SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow Review
SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow Box Art
System: PC
Dev: Maxis
Pub: EA
Release: November 12 , 2013
Players: 1 (online multiplayer)
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p Mild Violence
The Sims in Dystopia
by Robert VerBruggen

Like a lot of people, I held off on the new SimCity when I heard about the server problems it had at launch. But half a year later, it’s a great time for new players to jump into the game—now that the technical kinks are worked out and the new Cities of Tomorrow expansion, the latest installment of the famed city-building franchise, is finally ready for primetime.

That's not to say it's for everyone. Even with servers that work and expanded options, the game is still a fundamental departure from previous titles in the series. Instead of building a city that expands outward, you'll be crafting cities within strictly limited space--building taller and denser, instead of wider, once you've filled up the territory. And each city exists in a "region" with other cities that are led either by you or by other players online.

But if these new ideas appeal to you, jump right in. The core game is a return to the fascinating simplicity that made the 1989 original so compelling; the online interactivity provides an interesting new dimension, and Cities of Tomorrow offers a wealth of new gameplay options--including the ability to run your city for the benefit of either an evil megacorporation or a bunch of high-tech, green-living zealots.

I won't dwell too much on the basic elements of the new, arguably improved SimCity--Jack Valentine gave a great explanation in his review back in March. The small cities specialize in different business pursuits, and they can trade various goods and services with each other. The GlassBox engine gives the game a charming look similar to what you'd get with "tilt-shift" photography, and also creates a living ecosystem of Sims going about their individual lives. Soothing music manages to add character without becoming repetitive or irritating.

And refreshingly, much of the complexity of recent SimCity games has been stripped away--things like pipes and power lines automatically go up when you build roads, rather than needing to be built separately. You can really focus on sketching out your city with your mouse and watching it grow, rather than trying to micromanage a bazillion different public-works projects.

On top of all this comes Cities of Tomorrow, the game's futuristic new expansion pack, and it turns out the future won't be a very nice place at all. Instead, it will be swarming with drones and controlled by major interests with little concern for the common man.

SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow Screenshot

In addition to some new regions that are available whether you buy the expansion or not, two new city specializations make an appearance--The Academy and OmegaCo. The Academy, a research institute, produces all sorts of stylish and environmentally friendly technology, such as fast public transport, sewage cleaners, and machines to remove pollution from the air. But it all works using ControlNet, a wireless surveillance network that ensures things are running smoothly.

And if that sounds unfortunate, wait until you try plopping down a factory from OmegaCo. This megacorporation creates Omega, a cheap but highly flammable and hugely polluting form of energy. OmegaCo is willing to share its profits with you quite generously--so long as you don't mind dealing with crime, fires, environmental damage, and hordes of poorly paid workers.

SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow Screenshot

In keeping with SimCity's "build up, not out" mentality, the expansion also introduces the MegaTower, a huge building that basically contains multiple units in one--each MegaTower has floors dedicated to residence, commerce, and industry, and they can be built higher in stages. If you really want to cram a bunch of Sims into a little space (and of course you do), the MegaTower is the way to go.

All of this adds a layer of satire and science fiction to the basic game; with each city, you start with the normal city-development process and slowly add futuristic elements until, almost inevitably, something goes horribly wrong in your carefully designed dystopia.

Unfortunately, though, there are still some problems that can break the flow. Some are small technical glitches-- once, my mouse pointer disappeared until I restarted the game. But others run deeper.

Most importantly, despite all its attempts to depict city management in a way that feels natural, SimCity's formulas are still incredibly quirky. Players often feel they're working around the title's programming rather than just designing a city, as they'd be inclined to in real life.

I encountered plenty of these quirks in my various attempts to build functioning cities, but one example in particular stood out. I had a pretty good thing going--both the Academy and OmegaCo were humming along nicely, and I had what seemed like a reasonable blend of residential, commercial, and industrial zones. My city had developed enough that my old power plant wasn't doing the trick anymore, so I built a fancy new nuclear plant.

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