Games of April 2020

Cities: Skylines (PC)

In my review for SimCity 4, I mentioned that I always wanted to add buildings to the game I saw elsewhere. And of course, in the last 15 years (2005 was what I would think of "peak SimCity 4 era") I've gone places, I've lived in places, I've seen the cities for myself.

It's not just about the buildings, it's about anything and everything. How a new railroad overpass could decrease emergency response times, how apartment complexes can go from trendy yuppievilles with hotel-like amenities (up to and including full-service restaurants and maid service) to run-down slums, how a particularly hot summer could hurt the economy, how nice homes can keep their value even next to a busy road, how bus routes don't need to be routed toward downtown, how supermarkets could shut down and still pay rent, how the traffic effectively vanishes at night as the bars and the last of the non-24 hour businesses finish closing procedures, how property taxes really work.

I wanted to see a game that would answer all that, and more, and be the game that could give me what SimCity 4 never could—billboards along the road for easy money-making (just like Yoot Tower), a comprehensive ordinance system, a stoplight timing system that could only appeal to traffic engineers and autists, sprawling parking lots for your commercial structures, a great-looking railroad component to be able to watch the switchers down at the port, a super-wide Katy Freeway-like freeway, and of course, have a great soundtrack like the traditional SimCity games did.

Cities: Skylines does none of that.

I did consider just compiling some of the hot takes I had written about the first time I played C:S back in February 2016, but decided to play it again, just to see if it's still okay.

I've driven through small towns at what is essentially rush hour, and the only roads seeing any real traffic is the main highway. Not only is there not a real defined "rush hour" period, but cars constantly jam the roads at all hours. This was because (partially) of a highly bugged health system model. Anyone without a clinic within a block or two got sick and died, causing hearses to jam the street. But it's not just the health model, despite these types of games having a heavy emphasis on mass transit, it assumes everyone in your tiny town has a car, and uses it to get everywhere. Cyclists and mass transit enthusiasts are generally insufferable, but when I lived close enough to a gas station where I could see the glowing Shell sign from my front door, I walked the quarter-mile round trip through the alley. Some may argue that Cities: Skylines does allow for pedestrian movement, but mostly through additional pedestrian walkways, as if they're too good to use the sidewalk and use pedestrian crossing signals like normal people.

On the road issue, the traffic simulation itself is terrible. Even the simplest of traffic models simulates road traffic better, specifically the issue that when you have a clogged highway entrance, traffic will start backing up before the entrance, not afterwards. This is what reality is if you've ever driven during rush hour. Entering ramps don't cause problems, it's slowing down before hand. Therefore, there's nothing like ramp metering in the game either. If you were more of a railfan, rails function basically like roads (two way traffic), and there's no way to have single track railroads. Factorio solved this issue gracefully by just a network of "blocks" and railway signals, a train couldn't go forward until no trains were in the block, with other tools that allowed reading the next signal so that slowing down for each potential problem area wasn't an issue.

Additionally, Cities: Skylines doesn't have a grid system like the SimCity titles, it's basically free-form and creates its own grid against roads, which requires another mod to actually try and get your roads in 90° angles, and instead of zoning a huge patch of residential (SimCity 4 even added streets, allowing you to grow subdivisions en masse), your own mouse tries to fight against you as you make smaller zones, but the buildings can't get very large, resulting in lots of skinny skyscrapers and tiny houses that look like "Midgetville" communities.

Loading up Cities: Skylines again revealed all my worst fears again. No more excessive traffic, either the Traffic Manager mod helped or maybe just the people living in the west part of the town were gone, the homes now completely abandoned. Despite this, the streets had cars parked along the side of it. Maybe zoning had changed since 2016 when I last played, but zoning was now "painted" along the side of the road, with the only breaks being roads (you couldn't place a square of commercial or residential next to each other, something I've observed in cities like Houston), and it was so shallow, so everything built directly next to a road. All the commercial buildings had the same off-scale issue (the same lot size as residential, whereas even in low density, typically even a small shop or restaurant replaces 2-3 homes). I couldn't develop a situation where a larger store (like a supermarket, discount store, or hardware store) with a parking lot behind a smaller store (like a gas station or fried chicken shop).

It was also hard to tell what was going on. Instead of the newspaper or newsticker like SimCity did, it featured "Chirper" (a Twitter-like mascot resembling a blue circle with a beak and eyes) and information relayed through "chirps". Like the newspaper and newsticker, it relays important information among irrelevant trash, with some "chirps" triggered by the placement of new buildings in the city, however, the information needed is less than easy to actually find, and the irrelevant items are neither fun nor interesting. In SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 there was a note from the simulation about the new power plant. Placing a coal power plant (the traditional standard "starting power plant" in the SimCity series) led to this from the Chirper system: "I kinda like the steady production of electricity, but there are environmental factors to consider. #smog". I guess it was supposed to simulate some entitled millennial douchebag, but I'd rather wait until I had a thriving 1M+ population before I had morons in my city who would complain about the environment when the choice was no power. The map was small and I had it to place it somewhere, and you'd think he'd complain more that I was dumping raw sewage into the water systems.

