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SimCity Social Casts Net Wide, Ends Up Simple

SimCity Simpressions

SimCity Social's open beta first really started bothering me when I stopped playing it. And not for the reason you might think. Someone called me on the phone while I was poking around and still mourning the fact that "OppressionVille" was too big for the city name field, so I looked away from my burgeoning burg for, oh, 15 minutes. When I returned, nothing had changed. No tornadoes had struck. Nothing caught on fire. Yes, SimCity Social is a turn-based game, but that only partially robs it of the gleeful insanity that so characterizes' Maxis' most-famed of llama-loving city builders. After all, that structure could work if given proper treatment.

Here, though, it's symptomatic of a much larger problem: SimCity Social is about as easygoing as they come. There have been (at least, after a few hours) no downsides to my actions - no tension or intrigue. Sure, neat things (like a UFO crash) occasionally happened, but they largely served to stuff more Simoleons into my jingling mayoral pockets. Well, until typical social game stuff took center stage, anyway.

First, though, let's start with why SimCity Social fails to live up to its series' legacy taken on its own terms - seeing as, these days, spamming your friends with invites on Facebook is simply an ugly, unavoidable reality. So let's use the UFO example. It began - as most meaningful things in SimCity Social seem to - with a quest. The giant metallic space frisbee careened into my city's front lawn, and then my adviser immediately handed me a series of tasks. Build businesses (to "educate people" for some reason), upgrade things, make more houses, etc.

I didn't have to discover these things for myself, nor did it really matter how or where I placed them. Sure, I might make a bit of extra cash if my bakery ended up near hungry, hungry humans, but - at the end of the day - my city would continue to be a sparkling utopia regardless. Same went for roads placement and general city structure. This is, in other words, basically SimCity on autopilot. I'm less mayor and more assembly line worker. They tell me what to do. I press the big shiny buttons.

And goodness, there are a lot of shiny buttons. Businesses spit out money. Factories cough up supplies (and, curiously, no smog). They bounce and gleam and glitter like coins clattering to the floor. So one of my main duties as mayor is clicking on each individual magical pinata building every few minutes. The sights and sounds make it oddly compulsive, but these actions also use up energy - easily SimCity Social's most prevalent resource, yet also it's more precious and scarce. Once it runs out - which generally happens in a flash, seeing as building construction consists of three stages, each of which uses one unit of energy - it's time to pony up either time or money.

This very quickly ground my UFO recovery process to a halt. I didn't particularly want to spend real money on diamonds - which, given sufficient funds, can bypass just about any obstacle - so I had two options: wait (one unit of energy recharges every few minutes) or pester friends to lend a hand. I opted to wait, and at the time it... wasn't so bad. I did some pitiful real-life non-mayor work for 20 minutes or so, gained enough energy to perform seven actions, and - in doing so - leveled up, which recharged my energy meter fully.

But then I encountered a social roadblock that nearly sent me swerving right off my non-curved roads. I needed to hire a team to investigate the UFO, and Simoleons were completely out of the question. So it was either spend diamonds (read: real money) or attempt to subjugate my friends - modern day monarchs on their own soil, but puny, dirt-speckled laborers on mine. Unfortunately, SimCity Social made it very difficult to tell who on my friends list was actually playing the game and who'd prefer that my tiny, notification-powered town be stricken by a fiery plague tornado. As a result, I probably bothered a few non-playing friends on accident (sorry, friends!), but eventually assembled a formidable five-person team of interdisciplinary mayors, and it all worked out. Between all the waiting on responses and general awkwardness, though, I wouldn't exactly call that part of the experience pleasant.

Also, uh, this happens sometimes.

Granted, some of the social features are actually pretty neat. I toured friends' cities, for instance, and either acted like a pleasant human being or made a general nuisance of myself en route to establishing friend or rival city status. Here, SimCity's trademark brand of quirk was on display. As a giant jerk of a rival mayor, I - among other things - visited corporate plazas and "scoffed at progress," slipped rats into bowling alley shoes, put glue in fire helmets, and switched soup labels at a supermarket. Sure, the rival/friend system is a dumb, quick, and silly little thing, but it's also something most social games definitely aren't: fun.

Even so, SimCity Social doesn't really feel like a SimCity experience to me. Instead, it's a quick, extremely straightforward, and occasionally exploitative distraction. Thus, the search for a truly substantial social game continues. And unfortunately, it seems like this particular quest has no qualms with making us wait truly exorbitant amounts of time before we're able to reach our goal.

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