevant before I could even publish it.  It’s been a strange tale.  I haven’t actually bought the game yet, and that turned out to be the right call.  As I’ve observed the commotion, my feelings on the game went from major excitement, to pessimistic disappointment, and eventually to my current ambivalence.  The pre-release hype made it seem like this was going to be a return to the glory days of one of the best franchises in all of gaming, and then the reality set in at launch: servers were crushed under the initial load, then once people finally did get started playing, the gameplay was revealed to be broken on multiple levels.  I was super excited about this one for months on end, and now I wonder if I’ll even get it….

    I won’t even begin to chronicle the plain-out-weird tale of corporate-newspeak from EA/Maxis and their apologetics for why the game absolutely had to be online-only.  That story will probably go down as a textbook example of how not to handle a PR meltdown.  The superbly-written and eminently-thoughtful gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had unbeatable coverage of the whole fiasco, which is certainly worth perusing, if you’re interested.  Besides, they’re the best PC gaming blog in the biz today, check em out.

    A couple weeks in, it sounds like most (but not all) of the server-related killjoys have been addressed.  But perhaps more nefariously, the game’s underlying AI seems to have deep problems with pathfinding.  Epic traffic jams that span whole highways between city.  Fire trucks stuck in the station, or simply never arriving.  Pedestrians wandering in circles endlessly around the same intersection, blocking all traffic.  Trade frozen.  Bus pileups as far as the eye can see.  Once your city gets big enough, these unfixable problems begin to break it. 

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    There are other weirdnesses that make no sense: it’s possible to build nothing but roads and residential zones, and end up with a 60k population… in spite of the fact that your city has no commercial zones, industrial zones, power, water, sewer, trash, police, hospitals, etc etc. 

    People have have also lamented that city size is much more restricted than it ever was in SC2k and that disasters cannot be disabled.  Those are overshadowed further by the downright baffling design choice that you can’t even save a copy of your city… which used to allow experimentation with the freedom of restoring to an earlier save-state.  Your city data is not stored on your local computer, apparently?  You have no possession of the content you create now.  That’s just… deeply unfortunate. 

    In spite of all this, odds are I’ll end up buying this game in good time, assuming they can fix the worst of the pathfinding problems.  I’m glad to be reading all this trash-talk before I ever touch the thing.  No game has a soft spot in my personal Venn-diagram of nostalgia/videogames the way Simcity does.

    I remember as a grade-school kid, staying after school for hours to play the original Simcity in the computer lab, since home computers were a rarity in those days.  One time no one knew where I was, and it even prompted a moment of panic until they found me at the PC, just building my city again.  Then when my best friend got Simcity for his SNES we played the dickens out of that, even with lots of other games vying for attention.  We would take turns building and strategizing, laying on the living room floor for hours while his parakeets cheeped and that same music looped over and over.  SimAnt was another addictive one for me when we eventually got our first home PC.  Taking over the whole yard and eventually forcing the humans out of the house was strangely gratifying, and the game somehow made ant-trivia fascinating.  Then fast-forward to junior high when Simcity 2000 (aka SC2k) came out… whoooo, I don’t even want to know how many hours went into that.  One of the all-time top-10 on all platforms, if you ask me.

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    So it’s tough not to approach a new Simcity with giddy overenthusiasm, reminiscent of how I probably felt in the theater watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace for the first time.  Sure, all your favorite tropes are here, but uhhh, you’d better tame those expectations: childlike wonder is by no means guaranteed!

    And how could it be, really?  Part of what made Simcity 2000 such an amazing powerhouse was the fact that I played it at a point in life where I was old enough to grab my bike and ride off to any part of town, yet too young to be expected to work; a moment in life when free time was endless, and the relatively-new world of 3D videogames was a fascination with few rivals.  There was all the time in the world to build that perfect masterpiece, then realize all the oversights you’d made in dreaming it up, tear it all down, start over, and build the real masterpiece this time… ad infium.

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    Looking at the screenshots of people’s creations (those who have been able to play) brings back a wash of fond recollections of the old Simcities.  This series is sort of the original and greatest “sandbox” game.  One with no win or lose condition, no time limit, no missions to complete, just your imagination.  I really look forward to spending some time in Maxis’ latest iteration of that wonderland I used to get so lost within–I’m just tamping down my expectations.  This is Simcity: The Phantom Menace.  And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can’t actually BUY it.  You can only RENT it from Electronic Arts.  That is, when they decide to eventually shut down the servers for good in some years time, that’s it, everyone’s done.  There will be no dusty box in the closet with a CD in it that will allow you to reinstall a working copy.  Nor will there be a stack of 3.5″ floppy disks that got lost for years, only to be found under the bed one day, allowing some magical time warp back to your old experiments, quirky half-successes, and weird ideas.  Those save games kept that time portal open, in a way that few toys could–your LEGO creations could never rebuild themselves into a badass spaceship you created that one time, and the particles in the real-life sandbox of your backyard can never reassemble into the sweet castle your pal Jake made with his tower-shaped bucket.  There is a euphoria in rewinding.

    Those days are gone.  The future is here, and what’s new isn’t always better.

    Instead of a sarcastic “Thanks EA” I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy Simcity 2013 at face value.  It’ll never be able to touch SC2k in terms of pure addictive thrill.  And when it’s over it’s gone forever.  I’ll make a point to enjoy it in the moment, going in knowing that’s a very pretty, but ultimately much smaller, more limited world than my nostalgia wants to paint it.

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