Thursday, June 22, 2006

City Life Review

City Life, developed by Monte Cristo and published by CDV.
The Good: Different focus with a socioeconomic approach to city building, clear indication of citizen needs, much more challenging than other city builders
The Not So Good: Starforce problems, automatic road placement issues, not enough graphical variety, no audio disaster warnings
What say you? With some interesting concepts, City Life differentiates itself enough from other city builders, but it's not without its problems: 6/8

As the game that shipped a thousand expansion packs, The Sims holds a special place in the annals of computer gaming. But The Sims might have never been without a little title called SimCity. SimCity was an innovative game, where you control the development of a city from its infancy. There have been numerous city building knock-offs, each trying to add their little bit of originality to the equation. City Life takes the social approach to city building, organizing each of your citizens into six classes and then providing each caste with different services.

On the whole, the graphics in City Life are very good. The game is rendered in full 3-D, and you can zoom all the way down to a first person perspective at street level, something that can’t be said for SimCity. This is a really neat view and further makes you feel like it’s a living, breathing city, rather than a collection of streets and buildings. The problem with the graphics is the low amount of variety. Unlike SimCity 4 that uses some randomization to make each structure look slightly different with the placement of trees, signs, and the like, there are only a few different people and buildings in City Life. This almost kills the atmosphere of the game: in real cities, every building does not look alike. The buildings need much more variety to make the cities look more believable. Other than the lack of variety, the game’s graphics are well done: features include realistic terrain, dynamic time of day, and shimmering water. There are some slight camera issues when you are near the edge of the map; since the game will not let you move the camera out of the map area, viewing locations on the edge is extremely difficult and requires some finagling. The sound in the game is average for the genre. The background music is pretty catchy; when you “hear” it when you’re not playing the game, that’s the earmark of good (or extremely annoying) music. The environmental sounds are OK, with appropriate effects present in appropriate areas. There aren’t any audio clues of disasters or important events; a fire started and I had no idea until I noticed that a quarter of my city was toast. These would be helpful for the player, but aren’t present in City Life.

First off, I had a hard time running the game because my system had some issues with the version of Starforce included with City Life. Other games that have Starforce protection have run fine (Rush for Berlin, for example), but for some reason my computer just didn’t want to run City Life more than once without having to uninstall and reinstall the drivers (which includes two reboots). I don’t mind having copy protection for a game, but when it prevents me from running the game, I get exceedingly frustrated. When Starforce is so “good” that it prevents legitimate users from running the game, there are serious problems with the software. The problem was fixed when tech support issued me a special key to run the game; still, though, I shouldn’t have to worry about not running the game because I have a legal copy of it.

Once I did get City Life to run, I found that you can play through scenarios or free games. Scenarios have a set of goals that must be met, usually involving population and treasury levels. By getting bronze, silver, or gold medals, you unlock other, more difficult landscapes for you to try. There is no real reason to play the free game, as it seems to play the same way as the scenarios except without the ability to unlock additional scenarios. City Life has 22 maps scattered over 5 climates. You can’t make your own maps, but you can edit existing maps using the editor. The editor is a development tool where you can access cheats, run the game faster, access out of bounds areas, and edit maps, among other things. The editor is pretty cool and its nice that the developers gave the users the ability to shape the game to their liking (which means cheating).

When you start a new city, you’ll place the city hall and develop your city out from there. All new roads must be connected to city roads; this is a nice rule that makes your city expand in more realistic ways, unlike SimCity’s “go anywhere” policy. Another advantage City Life has over SimCity is the possibility of having roads at most any angle. Because the shorelines and mountains and other obstacles are not square, why should our roads be? This also results in more realistic-looking cities, although trying to build large patches of roads or sometimes connecting them can be difficult. The game sometimes suggests some very crazy and inefficient ways of laying down roads when you are placing buildings, so manually placing some roads before developing is important, especially in hilly terrain.

Each of City Life’s citizens are divided into one of six subcultures: elite, suits, radical chic, blue collar, fringe, and have nots. Each of these groups is friendly with some groups, indifferently hostile towards others, and absolutely offended by others. Because of this, you must segregate different areas of your town for different social groups. This may be a touchy subject in some areas of the country, but keep telling yourself, “it’s just a game, Jack Thompson.” The head of each household must be employed, and culture-specific businesses are available. It is important to strike an exact balance between the number of jobs available and the number of residents, because empty businesses cost you significant amounts of money, and full businesses can make money. Later in the game, businesses can employ different social groups, and this is how you attract the “upper crust” to live in your stinky town. Income in the game is earned at the end of every month from residential taxes and businesses. Balancing the budget comes in waves of easy to hard, as building social services costs a lot of money, but you need them to attract more people to make more money from businesses and taxes: it’s a vicious cycle. You never need to take out a loan (hint to new players), and careful planning will result in always earning money.

There are a bunch of services that your citizens may request: shopping, medical, education, leisure, safety, and environment. Their needs are clearly indicated on the map using yellow or red icons. Each of these services require certain classes to run them, so you need to make sure you have a balance of the different social types in your city. Later in the game, citizens require different types of shopping or medical services, and this can get expensive. You should only build services when there is a dire need for them (red icons on the map). Building stuff when with only yellow demand icons will stunt your economy, because most service buildings cost monthly income. Some of the costs associated with social services seem extreme, and the ones that can make money only do so when demand is extremely high. In an interesting twist, selling off excess power and landfill space can make a lot of money; by building a couple power plants early in the game, you can easily increase your income tenfold. Another source of income is tourism; you construct hotels in nice areas of town with entertainment and watch the cash (eventually) come in.

The user interface of City Life does a pretty good job of delivering information. The game shows sources of negative income, where available jobs are located, traffic flow, electricity production levels, immigration and emigration rates, and you can tag residents to follow them, like in SimCity 4. The key to City Life is slow, steady, balanced development. Make sure you provide the exact balance of residential homes to business locations to maximize profits. Businesses can help you generate a lot of money, but they actually cost you money if they have vacancies; it’s better to pause the game while you build a set of matching residential, business, and service related structures. Your income will suffer greatly when the upper classes start to move in because they require a much greater number of services in order to be happy. I think that a lot of the services in the game come with too great of a cost, making the game more difficult. Of course, compared to the extremely effortless SimCity 4 (where you can zone an entire map at once and watch the people move in with no complaints), City Life’s difficulty may be welcomed by some. Indeed, the game is a challenge that’s normally not seen in generally mindless city builders; it requires good skill in city planning, rather than haphazardly throwing down buildings.

City Life breathes new life into the modern city building genre. The approach is different enough from competing titles to make City Life unique. I like the ability to freely “walk” around your town with the camera, the social methodology to the game, the difficulty associated with poor urban planning, and the good user interface. City Life could be improved with more varied graphics and less monetary penalties for building social services. The editor allows the user to circumvent the monetary limitations of the game, and also alter any of the game’s maps (for example, I flattened a mountain where I wanted to place a movie theater). Aspiring civil engineers will find a worthy challenge in City Life.