SimCity Social Is Not Exactly Sim City, But It Is Very Social

"Kate," Mike Fahey announced proudly to Kotaku's group chat, "I just made birds poop on your city."

I switched tabs to look and lo and behold, yes he had. Waves of seagulls appeared, dropping their ugly white bombs all across my otherwise-happy little hamlet. The war was on. I immediately went to Mike's town and started drilling holes in the bottoms of all his rowboats. I also made the ice cream in his ice cream factory melt, and kicked up the gravel in the driveway of his Mayor's mansion. Because that, apparently, is how we feud: pettily.

It's SimCity Social that we both ran off to play, when it launched in an open beta earlier this afternoon. I've had a couple of hours to poke around in it, so far, gathering impressions. Right now, my overriding feeling is that while I was really hoping that SimCity Social would be a little more SimCity and a little less Same Old Facebook Social, I seem to be getting disappointed. It's a Facebook game through and through, in so many ways:

  • Your friends show up as residents whether or not they actively play; the app seems to choose randomly from among everyone you have added.
  • The game prompts you to share every action with your friends, or to invite people to almost everything. You also get "free gifts" you're strongly encouraged to distribute among your friends. Regularly.
  • Every single action in it is turn-based and consumes a unit of energy. Buildings don't generate money or goods automatically; you have to spend energy to collect their output. Structures take four clicks to build, each one consuming a point of energy. And there really are no reasons attempted, other than "because that's how an energy sink works."
  • The beg for cash starts early. Many buildings and features cost diamonds to unlock. There are only two ways to earn diamonds: a very few at a time through leveling up, or through real-money purchase. Guess which is oodles more efficient? In-game currency (Simoleons) can't be exchanged for diamonds in any way that I found.

That said, not all social features are bad. SimCity Social actually handles them rather well. The ability to create relationships with other cities is pretty entertaining—especially as they can either be friendly overtures, or petty rivalries. And that's where the guano comes in. Fahey earned enough points, from being my rival, to build a Turbine of Evil in his city.

The biggest thing that sets the experience apart from Sim City games of old (and, likely, next year's as well) is the thoughtlessness. A UFO crashed just outside my city limits early on, and I thought for a moment that I might be dealing with an actual disaster. But no: it's a series of diamond-requiring quests that you unlock as your city population grows. It doesn't matter all that much how you plan your layout or place your roads. Industrial and residential buildings can sit right next to each other, and your perky animated assistant (and her garrulous animated uncle) will have no problem with that. Other than raking in the cash, energy, and associated other rewards, there's not that much to think about when planting your stake on Facebook. It may "reticulate splines" and all the rest while loading, but the deeper, more consequential gameplay just doesn't load with it.

SimCity Social, so far, is great for petty vandalism and begging others to play with me, but not so great for building the simulation of a working city. As a Facebook game, it's at least pretty well balanced. Aside from the diamonds, it's not too money-grubbing and it's easy enough to keep advancing just by playing slowly.

Alas, the juvenile joy of bird crap wears thin pretty quickly. It was only fifteen minutes into our little war when Fahey announced he was already tired of the bird poop bomb. And truth be told, I was starting to feel worn from mocking his decor and blocking his citizens' driveways.

Maybe I'll go back tomorrow and wreck his toy factory, instead of his ice cream. That'll be a nice change.