Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cities XL Review

Cities XL Review

Cities XL tries to expand the city-building genre with new ideas, but the solo game is generic, and the online features aren't ready for a ground-breaking ceremony.

The Good

  • Slick if conventional city-building gameplay
  • Good for beginners
  • Intuitive interface
  • Online options have potential.

The Bad

  • Basic mechanics are on the bland side
  • Single-player mode seems like an afterthought
  • MMO-style online option is limited and overpriced
  • Problems with trading interface and market.

Cities XL isn't as supersized as its title would have you believe. Monte Cristo's latest attempt to knock the venerable SimCity off its throne delivers when it comes to standard city-building genre features, but its massively multiplayer online-style mode, where you interact with virtual city planners across the globe, fails to deliver. Not all of the ground-breaking elements are fully realized out of the box, so you're left with a pretty conventional city builder with a few innovations that hold promise for revolutionizing the genre sometime down the road.

The basics of Cities XL are pretty much what you would expect. This is essentially a revision of the now-classic SimCity formula, somewhat similar to that on display in Monte Cristo's previous City Life games. You take the role of a near-omnipotent city mayor with the ability to lay down roads, build houses, erect factories and office buildings, and so on without interference from nuisances like city councillors and chief architecture officers. Construction efforts are centered on zoning. Just like planners in the real world, you lay out street grids zoned for residential development, heavy industry, high-tech manufacturing, offices, and retail stores. Then you toss in services like sheriff stations, hospitals, electrical plants, bowling alleys, and hotels to keep everybody healthy and happy. The only difference between the gameplay and wrangling with real city zoning bylaws is the ability to be specific about what you want. Instead of setting up areas for homes and establishing allowable population density, you have specific zones for unqualified, qualified, and executive workers, along with the elite upper crust. Each group of citizens is needed for specific employment. Unqualified workers, for instance, consist of a blue-collar crowd needed for factories and the like, qualified workers serve as management in offices and manufacturing facilities, and executives take charge of places like high-tech factories.

Gameplay is geared toward city-building beginners. The solo mode of play is based around 25 sandbox cities in five regions (30 in six regions in the Limited Edition version of the game) scattered around the continents of a fictional globe. Everything is unlocked from the start of play, so you can freely move between cities in green plains where it's easy to develop a thriving metropolis and cities in resource-deprived deserts in the middle of nowhere. There are no set goals or varied challenges in these locales, however, or any spicy frills like massive natural disasters, which can lead to some city-building ennui after a dozen or so hours of play. The satisfaction of laying out cities and watching them prosper is still good enough to get you hooked, but because of repetition and the always nifty sensation of playing God, there's no sense of wondering what's next.

The game's appearance is decidedly bland. While the cities themselves look realistic at certain angles due to good use of lighting in the day-night cycle and scenic backdrop terrain, zooming in low or wandering through cities with the avatar you customize at the start of play reveals little but deserted boulevards and the odd car zipping around. Virtually no pedestrians are out and about, in dramatic contrast to the often crowded sidewalks of the City Life games. There is also little street noise. The only sound effects come when you click on buildings and are recognized by a canned acknowledgement like a doorbell ring for a residence and what sounds like a dot-matrix printer for an office. The soundtrack is also barely noticeable, being a mash of woozy jazz that sounds like something Moby would come up with after drinking a few cups of chamomile tea.

Single-player game mechanics are also somewhat blah, especially when compared to the City Life games that Monte Cristo released in 2006 and 2008. Where those games tried a different approach to city building with six different demographic groups of citizens that you had to keep separated to avoid riots, the game design here is more of a straight-up SimCity clone. This is pretty disappointing, as the class warfare of the City Life games made for challenging urban planning. Cities XL returns the focus to money. Instead of keeping the elites and the have-nots apart, you watch the bottom line. An intuitive interface provides you with all the key information needed to avoid catastrophe. Single clicks access core economic data such as class unemployment rates, cash flow, and citizen satisfaction. Economics are straightforward, with everything based on the "build houses, then businesses" method. You have to deal with requests for police protection, fire departments, health care, education, and leisure, although the great unwashed aren't too demanding. Many buildings are locked out until you hit population levels, preventing you from going off the rails with crazy expensive services. But as much as this keeps you from doing something stupid, it also makes developing each city a paint-by-numbers experience.

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