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Review: SimCity BuildIt – Freemium version put to the test

SimCity hits iOS – but does the freemium model work for this reputable franchise?

A handful of releases during its late 90s/early 2000s heydey saw SimCity’s legacy pretty much set in stone – or at least until recently. In 2013, Maxis – the franchise developer (also a subsidiary of EA) decided to release somewhat of a reboot. It’d been 10 years since its last outing – SimCity 4, which retained the classic blocky approach to city building. However, the reboot overhauled the game entirely, as it surely had to –  it received a brand new game engine, a fully 3D experience and an online home, where players could trade with others in close proximity. The problem is – this was the only choice: there wasn’t an offline mode.

Cue server issues, downtime and many more problems, and what was left was a disastrous relaunch for a much beloved franchise. Now, SimCity has hit smartphones. But in a freemium capacity. Is this the right route to salvage SimCity’s good name? Let’s take a closer look.

You can build factories to create materials to grow your city

You can build factories to create materials to grow your city

The premise is similar to other freemium games which require you to create, or plant some kind of material to progress the game. This comes with a waiting time, which increases for other materials as the game progresses and they’re unlocked. There are essentially three options: you can try and play it without spending anymore money through the confines the game has set,  you can use real world money to take a short cut and progress at a more enjoyable speed, or you can get bored and give up. The first option is what we wanted to aim for, but for that to be successful, it had to be enjoyable enough to endure the waiting times and to keep picking it up and putting it down again. Call us cynical, but we were fully expecting option one to be a fast-track to option three.

Your citizens will tell you when they're ready to upgrade their home, or if they're unhappy.

Your citizens will tell you when they’re ready to upgrade their home, or if they’re unhappy

Following the first option lasted longer than we expected – for the first couple of weeks. All the old school fun of seeing your city grow, with input and guides from Sims is what makes SimCity BuildIt so good for casual users – you’re guided through the set up, and all of a sudden you have a little bustling town. Eventually, other elements are introduced one by one. At the start you have to build water towers, then you have to build fire stations, sewage plants etc.

As your experience and level increases, more materials are unlocked

As your experience and level increases, more materials are unlocked

The problem is, these cost money. A lot of it. You can either build small facilities, or larger ones that cover more of your city. It will still take a few days of working hard, trading materials you’ve built in your factories, and collecting taxes to make enough for the smaller sizes. Upgrading to the bigger facilities is almost impossible without spending weeks repetitively working your factories. Returning to the game for a few minutes play 5-6 times a day just isn’t that much fun.

It's a challenge making enough money to ensure your city's safety at all times

It’s a challenge making enough money to ensure your city’s safety at all times

The developers will know this is the case – they’re hoping more people will go with shelling out real world cash. We still aimed to avoid this, but found that by the time we hit level 15, with a city of about 50,000 in population, it simply wasn’t possible to continue. Our city needed big upgrades – roads, educational facilities, more police, more fire. The only way to raise the money is trading (which doesn’t bring in enough), collecting taxes (minimal, and the more unhappy they are with facilities the less you get) and building housing. Of course, the materials needed get more and more wild, requiring more waiting time to manufacturer them – and then you couldn’t build any more because all of a sudden the housing is outside a police zone, and you don’t have the cash to build the police station because no one will move into that building. Catch 22.

Visit neighboring cities and set up trades

Visit neighboring cities and set up trades

Overall, SimCity BuildIt looks great, but the freemium model completely ruins any long term play. It’s great for a few weeks and short bursts, but what we’d prefer is an option to spend $5 on it, and have the cost of building stuff reduced by about 50% – this is the way to maintain long-term play while retaining a challenge for old fans of the franchise. Introducing a paid for option, like when an offline mode was eventually introduced for the reboot would salvage the game because right now this isn’t the SimCity you know and love.

Price: Free
Size: 97.6 MB
Version: 1.2.19
Developer: Electronic Arts
Platform: iOS Universal

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