The following are my own personal feelings and impressions while playing the game. I will try to be as honest as possible, but I do realize the game is still in alpha and that many things may change before the game ships. These are my personal impressions, so, naturally, some of the comments are more personal.
I have to admit that there was some genuine excitement at first to dig into the game and see what I could come up with. Maybe if I focused on Creativity, I'd see some kind of Mime Pride Parade. Or perhaps my Small Town high in Spirituality might spawn a gaggle of Baptists. I don't know. But I wanted to find out!
It didn't happen though, of course, but other things did, some I noticed, but I might not have noticed them all. Ironically, the more I played with a specific goal in mind, the less I felt that I had any real control over my City's destiny. I suppose this can be accounted for since it was the first time I was able to sit down with the game.
Sometimes, I found situations in which I needed a particular building, but that building generated a Value that I didn't want to promote, and worse, I'd have to place it somewhere in my city that offended my personal aesthetic - something Rod Humble agrees with me. For example, I don't want to be forced to place something where I don't want it, even though I need the benefits of that building in that spot; it just didn't feel right. After a while, my city became a bit of a hodge podge of buildings. My roads were grid-like and for me, uninteresting, and I was starting to feel that I didn't know what I was doing and that maybe I was playing the game wrong.
Most of the time, I found myself looking down at the Societal Value icons and calculating the supply and demand figures to see what I needed and what I wanted to get rid of - it seemed to be the only source for direction. I had high Spirituality and low Creativity and high Productivity, which was sort of what I thought I wanted (I think). I filtered only those buildings that were appropriate for a Small Town, such as a General Store and Row Houses and Churches, but it wasn't long before I felt like I ran out of things to do.
Now, in a classic SimCity game, at a point like this, I might stop and observe my city a little. I might look at some data overlays and analyze the situation. I might pick a Sim and watch her go about her business. Observe the traffic on the streets, and see where the Sims are commuting to and what transportation options they have decided to take. If they weren't using the most efficient methods, I might decide for myself that this is a problem that I am going to solve next. So I might spend the next few hours trying to solve this using the various transportation options available, and getting the right combination of options in place to get the Sims where they needed to go efficiently using the Route Query Tool. Certainly, for me, there was nothing more rewarding than to see an efficient transportation network: drive to the car park, take a ferry, hop on a bus and get to work all in good time. Beautiful!
In Societies, I found myself continually looking down at the numbers and wondering what they really meant in the greater scheme of things. More buildings to plop, sure, but why? What can I do with 300 Productivity points -- clearly I must have missed something? Was my Small Town proving to be unviable? How successful was I so far? Was my Small Town recognized by the game as a Small Town? Did the game know that I wanted Spiritual bumpkins and not Artsy-fartsy dilettantes? There didn't seem to be any kind of satisfying feedback, something from the game that said "Hey, your small town doesn't have the smartest Sims in the world, but they are sure Happy and Spiritual! Why don't we have a hoe-down!"
There's a ticker at the bottom of the User Interface that scrolls messages that I think are supposed to be a kind of feedback, but they didn't feel right, and they seemed more random than appropriate. I can chalk it up to the quirkiness of an alpha build, but it still left me unsatisfied and directionless over all.
Is it possible to build a Small Town that connected to a Big City? I'm not sure, it seems that your Societal effects are global for that city space, and are not isolated to any specific region.
It's worth repeating that in order to have any chance to appreciate and enjoy Societies, you really really need to divorce yourself from pre-conceived notions of what a SimCity game should be.
As much as I tried to build a fun quirky Small Town, for me, like some of the members in this community, I like realistic cities. I enjoy the ant colony aspect of SimCity, and I enjoy the problems that SimCity poses to you, because often, those problems are analogous to a real life city: Ignore your traffic problems and your Sims' commute times become intolerable, as a result, they won't be able to go to work or shop and your Commerce will suffer. With suffering Commerce, demand for other things will be affected, and your city will begin to spiral: this is an emergent problem that seems spontaneous and realistic - you can see a real-life parallel - and the player only has to use a little bit of common sense and a little bit of real-world thinking to go about fixing it.
Presently, Societies feels more like building a fantasy world than a miniature of a real-world city. This in itself is certainly not a bad thing because it is the intended direction.
After a while I was realizing that I wasn't getting what I really wanted out of a city building game with Societies - but that's just me. I didn't feel like I had to apply any sort of real-world knowledge to solve real-world problems with real-world sensibilities.
For example, I want to solve traffic problems by combining myriad transportation options, but those transportation options just weren't there. Instead, I just drew more roads.
I wanted to solve crime by addressing socio-economic deficiencies either through city ordinances or promoting awareness, not just plopping down a police station.
I wanted to solve garbage and pollution problems with the understanding that there would be social and economic repurcussions. But a simple building once I advanced far enough, would take care of pollution for me.
I wanted to keep my Sims happy by providing the right amenities, but I didn't want to brain-wash them with devices.
I wanted my city to look like it could exist in the real world, I wanted buildings that resembled real world buildings.
But these are all my personal biases that by no-means make Societies a bad game. There is surely a good game here, for plenty of people.
All this is just to emphasize that even for me, who went in there as open-minded as possible, I still fell into the pitfalls of looking for something in the game that was not designed to be there. The fault is not the game, but my own.
To be sure, Societies is a simulation, but for me, it was simulating the things that I didn't care enough about. I was not able to satisfy that itch to build a working system, tinker with it, tweak it and experiment with the mechanics to see some kind of a result. To bring back my earlier analogy, Society feels less like a toy, and more like a chemistry set.
There is charm here for those who like to mix ingredients together and see what comes out, but there seems to be a finite set of results. Mimes and Preachers and Men in Black are certainly cute, and there is indeed an audience for this, but I yearned to see regular simulated people, trying to go about their regular simulated lives on realistic looking roads and highways in my city. I did not get this, and I think it's safe to say that fellow devotees should not expect this.
My ultimate question with Societies and the "build whatever type of city you want" philosophy is this: Can you really build what you want? If you build a Metropolis that is Creative and Spiritual what exactly will you get? Will a Wealthy Knowledgeable Society, generate some kind of Tycoon Philosophers? In the demos, we've seen Orwellian Societies where Sims do nothing but work and be re-educated if they become discontent.
This is cool, but I wonder if once you've built this type of city, would you build it again? Is it just more than a different coat of paint on the buildings? Can the game really give you the satisfaction that you've built something truly unique? Once you've built all six Stereotypes to their maximums, what would be the incentive to revisit? Societies is an attempt to re-imagine the city-building genre, and I am still interested to see the game in a more final form.
In the end, I do feel that Societies will primarily be a game for new-comers, and that devotees of the franchise may find it quite difficult to overcome the preconceived notions based on previous SimCity titles. I am sure there will be plenty of players who will adapt to this new city building paradigm and you can count on Simtropolis to continue to cover SimCity Societies. (And for those of you who can't quite make the leap to Societies, Simtropolis will continue to remain your source for all things SimCity 4.)