During my time this year, after a few minutes of goofing around with the city and observing how a restaurant had major crime problems despite being two blocks from the police station reminded me a bit of what I had heard about from EA's SimCity (SimCity 2013), the "online only" game that ended up taking down the entire franchise with it, that one, I realized there was nothing the game could offer me. Sure, I could probably download some mods that would at least look a real-ish city complete with the highway billboards (advertising for Pilot and McDonald's along an exit up ahead might look better on the open road, but hey, someone's got good taste) but the game already pokes along at a sub-30 fps, and that would just grind it down further without making any core simulation changes.

I guess one cool thing the game had was a navigation style similar to Google Earth, using the third button on the mouse to change horizon, but half of the controls were missing (no arrow keys, no use of the right click) and it looks far worse: everything looks like a plastic toy (textureless gray roads, bright, oversaturated vehicles, and buildings that all look like they probably have "Made in China" stamped at the bottom).

Poking around the game files reveals that in the ten gigs of trash the developer stuck me with at least revealed that they didn't help themselves to "pre-downloading" the nine separate DLC expansion packs at a staggering $15 each, and none of them include extra music (that's another $4 each), with none of them actually being worth it. SimCity 4's Rush Hour was only $10 after a mail-in rebate and while it wasn't much, it gave some completion to the game along with some new soundtracks, whereas none of the Cities: Skylines expansions are very deep, mostly adding half-baked gimmicks that just muck up the game further. The "Campus" DLC is an example of that. I grew up in a college town, and I could see the effects of what Texas A&M University did to the area around it. But rather than exploring the traffic/hotel logistics of big sporting events, increasingly hungry-for-land university (and interestingly, this "fight for land" mechanic was mentioned on a "future SimCity wishlist" way back in the mid-1990s, specifically citing University of Texas-Austin as an example), the bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that cluster around it, a young but educated population that works low-wage jobs in the city (and will almost certainly move out later), and the general economic boost it has. Instead, it basically creates a new "campus" zoning option, some vague "campus" related buildings, and a bunch of gimmicks.

Another DLC pack, "Industries", involves full industry types and production chains. While the whole "resource management" seems to be a fad from the Minecraft school of starting from nothing and building up (which can work great in games like Factorio), it's not good in a city simulation game. While it might be fun to see resources move around, C:S takes the approach of actually mining and developing products yourself, and even that isn't handled well. Forget about massive railroad junctions, massive oil refineries, and future remediation sites—all you get is a few more ugly buildings to add to your toy city.

Even SimCity 2000 played with the concept of different industries to focus on (one of which was petrochemicals), all of which had boom/bust cycles. It wasn't something you could see or interact with, but it was there, and didn't even have to be adjusted, but it was there, simulating the cascading effects of an economic recession (factories/businesses close or cut back, people end up losing their jobs, can't afford to go out to go out to eat or shop anymore or as much, so all those close as well, etc.) in broad strokes. For SimCity 2000 it meant a lot of gray-colored abandoned buildings, and the subsequent loss of tax dollars (conversely, when times are good, tax money flows, allowing expansion of city services).

Speaking of the whole "control of the resources", Cities: Skylines tends to take a lot of what SimCity 3000 introduced and got worse with SimCity Societies, Cities XL, and beyond did...the idea of adding commercial buildings and subsidizing them. This includes hypermarkets and luxury hotels, both of which could have multiple instances in a large city (in real life). Even for rare buildings, it would be a far better idea to be "awarded" it (or a one-time payment through "incentives") and then place it where best fit. As hotels are a minor interest of mine, I've noticed resort hotels are usually in smaller satellite towns and often out of the way, requiring trips down side roads (the existing Hyatt Regency Lost Pines in Bastrop and the upcoming Kalahari Resorts in Round Rock are 20 miles away from Austin's downtown). Luxury hotels, on the other hand, are located directly off of major highways or the major roads feeding them, and there's rarely just one. Not to mention there's no way to convert buildings into another use, no turning hotels into senior living centers, no turning defunct supermarkets into fitness clubs, no turning houses into restaurants, no turning fast food buildings into title loan buildings, no turning movie theaters into churches, no turning historic school buildings into loft apartments. (I admit that's a bit of a stretch, but a better city simulator that put more thought into the game and base patches could really start going places with DLC...imagine if SimCity 4 had expansion packs beyond Rush Hour).

