Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cities XL Review

Cities XL, developed and published by Monte Cristo Games.
The Good: Simple but deep economy, easy to make large non-square cities quickly, informative interface, inter-city trade makes specialization meaningful, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Optional online components should be free, seems incomplete awaiting future priced content, oversimplifications will bother more veteran city planners, no scenario objectives, lacks random maps, server issues
What say you? An introductory city builder with a couple of nice features, but not enough for a monthly investment: 5/8

I like city builders. In the days of SimCity, the king of the genre, allowed you to create your own domestic empire and rule over the hungry masses while carefully planning urban sprawl. Nowadays, the city builder has gotten a distinctly more historical flavor, and the contemporary city government simulation only has one prominent series: City Life. That game has certainly run its course, as its blend of class dynamics quickly devolved in a multitude of substandard stand-alone expansion packs. Now, the same developer has an online-centric city builder: Cities XL. While city building has classically been a distinctly single player affair, the game hopes to apply the community of massively multiplayer online and make a unique title.

Cities XL features decent graphics and sound production values. The most realistic part of Cities XL is the environments: each of the game’s maps look like real-life locations, with an impressive variety in both climate and terrain. The game seems to have imported actual topography data in order to make some interesting places for your cities, although these tools are not readily available to the consumer. The city landscapes are a step up from City Life, with cars and people traversing your towns and a realistic variety of structure architecture to break up the typical monotony of a computerized city landscape. The ease of making non-square cities results in more realistic looking developments, a far cry from the all-square nature of most other games in the genre. Performance is acceptable, although the game looks worse as you zoom further out, replacing cars with non-descript boxes to improve framerates. The sound design is acceptable: the hustle and bustle of the city is actually quite subdued and overshadowed by the generic music selection; there isn’t much distinct about the sounds of Cities XL. In all, Cities XL provide an acceptable level of visual quality.

Cities XL is meant to be an online game, although you can play the game as a single player, though you must log on first. The single player mode allows you to build on twenty-five different landscapes with no objective; while this allows you to do pretty much anything you want, having more direction or some concrete goals (like making a manufacturing hub or tourist attraction) would grant added motivation. The environments are varied and quite large, easily allowing for huge complex cities to be developed. Since the developers used real-life terrain to make some of the locales, it would be nice if the same tools were offered to the consumer (this will no doubt be included in a later expansion pack). Other highly-touted features are also missing, such as the GEMs: mini-games, like running a ski resort, will break up the monotony of running a metropolis, but only when they are actually released (for a price, of course). It’s difficult to access the quality of the GEMs if they do not exist. Blueprints can also be earned so that you can construct famous landmarks, although they are granted at random through a lottery instead of being awarded to good players based on skill.

Online play in Cities XL costs $10 a month, and it’s totally not worth it. You are paying for a glorified chat room and the ability to trade with other human players; since you can trade with the AI in single player mode anyway, this is a silly bonus feature. That’s not all: you can create a completely useless avatar that is rarely seen in-game and get access to twenty-five more map styles as a bribe to give the developer some extra cash each and every month. You can visit other people’s cities, which is kind of neat, but the server performance is terrible, with frequent disconnects which makes it impossible to trade and even exit the game. Since saving is done automatically when you exit, if you are disconnected while playing, all of your recent progress is lost and you can’t even leave the game. Nice. You receive a discount (meaning not free, even though you are paying them a monthly fee) on future GEMs, whenever they happen to be released. $10 a month for a chat room and trades with real people? No thanks.

The best aspect of Cities XL is the interface: it is well done and provides easy access to important data. All of your zoning and construction tools are given along the left side of the screen: fairly traditional. Along the top you have information about your budget, population, resources, and businesses. The budget screen breaks down tax income and expenditures and lists the most and least profitable businesses. Population data displays the satisfaction of your citizens along with unemployment, occupancy, and immigration rates. The resources screen lists those goods that you produce and need as part of your economy. Finally, clicking on a business type or population group will display a number of important needs in an easy-to-understand, one-click-accessible list. The overlay system uses colors to highlight various parts of your city, and this is the most cumbersome aspect of the interface because of its confusing organization (traffic is in the economy category?). Still, you can display a wide range of data, from population density to pollution to satisfaction with security and fire services.

