Last year's SimCity launch could have gone a little better. A lot better, actually. While the latest Maxis release was touted as the next big evolution for the city-building franchise, this so-called evolution was a little difficult to make out amidst the always-online DRM, the wonky traffic and bugs aplenty.
It would have been rather pleasant if the game wasn't so full of holes at launch, but to give credit where credit’s due, Maxis has spent the last year listening to feedback, implementing fixes and introducing entire new features based on the various public outcries - most of them for free, too.
The burning question: Is SimCity worth revisiting a year later? I dove back into the urban fray, and found that while much of SimCity has been given an under-the-bonnet makeover, it's essentially same old, same old.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way first: Does offline mode work as promised?
Booting the game up, there's now a "Single-Player mode" option on the main menu, alongside the regular multiplayer offering. Selecting single-player leads you through a series of screens and options that you'll already be familiar with - indeed, apart from existing solely on your computer and not somewhere in the clouds (or wherever Maxis HQ is situated), this new addition is made to feel exactly the same as the original release.
There are some hidden perks, though. For one, you can now save multiple versions of the same region, rather than having to swap server whenever you want to have another crack at a particular map. Plus, auto-save can now be switched off, meaning that it's finally possible to take your favourite city, burn it to the ground, then resurrect your minions and do it all over again.
Offline mode also lets you fiddle around with user-created mods - but we'll delve into those later. For now, it's worth simply stressing the point that offline mode does what it says on the tin, and while I would have much preferred getting to grips with it a year ago, it's better late than never.
Roads and traffic
Last summer, Maxis introduced the ability to raise and lower roads. Fiddling with the height or depth of roads is supposed to be a relatively simple excursion - tapping the M and N keys while drawing a road slowly reaches the tarmac up to the heavens, or drags it down into the abyss. Struts are automatically erected to hold bridges in place, while valleys and tunnels form to allow for roads that cut through the rock below.
On level terrain this is fine, but when you get to more challenging multi-level maps, raising and lowering the road becomes a massive pain in the Maxis. I attempted to dig through numerous rocky areas, only for the road to flash red and refuse to place properly. When I finally managed to get a tunnel built that connected the top half of Granite Lake to the coast down below, the game refused to let me connect this tunnel up to the land below. I tried to fix this by bulldozing the tunnel, and the land returned to its former shape - but the tunnel itself remained in the ground, and could not be removed. If I tried to build another road there, or connect to the existing (now buried) tunnel, the game would simply tell me that there was already a road in the way.
Clearly road networking is still pretty broken then - but what about the traffic running along it? Maxis says that it has patched up the routing of vehicles such that we won't get silly jams in certain sections of our cities. I didn't really notice any issues with traffic at all, which would suggest that whatever Maxis has tinkered with has at least worked on a passive level. No news is good news in this case.
There is still no official SimCity modding tool set, but there's a great third-party modding service called Oppie’s SimCityPak that the SimCity devs themselves have been using it to build mods for their own game.
Guillaume Pierre, lead gameplay scripter on SimCity, has used the tools to put together some neat additions for the game. His Extended Worker Data Mod allows you to see the various classes of your workers in each building, while the Closer Road Guides Mod tightens the distance between streets and houses, meaning you can squeeze more city into those tiny SimCity maps. He's even just uploaded a mod that adds a subway system to the game - a feature that SimCityers have been crying out for since last year.
And as you'd expect, plenty of players have been bombarding Simtropolis with fantastic additions to the game too, from transit skins to a variety of superb aesthetics. It's worth simply visiting the "Highest Rated" page on Simtropolis and grabbing all the best ones.
The really great news about SimCity mods is just how easy they are to install. Once you've downloaded a mod, simply copy the ".package" file into your "\Origin\SimCity\SimCityData\" folder, and if there are any packages ending with the word "scripts", copy those into the "\Origin\SimCity\SimCityUserData\Packages\" folder. This should work for the vast majority of SimCity mods, meaning that it's incredibly easy to grab a whole bunch of mods, throw them into the correct folders, and have the game up and running in a matter of minutes.
Cities of Tomorrow
The Cities of Tomorrow expansion pack essentially takes SimCity in an Anno 2070 direction, and that can never be a bad thing. The DLC pack allows you to build MegaTowers, conjuring up memories of the arcologies found in SimCity 2000. These MegaTowers allow you to stack futuristic skyscraper levels sky-high, and then connect them up using skybridges.
On top of this you've got OmegaCo, which injects drone tech and mega corporation strategies into your regular SimCity experience, and ControlNet, a quantum computing network that is required to power certain buildings in your city - and is every bit as sinister as it sounds, with its pulsing energy fields of doom.
While Cities of Tomorrow doesn't fix SimCity's core issues, it certainly makes the experience that little more refreshing, and is well worth checking out if you're a SimCity fan.
Maxis admitted late last year that the most yearned-for SimCity feature - bigger cities - is simply never going to happen, due to performance challenges. This is, unfortunately, still the largest negative that is single-handedly holding SimCity back from greatness.
This issue is even more evident in maps that have been introduced since launch. Granite Lake, for example, is a landscape made up of mountainous areas and, as you'd expect, a ruddy great body of water. Given that we were already limited in the space that we could build on, introducing terrain that we also have to work around makes these levels feel even tinier.
It’s worth jumping back into SimCity just to check out the mods, and maybe give the Cities of Tomorrow DLC a download if you’re so inclined - but don’t expect any of the issues you had with the original release to be ironed out. It’s great that you can play offline now, but the core gameplay is still plagued by mapping and construction problems. Still, if you’re after a casual evening with some decent city-building tools, you could do a whole lot worse.