SimCity has been published in the App Store. And, it is an iPhone App. And, it is an EA job. Prompted by those facts, I think we can make some hasty conclusions. On the iPhone side: It is touch controlled ala the iPhone interface. It is pocketable. It may be the game that god-game fans have waited for. On the EA side: it is not a unique release. It is massive. It is beautifully rendered. It has some major bugs. And, in classic EA tradition, it reaches a bit too high.
My gaming journey began on the Atari Lynx with APB and quickly nerdified in the heart of the DOSness with Wing Commander. In 1995 I my game was forever changed by SimCity 2000 in MACOS 7. It was only a few years later when with my own dosh and on my own hacked-together computer, I bought SimCity 3000, a game so good that it was stolen by one of my wedding party. To be sure, few god-games have donned perfection like the Sim franchise and even fewer like SimCity.
If you are not familiar with SimCity, it is a god-game that places you in the digital shoes of the mayor of a city you create. You decide every step the city will take in its path, whether it be ultimate success or destruction. There are no expectations to conform to nor any fast rules. You are the god of your burgeoning metropolis. If you want your residents to live surrounded by smoggy factories and seemy casinos, that is your prerogative. The iPhone version, is that mouldable sandbox at your fingertaps.
Presentation and Gameplay
SimCity looks and feels very similar to the venerable SimCity 3000. If you closely zoom in, you will find the same detailed buildings, cars, trains and a whole slew of other graphical objects. When zooming out, you are treated to the same far-sighted view of your city that graces a larger computer monitor. You will even see the destructive effects of alien lasers and fires wreck smouldering damage on your city (which looks damn fine). Graphically, nothing feels left out comparison to the PC version.
In fact, there are many new items for the veteran SimCity 3000 user to go gaga over. The new interface has been revamped for the iPod and iPhone and even features a quasi-aqua interface. Many apps in the App Store do no justice to the shiny and well thought-out iPhone OS but EA’s SimCity is not one of them. It is obvious this game was designed to work with the iPhone: reflections are plentiful but not overdone, text is easy to read and the colour scheme is not a fractal vista mess. EA need no introduction nor do they any longer need a title to define them. SimCity’s debut on the iPhone platform has no need for shock. It is a homely and tasteful redesign.
The musical tracks and sound effects of SimCity truly come alive. Songs range from upbeat to darkly mesmerising and fare well even apart from the game. They can be purchased from iTunes here. On the iPod and iPhone’s dedicated audio hardware, there is not the muddiness that plagued your HP or Dell that fed hamsters instead of powering amplifiers. Whether you are a Shure, Westone, Futuresonics, Audio Technica, Apple, Etymotic or Ultimate Ears user, SimCity will be sure to please. Especially pleasing are the effects tracks that do not fizzle in and out nor overpower the soundtrack. Whether graphics or sonics, everything is rendered in tip-top performance.
Unfortunately, not all is candy-plastic coated. Every menu item and every placement of objects in the game is done via the touchscreen. No matter how nice a multitouch capacitance screen is, it will never suffice for a mouse and keyboard for certain applications. SimCity is one of those applications. Service buildings such as police stations and schools require only a little learning to place and position. However, you will find that the most basic of motions: the touch and drag needed to create roads is frustratingly difficult even whilst playing the awkwardly short tutorial. Your fingers are made for gardening rather than drawing fine digital arteries and placing microchip sized gardens. Using your green thumb to create and reposition roads, water pipes, railways, powerlines etc. over and over again is a frustrating process. I have discovered it easier to draw a haphazard road, resize it to the proper length and then reposition it rather than at the first, trying to perfectly place it. It is nearly impossible to systematically create a tidy infrastructure. Bumble’s the word.
My greatest annoyance however has been the clunky and archaic menu system. It is a deep but pretty, hierarchical mess. For instance, choosing a park takes 2 taps in the hierarchical menu. From there, you must scroll through all the options in the sub-menu which is very time consuming especially if you want to place more than one park because, unlike roads and zones, no singly selectable item is saved to memory. This same system may kick you from your advisor screen back to the main HUD. If you are a windows user, I could liken it to the Start bar system. Imagine you did not have Windows Explorer and had to perform all copy and paste functions, select every document and change every setting through the hierarchical task bar. Windows is would be unusable. Fortunately, for your computer that is a nonissue. For SimCity, it is as real and menial a threat as paperwork or bathing.
I am sad to say that EA durst burst SimCity onto the scene with some feature gaps. I have yet to see subways and highways, but the deepest of personal losses is the dearth of neighbour deals. In the past, this feature alone floated my stilted city. Now, I have to rely on my wits alone – an aspect that waylays me at every turn. What I would like to see is a feature that would allow wifi or internet deals with friends or other players. A game like SimCity which has always been single player could with the right vision capitalise on the iPhone platform.
iWaiting for Stability
Regarding stability, SimCity is a mixed bag. I have played SimCity now for over a week and can congratulate my experience as fraught with only 2 crashes. Some of this luck I can chalk up to my inept gaming skills. I have restarted my city at least a dozen times as I have run out of money, harboured and been run over by fugitives, been torn apart by violence and by pure brazen contempt. Both crashes seem somewhat repeatable: when my city had reached the populace stage of over 40 000, the app began to teeter. Instability means no save, no saved state and picking up from the last log in or pre-crash save. For users who have created cities that are now hundreds of thousands strong, SimCity flirts dangerously with unplayability. For me, it is a new lease on leisure which I expect to be fixed in a point release.
There are significant loading times once your city reaches a large population and even my meagre 30-40 000 person city at times took nearly a minute to load. Similarly, the entire engine considerably slows down when your population and city become large. However, taken in context, SimCity is a dream to play. The iPhone is no where near as stalwart as a Pentium III or later Pentium II’s. It is a phone. It has only recently been dubbed even by apple as a “viable device[s] in the mobile games market” (Steve Jobs, 12 November, 2008, Wall Street Journal). Considering its hardware and heritage, SimCity’s lagginess is not perplexing. Considering Apple’s aloof stance toward gaming, SimCity is nothing short of an extraordinary achievement. Considering that you can geek out to your heart’s desire on your mobile phone, I think that EA will majorly cash in at the App Store.
Despite its flaws, SimCity should be hailed as the first app to usher in a new age for iPhone gaming. You may like it or loathe it but you cannot dismiss its strong poise: it stands in the large shoes of one of the greatest games on the PC and is hampered by nothing but a few bugs and persistently clunky interface. If that last sentence did not confound you, it should have. I fall into the camp that both loves and loathes this game. It is the best incarnation of a PC game remake to date on the iPhone yet it lacks stability and is perhaps graphically too lush for its own good. It wants for a couple of features of the original and at times handles like a car four-wheel vehicle meant to transport you from place to place, but it is a proper god-game that makes no aplogies for being a mobile port and needs no excuses. Also, I did not wait for a developer’s promo, I bought it straightaway and have no regrets at all even at 9.99$.