There’s always been something alluring and ambitious about city building games. From the first time Sim City graced my SNES, I was in love with the intricacies of zoning, water grids, and controlling air pollution. Insane, maybe, but there’s nothing more enthralling than creating a beautiful, working, sprawling metropolis.
Which is why I followed the reasonably long and detailed development of Cities XL, the second attempt at the genre by Paris-based Monte Cristo Games. Promising simple yet powerful creation tools, hefty possibilities, and an online persistent multiplayer economy, is this city-maker the one we’ve all been waiting for?
Well, after a short introduction containing a montage of the possibilities, Cities XL draws you into a simple tutorial that covers the base fundamentals of the user interface and mechanics. Essentially, your city is constructed from scratch and built up by zoning areas, similar to Sim City. Starting with low-income workers and heavy industry, wealth is generated and basic city services are implemented. Soon enough, the option to expand into cleaner economy is introduced, and you’re on your way to planning glory. It’s all presented in an easy to follow manner, and frankly, everything feels like it should.
What’s immediately obvious from the beginning is the sheer beauty of the growing city. You can zoom out for a bird’s-eye view, or jump directly down to ground level, monitoring people as they go about their daily routine. The developers have gone out of their way to make sure that each type of zone, whether shops, houses, and even rubbish dumps, have an individual look and operation, allowing you to differentiate each one at a glance.
Creating, demolishing, and terraforming are a breeze. Creating everything from complex road systems, including bridges, highways, and suburban street networks is extraordinarily simple thanks to a smart and powerful UI. It pays to have a think about future plans, since creating roads isn’t cheap, nor is having to build tunnels or bridges under or around your existing infrastructure.
It’s an element that the developers spent a significant amount of time perfecting, and it shows. It’s a ridiculous amount of fun devising specific neighbourhoods of middle class housing, splicing massive freeway systems, connecting them together, and forming New York-style business centres full of imposing and striking skyscrapers. The hours flew by while I experimented with various styles of area planning.
Cities XL is extremely fast-paced, and there are no sliders to slow or speed up the scale of time. Building new communities of commercial or residential zoning will instantly throw a bunch of common responses – education, health, security, and so forth. The game avoids many of the money draining caveats of Sim City and other city-building games by restricting certain expensive services until you reach specific population checkpoints, making it more likely that you will last longer than an hour.
That said, it’s unfortunate that the rest of the game, involving the economic balance and trading systems, doesn’t hold up as well as you’d hope. While the interface does a reasonably handy job of letting you know what part of society is disappointed and why, managing money and your cities commercial expansion is significantly more difficult and clumsy.
Cities XL expands on the economic formulae of Sim City by removing redundant, unpopular, and frankly cheap systems (building water/power grids, natural disasters), instead focusing on managing your rapidly growing economy and population, including employment, trade, and providing essential services. What makes things difficult is that the game, in the beginning, isn’t clear on how the trade system works, nor how much things cost to maintain.
This is where the interesting, yet flawed, portion of Cities arrives. The title is designed to be played online, even though an offline mode is available, and trading is done on a global scale with other players. You are originally given five days of free play, but then locked into a $10/month plan, which seems a bit rich considering you can only view, rather than interact directly with other cities, chat with players, or initiate trade contracts.
Trading involves selling your exports, i.e. your oversupply of a certain industry, or buying imports to fill a gap in your economy, whether retail, electricity, fuel, etc. on the open market. What makes a relatively simple procedure mind-numbingly irritating is the interface, which is atrocious. Not only that, but initiating trades, which are essential, only run for five days, and if certain mysterious conditions are not met then you are given a cryptic reason for this and the contract is dropped.
It’s just messy. All of the fun, city building elements are eventually pushed into the background as you wistfully click your way through a bunch of laggy, chunky, and very badly designed menus, attempting to stop business or residents leaving as oversupply, or undersupply, brings your city to a standstill. Even simple manoeuvres like setting up contracts with NPCs are next to impossible; everyone is selling the same stuff, and most of the time you have to accept ridiculous offers to proceed.
It’s a shame, because the trading elements of XL are promising. Being able to have a carbon-free or, alternatively, oil-soaked city provides the player with an endless number of ways to develop a city. Feel like exporting clean fuel? Having an economy focused completely on agriculture? The ability is there for all types of market driven economies, demonstrated by current players with an epic amount of determination.
Adding insult to injury is how the game controls city expenditure. All of your income, like most titles in the genre, comes from taxation of companies and your citizenry. Thus, setting a perfect balance of tax rates and service funding is key to keeping your cash flowing. XL, in its wisdom, refuses to hand over controls, such as a sliders or a % matrix, to manage the public budget for police, fire, health, or education services. For the poor citizens of your town, sadly, it’s demolition of the high school when the funds get tight.
It does, however, give a little. You can control tax rates, for both corporations and private incomes; it even provides an indication of satisfaction rates from the different parts of your tax base so you don’t go too far, or too low. You can quickly pull zoning information on coverage for services, satisfaction of said services, and a whole host of other performance indicators, making it quick and simple to find out what’s gone wrong so you can fix it.
But for every good point, there are three bad ones. Mass Transit was omitted from the final build, meaning you can only use roads for transport, making traffic an unsolvable problem. No custom content; you can’t create rivers, or modify anything below ground level. Some city services require constant monetary sustenance, like a Ferris wheel, but then never return revenue. There are no ways to automate certain menial tasks.
Then there is the overall performance. I don’t have the most powerful rig in the world, granted, but it’s hardly a slack beast when it comes to pumping out the polygons. Basically, XL wants you to be packing some serious grunt. I found that as my city became bigger, my PC became crankier, and the frame rate took a pummelling. Whether this is a case of the patches, or even just my PC performing poorly, I can’t confirm.
Cities XL comes across as a bit of a mixed bag. What is easily the most powerful city creation tool available right now is let down by a clumsy trading interface, very bland single player experience, performance issues, lag concerns, and a host of bugs and content omissions that may find some reprieve in a future patch.
If you have the patience and sheer fortitude to look past these faults, you may find yourself having a blast developing your dream city, along with all of the challenges, accomplishments and creativity that comes with such a powerful and ambitious engine.
A rough and tumble interface, along with bugs, lag, and performance issues strips much of the enjoyment from city creation.
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Cities XL's gameplay is brilliant in theory, but disappointing in execution. With some polish and design improvements, it could have been so much more.
Soapy jazz along with irritating and unrefined sound effects aren't anything to write home about.
In the vein of Sim City and City Life, before it, the possibilities for new cities and designs are endless.
Cities XL suffers from too many preventable faults to be considered a success. It's a shame, since under the surface hides a powerful and creative beast.