Layouts in Cities XL succeed because of the “free draw” zoning tool, allowing you to create non-square regions quickly. All you need to do is draw out the boundary roads in any shape you’d like, including connecting them to existing intersections, and the game will automatically fill them with buildings and roads. It’s a great system that both greatly reduces the tedium of placing individual zones and allows for more realistic non-square city designs. In addition to the zone shape, you can adjust the density of each region, which affects the number and type of people that can use that area. There is a decent variety of buildings to place: housing for each of the four population groups (unqualified, qualified, executive, and elite workers), industry (farming, heavy, manufacturing, offices), commerce (retail, hotels, leisure), utilities (electricity, water, waste, fuel), and services (health, education, police). Structures that provide services, like fire stations, cover the entire city: this makes the process simplified but not realistic. You can also fill in gaps with decorations like plazas and parks. Additional structures unlock according to population growth in a very linear fashion; I would have liked it to be more tailored towards the type of structures you have placed, like unlocking manufacturing areas earlier for heavy industrial towns.

Cities XL allows you to place curved roads, although they can’t be very curved, in addition to bridges and airports. Transit systems are not enabled yet (future patch), though. Upgrading roads is a pain, since you have to bulldoze the existing road and surrounding buildings unless you convert them to one-way avenues. I guess that’s realistic, but it’s still annoying. There is an extensive, hidden economy that relates the different goods you produce to the businesses that use them. It’s all automated but some of the relationships aren’t terribly explicit. You are given information on employee and resource needs if you click directly on a business, but sometimes it’s not so obvious. The economy is highlighted in the trading model, where you can sell goods produced by your town to the AI or other players (if you are online) in exchange for cold, hard cash. This means you can make a specialized society, like a high tech mecca or fuel-producing oil town, and still survive by trading for those resources (like water) you aren’t making yourself. You are still required to have a minimum population to gain access to some of the more sophisticated industries, so the beginning of each town uses a linear game strategy that can become repetitive. It’s almost trivially easy to succeed in the game, assuming you wait to construct services (which cost a fixed $5,000 of daily income) until you have enough income, because the interface is so explicit. Because of this high level of information, it can be kind of boring since Cities XL lacks surprising events or overall objectives to keep you motivated beyond just making a big, successful town. Once you figure out how to pace your growth and take advantage of the economy, the next game of Cities XL will play out just like the last.

Cities XL is an approachable city builder thanks to its excellent user interface, making the game perfect for beginners to the genre. All of the information is easy to find (once you know which display filter it’s buried under) and pertinent data can usually be found in more than one location. The game features an advanced resource model, where certain businesses require goods from other businesses; while these relationships are automated, they are also not very explicit in the game, and it can be difficult to figure out what step you are missing until it’s too late. The interface makes it easy to make a thriving metropolis, providing housing and jobs for each of the game’s population groups. It is very easy to make a large city quickly thanks to the “free” zoning mode, where irregular-shaped communities can sprout rapidly. This also eliminates the classic “square city” phenomenon, which causes the cities in Cities XL to be much more visually appealing. There are obvious needs by each population group that can be easily solved, since all requirements are city-wide in scope; this simplification makes Cities XL easier to play but also much less challenging. Trade is an important aspect of the game: you can now make a true farming community that will export those goods in exchange for other needs, like heavy industry or fuel or power. All of these features are meant to be used online, but there is no way I would pay $10 a month for this game. The amount of content you get in the online mode is included for free in any good first person shooter or strategy game. Basically, you are paying for trade with humans (which can be done with the AI in single player mode) and chat. That’s not enough. There are also server issues and various bugs that might be fixed, if you pay the developer more cash on top of the retail cost. The game is also missing a lot of content, like mass transit and a variety of leisure activities, and one of the most touted features, the mini-game-like GEMs, are completely missing. Cities XL has “many future paid expansions” written all over it. Given Monte Cristo's track record of tons of micro-expansions with little content, I'm not surprised at their subscription model, trying to squeeze every last penny out of you. Cities XL would be much more appealing if the online components were free, but only really dedicated city planners will play the game online for more than a week. The game's lack of scenario objectives and low level of difficulty means it loses its appeal very quickly, becoming a trivially easy and uninteresting affair. I am very surprised at how easy the game is, considering the complex nature and subsequent difficulty of City Life. The quality interface and trade makes Cities XL stand out, but the oversimplification of some elements and lack of overall objectives mean tedious repetition will soon set in.