There's a lot more to dislike about C:S but let's go with music. None of the default music of C:S is memorable, just some weird-sounding orchestral noise, not the moody soundtrack of SimCity 2000, the jazzy soundtrack of SimCity 3000, or the diverse electronic music of SimCity 4. Poking around the files, it looks they did go with the GTA route of licensed music and fake commercials, but none of them are particularly memorable or good (definitely did not go with the "greatest hits" approach of GTA), and don't really add to the game. That's the thing also: Cities: Skylines has neither a good sense of humor or realistic, whereas the classic SimCity games did both. With SimCity 2000, you had an incredible (by 1990s standards) simulation of how cities actually worked—land value, crime, traffic, pollution, and other factors had research put into them and the simulation worked with number-crunching, but there were fun parts too...the newspapers often ran silly and irrelevant articles, the presence of the "African Swallow" speed, the whimsical and cool-looking buildings, from the Braun Llama Dome to the Blade Runner-inspired Plymouth Arcology.

In conclusion, the few things C:S does right is either overshadowed by how buggy and uneven the concept really is or is wrong, or simply lacks. Most of the game's success was because the highly disappointing SimCity 2013, which attempted a "real" city simulator after 10 years to failure, mostly due its "online only" features, disastrous launch, and limitations, proving in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king...or at least how it is to its followers.

SimCity 2000 (Mac)

I actually did write about this game on the old Games list but later removed it as it didn't "fit" what was going for in later writings. Regardless, everything I wrote there still holds true, namely how bad the DOS version really is, how the strategy guide is amazing, et cetera. I played it a few years back as well to the point where I could see the game where I closed my eyes (bad sign). The strategy, I figured out, was to hold the line early in the game (being sure to have at least enough money by the end of 50 years to replace your power plant) and after a certain point, it's smooth sailing. I used to say that taking out a bond is something you should NEVER do, but it's okay if you just need a little bit of cash for a power plant and your city is already making a decent profit, otherwise, it's a fast trip to nowhere.

There is something truly wonderful about SimCity 2000 that can't be found in later games, a true wonderful game, something that comes back every time and has outlived any nostalgia despite being available to me for the last quarter-century. It is not the pixel art (shown in a GIF below, which sadly, isn't mine), even though it's an important factor—one of the things about SimCity 2000 I appreciated as a youngster and still reflect on now is how the buildings, despite their simple pixel art, was how close to reality it felt. The residential artwork (even to the cheap apartments) wasn't too far off from my own world (which, in a recent post on my hometown blog, was Southwest Parkway).

Perhaps it is the complexity of the simulation itself, which paid attention to everything that was feasible for the early 1990s and incorporated it, building complex algorithms through random number generation and math, bouncing off of each other to make a sort of dressed-up Game of Life. Maybe it was the first and only SimCity game that actually improved on everything of its predecessor (which is perhaps the nature of things, sequels often change things and take out things that didn't really work). Maybe it was all the detail poured in that really didn't need to be put in, but made it all the more special, like the newspaper feature. Or perhaps it had the rare appearance of being everything it was supposed to be, a commercial product that was fully prepared to release as is, that even with version 1.0, was a complete game. There were no major bugs that were present as it was rushed out, there was no significant content that was dummied out to sell later (if that), there was just a game that everyone could be proud of. Granted, it did get some expansions, namely a scenario add-on pack (though only one, despite the name of "SimCity 2000: Scenarios Volume 1: Great Disasters") and the SimCity Urban Renewal Kit (or "SCURK"), which allowed you to edit some of the buildings (or "tilesets") to create a new appearance in-game.

SimCity 3000 Unlimited (PC)

SimCity 3000 sounds like a great idea on paper. You take SimCity 2000, add some new features to the underlying model, improve the graphics for the next generation of computers, and send it out. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, actually. The end result of SimCity 3000 is a weak follow-up to SimCity 2000. Part of this is caused by a fairly torturous development plan that had an incomplete game pushed out in 1999 under Electronic Arts (not long after completing the acquisition of Maxis) that had to be hastily re-worked from a full 3D title that was progressing poorly. After the surprise hit of The Sims, SC3k got a slightly updated version in the form of SimCity 3000 Unlimited that added some alternate tile sets/themes, a terrain editor, scenarios, and a few other minor features but it didn't change the core features (and was sold as an entirely new product, not as an add-on).

The gameplay is a lot like SimCity 2000, and I'd be lying if SimCity 3000 didn't provide me good memories in middle school, but it's not a replacement for the old game. You go through the same motions of the whole R/C/I build, except this time adding a "landfill zone", and not having to place power lines across roads anymore. The interface is not as good as its predecessor, no scroll bars, full screen only, all menu options stuck to nested options on the right side of the screen instead of the floating menu in SC2k. Newspapers are gone, replaced with a newsticker that runs at the bottom, giving useful information (links to your advisors or petitioners) or irrelevant issues that are put in for flavor text, including a dozen separate lines discussing a rumored shortage of cat food. It's also significantly easier—the bonds have been replaced with loans, which are harder to screw up but simplified the interesting parts of credit ratings related to the greater "SimNation". Additionally, you can sell (or buy) utilities, making a tidy profit on exporting power and water, as well as importing garbage (though as soon as things change for any reason, the neighboring cities will get mad and cancel their contract). There are also "business deals", NIMBY-style buildings that will pay out monthly, like a chemical waste disposal plant that increases pollution substantially. Finally, you can now lower the maintenance cost of your roads without destroying them in the process (a "trap" designed in SimCity 2000).

One new feature is Landmarks, a collection of real-life buildings you can place in your city, including the Statue of Liberty, 700 Louisiana (which I once saw everyday after work when I worked near downtown Houston), Statue of Liberty, and many others. Unfortunately, they don't provide jobs (or have maintenance costs, or have any other effect on your city) so the addition of World Trade Center's twin towers (which the game included) didn't include thousands of workers and an underground shopping concourse. In terms of real buildings, there's also a few new buildings to add; playgrounds, ponds, and fountains join the park menu ("stadium" becomes "ballpark"), there are three buildings for dealing with garbage, medium-density zoning, and a bunch of new rewards (no arcologies or Braun Llama Domes no).

Another "new feature" I haven't mentioned is the addition of "Aura" to the model, basically how "desirable" it is, which contributes to the land value. One of the things that "helps" aura is proximity to agriculture, which is what low-density industrial starts out as (it eventually redevelops into ordinary industrial, unless each and every tile is painstakingly marked as "Historic") with low land value. Presumably, this is an early-game benefit to help out land value before the city develops—things that help aura include hospitals, "fun" things (marinas, zoos, parks), proximity to services, et cetera, and downgrades if there's "trashy" areas nearby (run-down commercial establishments, crime, etc.)

Some parts of big cities (New York, San Francisco, etc.) are absolute dumps but still command high land value (and high cost of living) just because of their location and availability. Maybe it was a different time, but SimCity 3000 assumes that land values will drag down if there's something "low brow" in the area, but then you go out to, say, Houston again, and see a massive new apartment building next to a run-down car inspection shop, yet people will line up for it anyway.

It also assumes connectivity to schools, fire protection, police, and other factors will make the aura go up, which makes land value go up, but it always neglects the fact that the reason why suburbs and estate housing (which go back at least a century before freeways) were so popular was because there is a segment of population that wanted to get away from all that. That's not really considered because the unspoken goal of the SimCity games is skyscrapers and high density, and things like sprawling semi-rural areas aren't taken into consideration.

At least the music is pretty good, with lots of upbeat and jazzy tracks, though unfortunately SimCity 3000 Unlimited (which adds a few new pieces) is missing two tracks that the original SimCity 3000 had...and both of them are good, iconic tracks (Sim Broadway and Concrete Jungle). It's possible to patch them in, but why weren't they there in the first place?

When importing a SimCity Classic (SimCity 1989, renamed in the early 1990s) file to SimCity 2000, you get your city in the larger SC2k land area, even if there are some growing pains...hospitals and schools need to built, rails need train stations, and parks will probably turn into trees. But it remains functional. When you import into SimCity 3000, half your city will vanish into thin air. First, arcologies. SimCity 3000 has no arcologies (even if sound files and text strings suggest they were supposed to be there), so off they go (and the people with them). Prisons were replaced with jails (at a 3x3 size instead of 4x4), so off they go. Hydroelectric plants? Well, waterfalls don't exist anymore, so any water on slopes will vanish too. Hope you didn't power your city on that. In fact, the slopes have changed slightly, so any roads on a slope vanish. Highways are in SimCity 3000 but it left a big empty scar in my city when my highways went away too. The sub-rail connections, the airport and the seaport (but not their zones), and more...poof! By the time everything gets patched up (and it will be a long process, didn't even mention the power line issue), the simulation will probably be asking for "business deals" to supplant your poor financial situation.

It's a far better experience to just start from scratch and enjoy the larger land area to build your city on, but despite some new buildings to place, it's really just SimCity 2000 with nicer window dressings but without the snappy pixel art and all the options it provided (disasters, scenarios, and the like all leave a lot to be desired), and if you wanted a deeper and more attractive SimCity experience, go with SimCity 4.